Let Us Tell You a Riddle

Rapid Fire Theatre’s SPHINXES celebrates female, trans and non-binary funny folk.

Spending time with improvisers Julia Grochowski and Joleen Ballendine is positively side-splitting.

The co-directors of Rapid Fire Theatre’s (RFT) SPHINXES spontaneously imitate an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch and casually riff on a deluge of gender-charged topics: turning 30, being told they look like their mothers, using bras as change purses and wearing mics with formal gowns (really, there are never enough pockets in women’s clothing).

We’d be remiss to ignore the varied menstrual in-jokes that drop into the conversation, and often infuse their live show, too. Much like the coy queries posed by the Sphinx of Greek myth, the show’s humour can sometimes prompt more questions than answers.

“My godfather came to the last show and he said to me, ‘I’ve never heard of a Diva Cup. What is that?’” Ballendine asks with a laugh.

“God bless him,” says Grochowski, with a warm grin.

Comedy has seen dramatic shifts in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In an era when Baronesses have become CBC’s comic lifeline and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette overshadowed the standup patriarchy, with SPHINXES, which is being sponsored by Edmonton Community Foundation this season, Rapid Fire is upending the male-dominated world of improv, too.

SPHINXES was initially an all-female format spawned by former RFT artistic director (AD) Amy Shostak in 2016 — a rare casting choice for a comedy show, especially one that didn’t pander to the typical “wine time” trope of feminine humour.

Longtime RFT players Grochowski and Ballendine have since made the show their own, but they emphasize that SPHINXES is truly owned by its cast, a diverse crew of improvisers that range widely in age and experience. All of them — down to the technician and onstage musician — identify as female, trans or non-binary.

“It honestly makes for a very different show,” says Ballendine.

“It’s still funny, it’s still fast and fun, but there’s more attention to pushing narratives where we don’t usually go.”

“I’ve seen it happen where women or trans performers are pigeonholed into specific roles, into stereotypes, or just bulldozed by the presence of the men onstage,” says Matt Schuurman, who took the reins as Rapid Fire’s AD in 2015. “What SPHINXES does is give a space for those performers to let their ideas and stories rise without that other voice in the room.”

A SPHINXES show begins with a series of questions. Cues such as “When was the last time that you felt heightened emotion?” or “When did you first notice your gender?” prompt the audience to share answers, which are then used to fuel subsequent scenes.

As in all Rapid Fire shows, the entirety is improvised and ephemeral — and then it’s gone forever.

Schuurman admits that as a male audience member, he has a different take on SPHINXES, but he also points to the show’s celebration of universal experience.

“I feel like I’m being included in a conversation,” he says. “You see when those stories resonate with the audience, too, which is one of the most powerful things about improv, and the best kind of laugh that we always get. It’s that laughter of familiarity.”

Grochowski adds that the SPHINXES cast includes many close friends, which lends a spirit of camaraderie and a sense of safety.

“We didn’t even really need to do much, other than get all of these people in a room. And suddenly everything changed,” says Ballendine. “It wasn’t the same kind of improv because we weren’t editing ourselves the way we would have.”

Though RFT is making headway in terms of representation and diversity on Edmonton stages, Grochowski and Ballendine stress there’s still a long way to go.

“You don’t ever stop working as a woman in comedy; you never get to just sit back and relax,” says Grochowski. “You’re always awake, you’re always vigilant about how things are being portrayed. But people are realizing that we have stuff to say and comedy is a great way to comment on some heavy, heavy stuff.”

SPHINXES runs at Zeidler Hall in the Citadel Theatre March 30 and June 1, 2019 at 10pm.

Listen to an interview with the SPHINXES on The Well Endowed Podcast by clicking HERE.

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