Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Ok, let’s acknowledge from the get-go that the title of Ashley Botting’s solo show is the elephant in the cabaret room. Ashley with a “Y” does deliberately recall Liza with a “Z”, Liza Minnelli’s 1972 concert film and its now-iconic title song. But this is more wry homage than artistic mission statement. In Liza with a “Z”, Minnelli sang songs written just for her by John Kander and Fred Ebb. She also danced Bob Fosse’s choreography, backed by musicians and dancers. Ashley with a “Y”, by contrast, features Ms Botting performing songs that she herself composes on the spot! Forget gaudy. Forgo glitz (and sequins and feathers and all that jazz). Instead, prepare for Ms Botting’s award-winning improv talents to spin audience ideas at the Toronto Fringe Festival (The Fringe) into cabaret gold.
“The audience should know that no two shows are alike,” she forewarns. The nature and beauty of improv is its dependence on the ingenuity of the improvisor to make expedient use of ideas in the moment. Like most improvisors, Ms Botting asks for suggestions at intervals, and takes the first one she gets. But she cautions that audiences should be mindful of what they shout out. As a veteran Second City performer, any idea is a potential punchline.“I mean if you yell ‘GYNECOLOGIST’, I’ll probably make a joke at your expense and not take it, but generally I think it’s my job to make any suggestion look good.”
So what’s the best strategy for having your suggestions used? (Should you sit in the front? Practise yelling loudly…? Brainstorm ideas on scrap paper…?) At this stage, Ms Botting plans to “do a combination of getting the audience to write down song titles and pull them out of a jar AND talking to them directly.” If sitting in the front proves tempting, go for it…at the risk of getting spat on, though “then you got braggin’ rights”. As this is a brand-new show, just how she will use the audience’s ideas remains to be seen. “I love surprising suggestions!” she enthuses. “I’ve been improvising a long time, so I’ve heard it all before.” But sometimes an audience member will provide a suggestion that just “lights you up!” She is hoping for “100% of those” and “no duds,” though she is quick to note that “in truth, there are no ‘bad’ suggestions – it’s my job to make them all literally sing.”
Ms Botting has been a performer since she was a child. She attended a school for the arts in Toronto, an experience which had a profound effect on her. Yet for various reasons, she left performing for a short time to focus on university, earning BA in Linguistics and Anthropology from McGill University. At this point, she found herself at a crossroads: “I wondered what I would do with my life, all the while knowing deep down what I wanted.”
A few months following her graduation, she took an improv class at The Second City. “I was done,” she declares. “I knew this is what I would do. So many of the things I’ve learned about life and art, I’ve learned through improv.” She describes improv as the “perfect intersection of the heart and the head,” and loves it as much today as the first day she started. “Actually, probably more.”
Since that prophetic and life-changing “first day”, she has earned acclaim for her acting: two Canadian Comedy Awards, two Dora Award nominations, as well as other Canadian Comedy Award nominations for her work in The Second City mainstage shows and other theatre companies. Critics have been unstinting in their praise of her vocal prowess, which has been a key element of her prolific experience, which spans voiceover work, writing, and even working as a comic on a cruise-ship line. All have helped to hone her talents and shape her work: “So the cruise ship experience shapes my emotional connection to boats, for example, or how that cruise ship changed my feeling about buffets,” she deadpans. “It would be fun to sing a song about the specifics of what sea sickness feels like, or what it feels like to live on a boat with the a capella singer who dumped you for the newly single dancer.” Throw out a Love Boat suggestion at Ashley with a “Y”, and you may garner further details!
Ms Botting’s wit and ingenuity are undeniable, though she tends to play them down. When asked about the effort required to mount this show (not to mention the need for keen focus and mental clarity), she responds matter-of-factly, “the truth is that I don’t have to write any songs or memorize any lyrics or melodies. I just make it all up every night.” And then winks, “tell everyone how hard I’m working on this”. To her, the actual “work” is done: the “10,000 or more hours” she has already invested in improvising music throughout her career.
If the concept of an improv cabaret seems novel, she is delighted to have it reported that she invented the form. “Tell everyone! I’ve seen people improvise music many times, and I’ve participated in many improvised musicals, but I’ve never seen a one-woman cabaret before.” The concept for this show came to her years ago, born of a sketch she did on The Second City Mainstage. Every night, she would speak to an audience member and improvise a song about them. “It both thrilled and terrified me every time.” This emotional juncture birthed the brainchild of a “whole show like that”.
With the show opening imminent, she admits to feeling “both excited and terrified” – that emotional intersection “where the best work always is.” But just to be clear, audiences should not go to Ashley with a “Y” expecting sequins, boas or dance breaks. Instead, they should expect a more substantive, incandescent kind of brilliance born from flashes of insight, inspiration and inventiveness, plus a warm sense of camaraderie with the audience. “This is a special show,” Ms Botting notes. “I am as mystified by it as anybody else.” She likens the ephemerality of its spontaneous creation to the mystique of Nepalese monks making a mandala out of sand: “They create this beautiful intricate thing that is eventually brushed away,” she muses. “Improvising songs feels like this. I love creating these funny, honest, personal pieces of music that have never existed before and will never exist again.”
So in its blend of show structure and continuous musical novelty, Ashley with a “Y” just might prove the truth of that other Kander and Ebb line, about life being a cabaret. And this nightly chance to intersect Ms Botting’s life through her one-woman cabaret is not to be missed.
News You Can Use
What: Ashley with a “Y”, created and performed by Ashley Botting; Musical Director: Scott White; Creative Consultant: Jan Caruana; Stage Manager: Sam Polito
Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older
When: July 5 – 15, 2018; run time: 60 minutes
Where: The Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: fringetoronto.com or 416.966.1062
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya