Our fourth annual profile of talented female performers and writers in Toronto who don't always get the attention they deserve.
While gender equality issues have generated spirited debate this year, with online initiatives such as the #YesAllWomen hashtag bringing the discussion to the social media masses, 2014 marks a turning point for this annual series profiling some of the funniest women in Toronto, in that it’s the first year the feature wasn’t at least partly prompted by specific examples of gender disparity and discrimination against female comics.
Certainly, plenty of that still exists and will continue to exist, but there hasn’t been a specific recent incident in which a writer has proclaimed women aren’t funny, or claimed women who are funny can’t also be attractive, nor have there been notable recent instances of out and out discrimination. From a pop culture perspective, that may be in part because of women like Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler, who continue to produce top-notch comedy content. Locally, it might have something to do with the first annual SheDot festival, which showcased local talent and brought in out-of-towners too. At any rate, we’re happy to be writing about local female comedians for the sole reason that they’re great.
Toronto sketch comedy fans will know Allana Reoch from her double act, British Teeth (with Filip Jeremic), but this past year, she has also shined as a solo character monologist, reminding us of 2011 Lady Kathleen Phillips. Her monologues have been sharply written, and feature indelible characters, including an influential former acting professor and a demented hairstylist/storyteller. Reoch performed several character pieces at the Women’s Funny Festival in Chicago recently, and continues to add to her roster of characters, geared toward a solo show she plans to debut this fall.
When she’s not performing, Reoch writes columns for outlets like She Does the City and Lifetime UK, but comedy is what grounds her. In 2012, while working on her Second City conservatory grad show (she currently works at Second City as a training program co-ordinator), her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. “He was diagnosed six months before our final show, and died one month before we performed,” she recalls. But going to rehearsals with her cast mates between hospital visits, and performing a month after he passed, helped her cope. Comedy, she says, “is probably the only thing that kept me semi-sane.”
Reoch cited more than a baker’s dozen of female comedians she admires, including several past Lady recipients, sketch duo Templeton Philharmonic, the ladies of The Sketchersons, and stand-ups Catherine McCormick and Jess Beaulieau. She also gave shout-outs to a few non-comedians: “Monica Heisey is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in the literary world, who is really the reason I started writing articles. Mandi Byrd of Murder Country is an awesome musician. And Kate Besworth is one of my favourite actresses, currently in her second season at the Shaw Festival.”
Reoch is part of the ensemble of Everything Is Fine, a dark sketch show “about the bastardization of death and taboo topics” that debuts Friday, July 4 at the Toronto Fringe Festival. “I’m a big fan of the things our demented minds have come up with,” she says. She also continues to perform a show at the John Candy Box Theatre on the second Tuesday of every month called Iron Maidens, which benefits the Redwoods Women’s Shelter. In September, she’ll kick off a new monthly show with her troupe One Night Stand, featuring Colin Mochrie as their first special guest.
Becky Johnson has been a mover and shaker in Toronto improv for more than a decade, although she’s taken occasional hiatuses for her other career as a crafter. She was first acclaimed in Toronto as one half of the popular improv duo Iron Cobra, and as one of the founding producer-performers of Catch 23 Improv—”Toronto’s friendliest improv deathmatch”—a role to which she’s recently returned, producing shows every Friday night at Comedy Bar. In the past year, however, Johnson has increased her visibility in the Toronto comedy and theatre scenes. She made her Toronto mainstage debut in Volcano Theatre’s A Beautiful View; she was nominated for a Dora Award for her ensemble work in Jordan Tannahill’s production of Sheila Heti’s play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid; she produced, directed, and performed in Bad Dog Theatre’s Wayward, an improvised series set in a Catholic girl’s school; and she’ll be appearing on stage all summer with past Lady nominee Kayla Lorette, as the duo known as The Sufferettes perform more than 50 shows on a “tour of Toronto.”
Johnson will be teaching improv intensives for actors through Volcano Theatre at the end of July. She happily shared with us that Space Riders, a CTV web series in which both she and Lorette appear, has been green-lit for a second season, which will premiere in 2015. And this fall, she’ll return to a special Bad Dog Theatre series, appearing as the editor of a women’s magazine in a new show entitled 9 to 5.
Johnson especially acknowledged the cast and crew of Wayward as women she admires, including the women “behind the scenes”: Bad Dog’s artistic director Julie Osborne, general manager Lisa Amerogen, producer Liz Johnston, and Shauna Wooten. “I was also so pleased to get to work with Lisa Merchant on that project more than I ever have before. She’s so fucking amazing.”
Since moving to Toronto from Edmonton four years ago, Hannah Spear has been exceedingly busy in improv, as a member of Bad Dog Theatre’s Repertory Players (“predominantly long form, character-driven pieces, with an emphasis on storytelling … the improvisors in the BDRP have become my Toronto family”). She’s also dabbled in sketch with clever veteran troupe Elephant Empire (“it was such an exciting, creatively fulfilling experience”), and she considers her role in the wildly theatrical Heligoland Follies at Hart House, in which her character’s newborn babe was “eaten, live, onstage” by fellow Lady Kayla Lorette, as “one of the weirdest-best experiences I’ve had in this city as a performer.”
