Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Last week, as Carly Heffernan and I were chatting about the new all-female sketch comedy revue She the People that she has co-written and directed at The Second City, we agreed that we live in fraught times.
Fast forward to Friday. Some teacher friends and I were meeting for lunch because, as of the following Monday, one friend was assuming his new role as vice principal. On arrival, his immediate greeting was not the usual big-grin hello, but the words “Snitch line! Who thought that up?” He had carpooled with another friend, who (with her strapped-on infant in a Baby Bjorn) nodded and shook her head in angry sympathy. Clearly, this had been a contentious topic of conversation for a significant part of the ride. Fast forward to lunch itself . . . every 30 minutes or so, still irate and furious, he again sputtered, “Snitch line! SNITCH LINE! Who does that? Seriously, who does that!”
Yes, 2018 is a head-scratching period of history – and not just thanks to the Ford government’s “sex education” stance. She the People invites us to consider these times, taking on the implications of “snitch-line, buck-a-beer” patriarchy in a wry, biting and uproarious way. Ms Heffernan rightly contends that She the People is “for everyone,” and in fact could (and should) be “mandatory viewing”. “And I mean that,” she insists, “because it literally is the perfect night out with friends. I think it’s great for young audiences. I also think it’s great for those relatives that you have that might be a bit too into buck-a-beer.” She notes Second City’s 1959 roots as a satirical theatre. The company earned acclaim and popularity by “taking a look at the world around, and finding a humorous way to explore those things that are going on and that, particularly, we’re disagreeing with.” In that tradition, she maintains that She the People, in particular, is a “great show” to give people a laugh, while “opening up their minds to different viewpoints . . . and opening up their hearts a little bit as well.”
In this time of chilling social discipline, we need such mind-expanding. Ms Heffernan originally put up the show at The Second City Chicago, where it was “championed” by CEO and Executive Producer Andrew Alexander, who had been inspired by a Canadian troop of all-female sketch artists, Women Fully Clothed (made up of some Toronto Second City mainstage alums Robin Duke, Teresa Pavlinek, Kathryn Greenwood, and Jayne Eastwood). “He thought, where is our current all-female show? So he started putting the wheels in motion for creating a Second-City style revue that was created, written, directed, and performed by all women.” She the People opened in Chicago a year and a half ago, where it is still running after multiple extensions. Its success prompted a version at The Second City Toronto, which has resonated just as strongly.
With Canada and the US being “two very different and separate nations and cultures,” how do the two shows compare? Although a lot of the sketches, and the songs and the improv from the Chicago show “transfer over pretty well,” to keep it “relatable to Canadians”, about 30% of the Chicago show has been “taken out or edited to suit a Canadian audience, as well as the specific Canadian cast.” The show works so well across borders because “It doesn’t just match up to any other Second City show. It goes further, and that’s so empowering. It feels so empowering while you’re creating it, [and] while you’re watching it.” It was not too long ago that most of The Second City casts were made up of 4 men and 2 women. By contrast, She the People boasts a cast and creative team that are all female-identifying. Needless to say, the prospect of being a part of such a show presented a tantalizing opportunity, with “a lot of people reaching out to see if they could be involved in it, and in what way. And the cast is extraordinary,” Ms Heffernan stresses for the first, but not the final time. “We have 6 female-identifying performers, 5 of whom are alumna of Toronto Second City mainstage.” The 5 – Ashley Comeau, Paloma Nuñez, Karen Parker, Ann Pornel and Kirsten Rasmussen – perform with “amazing young up-and-comer” Tricia Black. “Once we saw that cast, it was easy then to choose or edit material to suit them as individual performers.”
Overall, “there’s so much going on,” Ms Heffernan says. In the style of a traditional Second City revue, it is a mix of sketch, songs and improv, but with a bit more dance than usual. Why? Because the cast, whom she describes as “quadruple threats”, are “just that talented”. The sketches and songs provide a vast arena for the full range of their versatility. In terms of topics, the show tackles the “micro-macro impressions that women have always faced and continue to face”, but it is also “incredibly celebratory, as it looks to . . . what’s possible as we keep moving forward into that female future. It absolutely dives into the #MeToo Movement. It dives into those microaggressions, such as judging women’s clothing in the workplace or catcalling. And then it gets into some really interpersonal female subject matter. Competitiveness about birthing process is so specific but so funny when on the stage,” she laughs.
In addition to exploring female competitiveness, gender politics and the gender divide, the show presents experiences that will be relatable to everyone in the audience, including those identifying as women. “So here’s a big spoiler,” smiles Ms Heffernan. “There’s one scene just about mispronouncing a word, and it is so funny! Now that’s going to appeal to anyone who hates being wrong – which is just about everybody,” she chuckles . . . before turning back to more sobering topics like body image and rape culture. “These are things I think that are important for us to have open conversations about, in a more open way, and maybe even from a younger age than we had been before.” The time when the show was first being put up in 2017 seems, in retrospect, like a watershed year for “shining the light on issues that we were always too afraid to shine the light on, issues that were just too taboo for us. We wanted to keep them in the dark. And this show, because it was created then, it absolutely lives in that light-shining, expository place. And that’s important,” she avers.
