A new comedy festival that could and should become an annual event.
This past weekend, scores of women performed in the first annual SheDot Festival. Organized by veteran Toronto comics Martha O’Neill, Becky Bays, Anna Gustafson, and Karen O’Keefe, the festival celebrated “the femmes of funny”—there were no male comics in any of the shows. The gender disparity between male and female comics in Toronto isn’t as severe in sketch (e.g., Comedy Bar’s house troupe The Sketchersons has a number of female members—The Ladies of The Sketchersons will be performing at the Women in Comedy Festival in Boston) or improv (e.g., Bad Dog Theatre is running an all-female revue, Wayward, on Wednesday nights in May) as it is in stand-up, where often there’ll be only one, perhaps two women on a stacked bill of comics. But it’s true that women are always in the comedy minority—hence a festival to promote those performers and encourage the development of more. We at Torontoist have been vocal about the local female comedians we love, and we were keen to catch up with some of our favourite acts and discover some new ones.
We started our SheDot festing on Thursday night at the SheSketch show in Comedy Bar’s cabaret room. Two Weird Ladies were a bit rusty, blanking on a line in a song—though they recovered nicely and ended strong with an absurd job interview sketch we hadn’t seen before. Hosts Ladystache acted out their favourite nonsensical scene from TV’s Dawson’s Creek (Allison Hogg pulled off a particularly amusing Katie Holmes impression). But the best act of the night was Allana Reoch. We’ve seen her do fine work in sketch duo British Teeth, but her solo character monologues for this show—including ones involving a former acting professor and an unusually passionate hairstylist/storyteller—were exceptional.
Over in the main theatre, SheDot TDot showcased GTA-based stand-up comics. Host Sara Hennessey opened the show with a very funny bit that riffed on funky wedding tips and her memories of summer camp. Toward the end of the show, a couple that had overindulged and stumbled to seats in the front row became disruptive, and the woman flashed a not entirely displeased Adrienne Fish when she espoused her theory of nipple economics. The woman and her date didn’t last long in the next set: Zabrina Chevannes, whom we already knew to be a comic who can take control of a room, made it clear to them that the audience wasn’t on their side, and Comedy Bar’s Darryl Pring smoothly escorted the two out. Chevannes then helped blot the two from the crowd’s memory with a bit about how her outgoing act has actually made her feel self-conscious on Los Angeles stages.
The following night, the SheDot NotTDot show featured comics from outside the city limits—for the most part, from outside the country. Albany’s Erin Harkes did well early on, particularly impressing the crowd with a rapid-fire monologue about leaving increasingly creepy messages for a man. She also gifted host Allison Dore with a gag for the night: Dore came out in increasingly outlandish outfits culled from house troupe The Sketchersons’ backstage wig and costume collection as “punishment” for having flubbed Harkes’ name in her intro. But the best comic of the night was New York City’s Ashely Bez, who won audible cheers from the backstage comics with a line referencing tween horror writer R.L. Stine, and from the crowd with a closer about “blow-internships.”
The festival also offered a number of workshops for aspiring female comics and panel discussions with women doing well in the field. The Movers & Shakers panel featured seven women, including Christina Walkinshaw, who spoke about the popularity of her Tindr dating blog and a negative experience she had at the Casino Rama in Niagara Falls; Heidi Brander, who spoke glowingly about the anonymous writing submission process for This Hour Has 22 Minutes (which means no one knows who submitted what until after it’s been chosen); and Lauren Ash, who spoke about the atypical (mostly female) cast she co-stars with on the ABC sitcom Super Fun Night, and her fellow Second City alumni Jan Caruana‘s improv motto, “playing with your dick out.”
Ash obviously takes that advice seriously. At the Sunday night gala—all the proceeds from which benefited Jo-Anna Downey, a longtime stand-up and producer here in Toronto who’s lost her voice due to ALS—Ash and another fellow Second City grad, Leslie Seiler, had the crowd in stitches as their sketch duo CORY played two friends awkwardly bathing together after watching Lena Dunham and her friends do the same on HBO. Stand-up Elvira Kurt, nominally headlining the show, railed (in a tongue in cheek fashion) about having to follow an act (CORY) featuring nudity and about the lewd and profane language of Sandra Battaglini—who introduced the crowd to her trademark pump and thrust and talked host Trish Stratus into hoisting her into the air on her shoulders. Kurt still managed a decent set, especially when she asked rhetorical questions about being a feminist and raising a son, but CORY and Battaglini were hard acts to follow.
At the Movers & Shakers panel, Allison Dore described a backhanded compliment that had every woman on the panel groaning in recognition: “I usually don’t think women are funny, but YOU…” That female comics are still hearing this is reason enough for a festival like SheDot. Given the logistical successes evident here—the programming, the helpful volunteers, and the shows starting on time (take note, NXNE Comedy)—SheDot seems like a festival that could and should become an annual event.