But Spear has been most successful on camera, as the title character of mixed-media project Sexy Nerd Girl, and in its award-winning follow-up web series, Versus Valerie. She won “Best Actress in a Comedy” from the International Academy of Web Television for her role as Versus Valerie‘s geek-chic title character, and has shared in multiple other awards with creators Simon Fraser, Mike Fly, and Stephanie Kaliner. “That show took so much time and energy and love from the group of us,” Spear says, “and I am so happy Mike and Simon and Steph are getting the amazing critical recognition for it that they so deserve.” Spear has subsequently been cast in major roles in other series, including the CBC’s Ruby Skye P.I., and SOS: Save Our Skins, produced by British actor and comedian Steve Coogan.
All her screen time and accolades haven’t pulled Spear offstage yet, however—like Johnson, she’ll be involved in the new Bad Dog project 9 to 5 this fall, and she’s especially excited by the news that the show will debut in Bad Dog’s new permanent home. “The indie theatre scene is so exciting these days,” enthuses Spear, who’s looking forward to seeing Bad Dog join Comedy Bar and Storefront Theatre on the Bloor-Ossington strip that’s producing Dora-winning indie theatre and comedy.
Women Spear admires include Kristen Rasmussen (“she’s someone who plays without fear or inhibition”), puppeteer and designer Hanna Puley (“her prop, costumes, and sets elevate the performers who come into contact with them”), and sketch duo Ladystache (“another pair of powerhouse women”).
Spear and the Bad Dog Theatre Repertory Company present Toronto, I Love You, an improvised romantic comedy set in our city, at the Toronto Fringe, opening Friday, July 4.
Kat Letwin describes herself as an actor who “fell down the stairs of theatre into comedy’s living room” when she joined her current sketch troupe Rulers of the Universe. “Many of the roles in which I was cast before I started doing comedy had improvisational and comedic bents to them, but I’d never considered myself a ‘comedian,’ or an ‘improviser,’ or a ‘not-just-an-actor,’” she says. Letwin has embraced this aspect of her performance career, and has become fearless in going big when the role allows for it. One reviewer for Scheherazade, Torontoist‘s top-rated show at the 2014 Next Stage Festival, described her as “screamingly funny as various female horndogs,” which Letwin jokes will be her epitaph. But she’s also impressed us in the past year in more restrained performances, such as the world-weary starship captain in Dark Matter, a sci-fi adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And Rulers of the Universe, which has won the Toronto Sketchfest’s top award two years in a row, gives her plenty of room to play as big or small as the laughs demand.
In addition to her ongoing work with Rulers of the Universe, Kat voices a mad scientist character in the cartoon Tall, Dark, and Handsy, which begins airing on Bite TV this July.
Letwin singled out Mikaela Dyke as a particularly impressive female performer (“she’s toured all over Canada with her devastatingly powerful Fringe show Dying Hard, and is one of the coolest people I know”). Like Reoch, Letwin also cites Jess Beaulieu (“a feminist, ass-kicking force in the stand-up community”) and the members of Templeton Philharmonic (“they have a Fringe show this summer called An Evening in July, and you should go see it!”) and as women she admires.
Letwin and her sketch partners open Rulers of the Universe: A Love Story at the Toronto Fringe Festival on Friday, July 4.
We’ve profiled Sara Henessey before—when she released her excellent web series Goodbye Sara Hennessey—but since then, she’s become one of Toronto’s most reputable stand-up comics. She built that rep on constant sets around town, and she’s still a frequent guest at charitable events and on small back-room shows. She also hosts showcases, as she did for the SheDot showcase for local female comics during that festival.
All her hard work, coupled with a stage persona crafted early on in three different solo shows from 2007 to 2009, have finally landed Hennessey her own Just for Laughs taping at the Montreal festival this July. That plus her recent work in Terrific Women, her project with Stephanie Kaliner in which the two emulate ’70s pseudo-feminist cable-access show hosts (Hennessey plays a brassy Mae West archetype to Kaliner’s more reserved, and perpetually pregnant, Joy) convinced us that despite having written about Hennessey before, it was time to listen to so many of her fellow female comics and include her in this series.
Asked whom she admires, Hennessey zeroes in on her comedy producing partner Kaliner (the two recently celebrated five years of comedy at The Ossington). “She’s a goddamn dreamboat … we plan to grow old doing comedy together till the day we die.” (The two have plans for a Terrific Women spectacular in November at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.)
The July edition of Terrific Women happens Tuesday, July 1, at The Ossington.
Special thanks to Will and everyone at Delaware House for the use of the garage.
This post originally stated that the second season of Space Riders will be premiering in the fall, but it is expected to premiere in 2015.