Asked how she came to direct She the People, she cites Alexander’s admiration for Come What Mayhem!, the Toronto mainstage show she was directing at the time. Clearly, he was looking for a female director for an all-women show. “I have to say, there are fewer female directors. I think I kind of stood out.” So “right time, right place” was a factor, but it was also her “putting in the right amount of work and getting a good product in the past” that sealed the deal. She spends little time on the topic of herself, even eliding the fact that another show that she has directed, The Best Is Yet to Come Undone (whose title summons thoughts of my friend’s snitch-line outrage), is also currently playing to packed houses at The Second City Toronto mainstage. Finally, in addition to her talent and experience, her unflappable calm and grace are ingredients in her success. I have surprised her with my call, which she expected a full 24 hours later, and not while she was mid-drive from another interview. She is (rightly) taken aback, but with the best “yes, and -” improv spontaneity, settles in for a chat. “Let’s do this!” she smiles, “I should do all my interviews in one day, while I’m in the zone.”
In our conversation, she repeatedly expresses appreciation for her cast. She is excited for audiences to “revel in [their] glory – in particular to have them “put to rest forever the question, are women funny?” That sexist chestnut is not new to Ms Heffernan. In her experience, not only do people think and wonder this, but they do so while continuing to represent female experiences from a male point of view, most typically as “being a girlfriend or a wife”. (So who is it that’s really not funny?) “I think it’s important to break that stereotype,” she affirms: “If all female-identifying performers are going to be on stage . . . the misconception of what a woman’s comedy is ‘is she only talking about “women’s issues”?’.” To the contrary, the women in the cast “tackle current political and socio-aggressions and issues…. To be honest, traditionally, we’ve been telling a man’s perspective of a woman’s story, and finally we’re telling our own stories, from our own perspectives.” In doing so, Ms Heffernan gleefully asserts that this cast will “literally dig a hole 10 feet in the ground, no, a hundred feet in the ground. That is where they will put that question, and no one will ever ask it again because these women are hilarious, absolutely, gut-bustingly hilarious.”
“It’s rare for a comedy show to make you laugh as well as make you think as well as make you cry. There is a scene at the end of the show that looks toward what the future could look like… and it’s beautiful!” And here lies the show’s larger aspiration. Ms Heffernan would like nothing more than for She the People to inspire other lodestars like Alexander to shake up the industry’s lingering complacency to “just stay in tradition”. It is too easy to opt for the status quo over progression – too easy to be “lazy”. The conspicuous absence of shows reflecting the diverse population makes her wonder, “where are our shows that are geared towards a queer-identifying cast or a queer-identifying audience? Where are these shows for our people of colour? Where are these shows that we haven’t made the space for yet, or we haven’t made enough space for yet?” These shows need championing, and she hopes that her show inspires people to take up the cause. “Once we’ve created space, then it will become the norm. I want it to be the norm, for it to be the regular, so soon.”
Of course, that new “regular” is possible only when we’re curious, confident and communicative. With the new school year within view, my friend’s disdain for the sex-ed snitch line is rooted in its strategy to foster insecurity, and keep people separate and apart. The ominous, finger-wagging subtext of its anonymous tattling and threats is that Big Brother will be watching. Happily – and importantly – the clever and subversive She the People shows us that Second City is also watching, and using a satirical mirror to create, not suppress, dialogue about complex issues. “Any good Second City show should always leave you thinking about the show, the show lingering with you and starting conversations up after the show,” Ms Heffernan maintains. It should invite people to do what the snitch line obviates: to experience other points of view, talk to one other about the issues beneath the blow lines, and open their minds to ideas that simmer in the psyche. “That’s my favorite thing,” Ms Heffernan maintains. “If we’ve accomplished that, then we’ve done our jobs really well.”
News You Can Use
What: She the People, performed by Tricia Black, Ashley Comeau, Paloma Nuñez, Karen Parker, Ann Pornell and Kirsten Rasmussen; Written by Carisa Barreca, Alex Bellisle, Marla Caceres, Katie Caussin, Maria Randazzo, Rashawn Nadine Scott, Tien Tran, Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, Lauren Walker and the casts of The Second City; Head Writer and Director: Carly Heffernan; Music Director: Nicole Byblow; Stage Manager and Lighting Designer: Meg Maguire; Stylist: Melanie McNeill
When: On stage Thursdays and weekends until Nov 25th, 2018; run time: 100 minutes (including one intermission)
Where: The Second City Toronto Mainstage, 51 Mercer Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: thesecondcity.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya