Mirthful Mx. In The 6ix: 2017 Edition
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Mirthful Mx. In The 6ix: 2017 Edition

Our annual comedy profile, previously named Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh, is evolving—much like these comedic talents.

The 2017 Mirthful Mx. In The 6ix, from left to right: Nicola Dempsey, Rosie Dempsey, Isabel Kanaan, Tess Degenstein, Nadine Djoury, and in front, Chantel Marostica.

The 2017 Mirthful Mx. In The 6ix, from left to right: Nicola Dempsey, Rosie Dempsey, Isabel Kanaan, Tess Degenstein, Nadine Djoury, and, in front, Chantel Marostica.

This is Torontoist‘s seventh-annual feature showcasing some of the city’s best established and emerging comedic talent, and up until now, they’ve all been female-identifying. The intent has always been to shine a light on performers and creators who don’t resemble the same five white guys (or four white guys and one POC) on a stand-up bill, or the half dozen guys on a typical improv or sketch troupe, or the all-male (save for maybe one or two women) writers’ room for most TV and film properties.

But in striving to correct that imbalance, by promoting more gender-balanced comedy bills, we’ve had to contend with our own bias, and have increasingly come to view the title “Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh” as problematic. (Singer-songwriter Neko Case wrote a long and influential online essay on the issues with “Women in _____” features that we can’t stop thinking about.) And what sense does it make to stick with the same format when one of the performers we’d already selected to feature admits it makes them feel ill to be referred to as a lady?

So we’re changing the series’ title and terminology, to better reflect its intention to promote diverse talent and inclusive shows. It will henceforth by known as “Mirthful Mx. In The 6ix” (or MMIT6 for short), which covers pretty much anyone who wouldn’t be adverse to be identified by “Mx.,” individually or collectively. (It’s worth noting that even “Ms.” was only recently accepted as a prefix by media outlets, as of the 80s.)

The change is in line with recent efforts by some local comedy institutions to create more welcoming spaces; harassment reporting procedures that protect complainant’s anonymity, programs (like at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre Company) that encourage diverse performers, and a crackdown on abusive and denigrating behaviour both on and off stage.

Just last week, a performer on the Second City Toronto main stage was heckled by men in the audience who made crude comments about her body one night, and four nights later, called her “a bitch,” both times loudly enough that the performers (and the rest of the audience) could hear them. The first incident resulted in Second City contacting the men’s employer (who had booked the show), who brought their company harassment policies to bear; the second resulted in the cast collectively condemning the unidentified heckler from the stage at the end of the show. (In previous years, the story has too often been that these things happened, and a venue did nothing to protect its harassed performers.)

(**The above incidents were brought to light on social media, but Torontoist has agreed not to link to posts, to prevent further harassment being directed to those involved.)

So maybe a more accurate criteria for future selections for this series, given that discriminatory abuse can and should be challenged but continues to be a problem, will be: has this person faced barriers to their career that others might not have? Have they had to work harder, be funnier, and cope with worse treatment than their counterparts? (Given that rape culture and patriarchal oppression continues to be systemic, the candidates will continue to be mainly women.)

Oh, one other minor change: there are five acts, not five performers, profiled in this year’s feature. It didn’t make sense to profile them separately (and here, we offer a belated apology to Briana Templeton, Gwynne Phillips‘ partner in comedic duo The Templeton Philharmonic).

With all that said, let’s get into the main reason for this series. Let’s meet some clever, charming, comedic talent.

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Isabel Kanaan

Kanaan is the youngest of this year’s comics, but she’s moving swiftly into many facets of Toronto (and Canada’s) funny businesses. She’s a recent graduate of the Second City’s conservatory program (and their Bob Curry Fellowship), and already a member of their House company, which performs every Friday night in their studio space. And she recently joined the cast of CBC’s Air Farce, debuting on their July 1st special.

During the Air Farce Canada Day special taping, there was an odd moment, according to Kanaan, when the cast all introduced themselves and named their hometowns from across Canada, until it was her turn: “Uh, I’m from the Philippines.” (At the risk of editorializing, we think it’s wholly appropriate that the Canada Day cast includes a first-generation immigrant.) During her childhood growing up in Manila, Kanaan performed as an actor and dancer, and continued with her passions when she moved to Toronto in 2008. Despite her busy comedy career, she hasn’t forgotten her roots; her recent stage work includes working with Toronto Filipino company Carlos Bulosan Theatre’s Collective Creation Unit on their play Anak, and stints with children’s theatre company Cow Over Moon, and Second City’s Educational company.

Kanaan may also be familiar to Toronto Fringe Festival audiences for her role in the hit shows Women (she played comedically doomed sister Amy), and Hey ’90’ Kids, You’re Old, which capitalized on its popularity with a tour that won awards in New York as well as here. This summer, she’ll be appearing in the festival again, in the show Nourishment, “a celebration of women for everything they are, and everything they do.”

The women Kanaan admires in comedy include current Second City mainstage cast member Ann Pornel, and The Beaverton‘s co-host Emma Hunter. “Those two ladies are so down to earth, hilarious, and just straight up bosses.”

