Christine Aziz's one-woman show about growing up in the early '90s, a hit at the 2011 Fringe Festival, begins a short remount at the Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight.
Is there a time that is filled with more melodrama, devastating heartbreak, mind-bursting joy, and excruciating social, emotional, and physical awkwardness than early adolescence? Or, a time with better fashion, TV, music, and games than the early 90’s? It’s no surprise that Christine Aziz blends the two together in her one-woman show ELLAmentary, a hit at this summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival that begins a short remount at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight.
Slated as “A One Person Musical About Filling Out and Fitting In,” it stars Aziz as Ella Salmon, a pre-teen with a love for YM Magazine, Heathers, Boyz II Men, and a classmate named Jordan. Premiering at the Fringe Festival in July, the story of Ella’s struggles to run with the preteen In Crowd (with some super-rad tunes and dance moves to boot) hit a spot with audiences so soft that it was chosen to play at the Best of the Fringe Uptown showcase following the festival. However, Aziz wasn’t aiming for that spot when she started creating the character of Ella Salmon.
“I first wanted to do a show about an adult who wanted to be a chef” with the ironic name of Ella Salmon, a play on of the nausea-inducing bacteria, Aziz says. “But she became younger and younger, and it became more and more about my own experiences growing up—about growing up, trying to fit in, being the loud weird girl trying to be more normal.”
Slowly, Aziz realized she didn’t need to create a fictional character to grasp the social ineptitude she wanted; all she needed to do was think back to grade school when she would intentionally speak in a softer voice to sounds more like the other girls in her classroom.
“I was so intent on changing to be cooler or more popular,” she says, so basing the character of Ella on herself as a preteen was an obvious, and necessary, choice. “I didn’t want it to be a parody of a kid. I wanted it to be real and believable. But [the hardest part is to] find the balance between a kid who speaks at a kid level, not make them wise beyond their years […] I have to tape down my boobs, too.”
To reconnect with her past self, 30-year-old Aziz had to bring childhood memories back to the surface. Conjuring up memories like being homesick at camp, feeling “so cool” after receiving a new badge at Girl Guides, or receiving a scolding for dancing too closely at school dances inevitably led to some priceless research on her pop-culture favourites from that period.
“I love looking back, finding a trigger that brings a smile. You can find a commercial for anything [on YouTube]. I was like ‘Girl Talk? Crocodile Mile? Oh, my God, I remember that!'” As one would expect, they wove themselves heavily into the plot. Hey, if you were writing a show about growing up in the 1990s, you would find a way to include “I Would Do Anything For Love” too.
Luckily for Aziz, ’90s nostalgia is all the rage right now. And it wasn’t long before Aziz’s friends were joining in on her yearning for Bubble Tape and Northern Getaway sweaters, or lamenting their old Fully Alive religion textbooks. “It triggers the audience members too, brings back memories for them. People have said stuff like, ‘It reminds me of my first dance or the boy I had a crush on.’ I think that’s so cool,” Aziz says.
Ella’s story isn’t all neon windbreakers, scrunchies, and Tarzan Dan, though. It’s about self-acceptance and identity at an emotionally tumultuous time, and it contains a message that Aziz hopes she can bring to schools eventually.
“At that age, when people or a boy didn’t like you, it was the end of the world. But, it doesn’t matter now. Your friends now, the people who are successful now, must have been geeks at some point,” she says, insinuating that she wishes someone had been there to tell her that when she was a teen. “I want to protect [Ella]. It’s really interesting to look at myself as a different person. You want to almost nurture that person, tell them, ‘Don’t worry, things will be okay.'”
Still, Aziz admits, and we have to agree, that the awkwardness of preteendom never really leaves. And, sometimes, that’s nothing a little Joey Lawrence can’t fix.