Kanaan appears weekly on Fridays at 8 p.m. with Second City’s House Co. at the John Candy Box Theatre, and on CBC’s Air Farce Canada Day special on July 1.

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Flo & Joan (Nicola and Rosie Dempsey)

The Dempsey sisters are also immigrants to Canada, and we’re only just catching them before they depart back to their native United Kingdom, where they’re slated to appear over the summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Reading & Leeds Music Festival, and the Latitude Festival. That may sound like an odd assortment of appearances, until we explain that their alter egos Flo & Joan are the musical duo responsible for viral online hits like “The 2016 Song” and “Save The Bees.”

To hear them describe it, the advent of Flo & Joan was almost a fluke. “Our mum put us both into music lessons from a very young age, took us to shows, and filled our house with music. We were always big into school shows and concerts and things right up to university, but never knew we would carry it on into adulthood.” After a stint in Chicago a few years ago, studying with Second City and iO, Nicola moved to Toronto, after her U.S. visa expired; Rosie, who had a trip travelling South East Asia fall through, decided to join her sister here, also getting bitten by the Second City bug. The two eventually began experimenting with comedic music songs; “we’d never performed together until we were here in Toronto.”

“Toronto felt like a safe place for us to try [musical comedy] because we were new enough in the city that nobody knew who we were, so if we were terrible, no one would remember it, and our friends and family at home in the U.K. would never have to find out about it.” That fall back plan was never necessary; Flo & Joan have become a popular act both locally, winning the Now Audience Choice Award at this year’s Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, and internationally, being named one of the top 10 comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Amused Moose Comedy Awards.

The two have also been busy separately in Toronto comedy—Rosie as an improvisor with Bad Dog Theatre’ Featured Players, and Second City’s House Company; Nicola, as a musical director for sketch and improv shows around town. But it’s all going on hold as the two tour overseas on the back of their debut album: “We released our debut album Victory Flaps in May, a thing we thought we would never say!”

A few of the people in comedy Rosie and Nicola admire in Toronto: “Give anything to Karen Parker [Second City mainstage assistant director), Georgia Brown [Second City mainstage stage manager] and Jordan Armstrong [Second City touring company musical director] and they will make it the best it will ever possibly be; [Nicola] watched Britta Johnson’s Life After at Toronto Fringe last summer, and thought it was one of the greatest shows with the most beautiful music, and will follow everything she does henceforth; Natalie Metcalfe is one of the most generous performers in the city; Emily Richardson is a force to be reckoned with; Tracy Hamilton is one of the most charming and likeable stand-ups you will ever watch and your face will not drop its grin during her shows.”

Flo & Joan perform a one night only preview of their new show for the Edinburgh Fringe, “The Kindness of Strangers”, tonight at 9:30 p.m., Bad Dog Theatre; Thursday night, a farewell show is being performed for the duo, organized by their director Ashley Comeau (“She is the kindest, most hard-working, generous, talented woman, and everyone’s life is better for working with her”), at 8 p.m., also at Bad Dog.

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Tess Degenstein

Degenstein has been considered several times for this series in the past. At issue was that the busy performer has often been working away from Toronto this time of year, at theatres across Canada, and in Europe; she spent a year and a half based in Berlin, working with improv troupes the English Lovers in Vienna for an extended residency, and Det Andre Teatret in Oslo.

This year, however, she’s spent June at the Tarragon Theatre, as one of the “Mimi’s” in rotation in Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date, which pulls a random man out of the audience to co-star with Mimi in an improvised romantic adventure. (We’ve previously written about Northan and the show, including its same-sex version.) It’s a challenging role for an actor and improvisor, creating a show with a non-performer, and making them look as good as possible all the way through; on the night we saw Degenstein in the red nose in this run, she did so admirably.

At other points of the year in years past, Degenstein has also impressed us as a member of Bad Dog Theatre’s Repertory Company; in dramatic roles in the Dora-Nominated Mockingbird and in Trout Stanley, which she co-produced with 2014 MMIT6 Hannah Spear; and as the android Elle in the webseries Space Janitors. (She also appears in an upcoming short entitled A Brief History of the Apocalypse with 2011 MMIT6 Kayla Lorette.)

Originally from Regina, Degenstein has been performing improv since she was seven, coming up with fellow Saskatchewanite Tatiana Maslany. She started her professional improv career with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton at 17, and studied acting there at the University of Alberta; she made the move to Toronto seven years ago, and while she travels extensively (she’ll leave for a month off-grid on Vancouver Island after Blind Date‘s run concludes, and then appear in shows in Ottawa, Kingston, and the Thousand Islands in the fall), she considers Toronto home, and will be directing an upcoming production for Severely Jazzed, her company with Spear.

Degenstein chose to “shout out some names very dear to my heart: Tatiana Maslany is boundlessness incarnate; Rebecca Northan is a force and a huge inspiratio. [I’m] also very in love with everything Naomi Skwarna does—and she does so much! I’m in awe!” She also had effusive praise for past MMIT6 Spear, Lorette, Monica Heisey, and Evany Rosen.

Blind Date runs until June 25 at the Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue), Tuesday–Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday–Sunday, 2:30 p.m., $22–$65.

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Nadine Djoury

A child of immigrant parents (her father is an Iraqi Jew), Djoury, who excelled in math growing up in Montreal, was well on her way to a safe and steady career in finance. After getting a degree in commerce at McGill, she moved to New York and spent several years in the corporate world. “I had done some performing in high school and wanted so badly to be an actress,” she admits. “But I just didn’t have the courage to pursue it.” While in New York, she began taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade, and the Magnet Theater. “Finally, after a long time of being unfulfilled at work, I decided to make a go of performing. I moved to Toronto and immediately auditioned for the Second City Conservatory.” It was the jumpstart her comedic career needed, even if her parents worried. “For me to go into the arts, or ‘self-imposed poverty,’ was a good way to give [my dad] a heart attack,” she jokes. Just last week, however, after moving up through the ranks of Second City’s various lower-level troupes, Djoury made her debut as a mainstage cast member, and is already writing the upcoming new show with fellow cast mates like Ann Pornel and Allana Reoch.

Outside of Second City, Djoury has also performed regularly at Bad Dog Theatre with the troupe Your Kids, and she’s been finding success as a writer and performer on screen, as well. “A couple of years ago, inspired by my sister’s experience with motherhood, I co-created the web series Newborn Moms with [2015 MMIT6] Aurora Browne. “We were lucky to get it picked up by CBC, and then later ABC—and this year, we were nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards.” Besides Newborn Moms, Djoury also has another creative iron in the fire: “My writing partner Aimee Ambroziak and I recently won the WIFT-BravoFact pitch competition for our short film Good Girls. We go to camera next week.”

Djoury chose her two screenwriting partners as the women she admires: “Aurora Browne, my co-writer on Newborn Moms, is a brilliant comedic actress, who is both grounded and generous as a performer. She’s had an incredible career in comedy, and has been a mentor to me. My other writing partner, Aimee Ambroziak, is a creative force who is endlessly imaginative. She has amazing comedic instincts, and a really strong sense of story. I’ve learned so much from working with both these women.”

Djoury performs nightly (save for Mondays) in Everything Is Great Again on the Second City Toronto Mainstage. Starting July 16, she and her cast mates will perform the as-yet-untitled 80th Mainstage Revue.

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Chantel Marostica

Mx. Chantel Marostica has been a stand-up since their early 20s. Originally from Winnipeg, they’ve been performing here in Toronto, and touring, for years now. But the past year has been a game-changer for them, both professionally and personally. They started the Queer and Present Danger touring series, an LGBTQ comedy showcase that visited nine Canadian cities; began teaching stand-up at Second City; appeared on the Homegrown series at Just For Laughs; and hosted the Dyke March for Daily Xtra.

It’s also been a year of significant personal growth and change; changing pronouns (to they/them); coming out again, this time as non-binary; and launching a personal campaign to save enough money for elective top surgery. “It feels really affirming to understand myself so fully, and to share it and be embraced for it by my friends, family and community,” Marostica says. Their advocacy work in comedy continues: “I really love supporting and highlighting female-identifying and LGBTQ-identifying comics. I run an all-female-identifying show “empow(HER)ment” back in Winnipeg. The intent was to get more women performing, and it definitely worked! There were about three when I left, and now there’s probably 30-40 girls crushing Mocs back home.” Here in Toronto, Marostica has turned Queer and Present Danger into a bi-monthly showcase at the Rivoli. “I also run a female-identifying comedy showcase/drunk show White Girl Wasted, and a monthly LGBTQ comedy showcase in the Village at Pegasus on Church with Adrienne Fish (the third Sunday of every month), Church Street Comedy. We just celebrated our second Pride!”

Marostica’s spending the summer doing stand-up (naturally) all around town, teaching classes at Second City, performing at out of town festivals in Yellowknife and Winnipeg, and prepping for a fall tour, where they’ll be recording their first live comedy album (they already have two Sirius XM comedy albums under their belt).

They chose several women in Toronto to highlight: past MMIT6 alumna Jackie Pirico (“[She’s] so talented, it makes me so fiercely proud to be her friend!”), Sandra Battaglini (“[She] makes me laugh in the goofiest, dumbest way. Her raw talent and energy can’t be matched.”) and Sara Hennessey (“[She’s] the funniest person alive.” Marostica also gave shout-outs to two comics from their native Winnipeg: “Dana Smith (H.U.N.K.S) and Angie St. Mars (President Bear) are two women [who] are so smart, and so endlessly creative, I’ve featured them on many of my shows back home, because they’ve got ‘it.'”

Marotica co-hosts the next Church Street Comedy at Pegasus on July 15, and the next Queer and Present Danger showcase at the Rivoli on July 25th. They also appearing regularly on stand-up shows in Toronto; check local listings.