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'We're just funny': Montreal's Ladyfest puts spotlight on women-centred comedy

'We're just funny': Montreal's Ladyfest puts spotlight on women-centred comedy
'We're just funny': Montreal's Ladyfest puts spotlight on women-centred comedy

اخبارالعرب 24-كندا:الجمعة 1 سبتمبر 2023 11:04 صباحاً It's a wet and dreary evening in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, but inside a tiny, dimly-lit venue, tucked away up a long staircase on the third floor of an old brick building, the mood is anything but dampened. 

Dozens of attendees and folks from the city's tight-knit comedy scene, many noticeably comfortable within the walls of the beloved Diving Bell Social Club, are buzzing — some thanks to the fully stocked bar, others in anticipation of curtain time.

It's the third night of Ladyfest, a comedy festival in its seventh iteration that puts female, trans and non-binary comics at centre stage, giving them opportunities they might not otherwise have.

"Guaranteed real humans, no AI-generated comics in the lineups!" reads a promotional post on the festival's Facebook page, poking fun at a Gatineau, Que., bar featured in a CBC/Radio-Canada story last week, which created a fake female comic in response to critics who said the club rarely booked female comedians.

People laughing at a bar.
A mostly female and queer audience filled the small space at the Diving Bell Social Club on St-Laurent Boulevard. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Seated at a table lit with a candle, one of several in the room, Shanthony Exum, a comic herself, is waiting anxiously to see her friends perform their sets. 

"A lot of the artists here, I love them," she says, gesturing toward the stage, her dangling, fully playable tick-tack-toe earrings jiggling with each movement.

"Even if it wasn't Ladyfest, I would come to their show." 

Two people sit side by side at an event.
Shanthony Exum, right, says Ladyfest gives women and non-binary people the opportunity to share their talent with the world in a judgment-free space. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Exum, however, explains how important the festival is, as it provides a space for women and non-binary people to share their talent with the world. 

"It's good because it creates, like, this synergy where we have space to just fully express ourselves and — we're funny! We're just funny." 

Tuesday's event, called the Underthunk Cabaret, made its festival debut with several high-profile and up-and-coming artists, including Elspeth Wright, Andrina Learmonth, Belén Arenas, Peach Club Barbie and Petro.

A group of comedians on a stage.
Several high-profile and up-and-coming artists graced the stage at the Underthunk Cabaret event. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Featuring jokes about breast symmetry, queer relationships, cultural idiosyncrasies, sex work — not to mention a full-scale burlesque performance, complete with music, stripping and a sparkler — it's the kind of scene Zoe Lovett intentionally seeks out. 

"I have been to many stand-up comedy shows where it's often majority men, and they're not really talking about things that I can relate to or that I'm interested in," says the visitor from London, England, who is staying in Montreal for the week. 

"Whereas you come to like a queer-friendly … more interesting, diverse space and I am finding a lot more subject matter and jokes and comedy that I do relate to."

A person wearing a thong and holding a sparkler poses on stage after a performance.
Petro, a Montreal artist, performed a burlesque number to Stop by the Spice Girls. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Taking up space

Sara Meleika, a comedian and the festival's organizer for the past two years, says Ladyfest aims to level the playing field for women and non-binary people in comedy. 

"A lot of lineups will only give room for one woman and so it would often make the women feel like they were in competition with each other," she says. 

"So this festival wanted to challenge that by saying, instead of feeling like we should be in competition, let's unify together, let's unite and in that, we're also going to realize how important our voices are and how much space we really can take up."

A woman smiles at the camera.
Sara Meleika, the festival's organizer, says having a comedy space carved out specifically for women and non-binary performers at Ladyfest helps many people, like herself, persevere in the art form. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

The festival also creates content for people who might not feel represented as audience members at mainstream comedy shows. 

"It's been really important to [make] sure that certain voices don't just vanish, and that means that more people in the city feel represented when they go to Montreal's comedy spaces," Meleika says. 

People watching a stand-up comic on a stage.
Female comics describe the festival as one-of-a-kind and essential. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Raajiee Chelliah has been doing comedy for two years. It's her first Ladyfest, and she says her success has seldom been celebrated to this extent before by fellow comics in the lineup. 

"It fosters a very great and comfortable and safe environment," she said. "These are the kinds of spaces that encouraged me to go on and do bigger rooms." 

To the devastation of many Montreal artists, the Diving Bell, a hidden storage space turned performing arts venue, will be closing its doors in December. 

Audience members sitting at a table, watching a comedy show.
Audience members whooped and cheered for the 10 performers during the two-hour show. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Laughing in the face of sexism

Female comics describe the festival as one-of-a-kind and essential, especially at a time when women in comedy are still being left out of many mainstream lineups — or being generated by artificial intelligence to make it seem like they're included. 

Many have understood the situation at the Gatineau bar last week to be a symptom of the bigger problem of sexism in comedy, where women have historically been deemed less funny than men. 

"You can really see the lengths that people will go to to not book a woman on their lineups so it's really important that we are still asserting ourselves," said Meleika. 

A woman holding a microphone laughs on stage.
Cracking jokes at the situations in which she finds herself while working, Peach Club Barbie brought the audience on a ride with her anecdotes. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

Comedian Lucy Gervais, a co-producer of Ladyfest and host of Tuesday's event, says the bar made a mockery of the "very legitimate criticism" that it's facing.

"It's like they're trying to make a parody of the thing that is being criticized of them as a way to avoid the criticism," said the comedian of 10 years. "If you feel you don't need to have a woman in your show, just stand by that." 

Chelliah says while the industry is becoming a lot more inclusive and diverse, especially with events under Ladyfest, "it can't always be women who are putting on these shows."

"The men need to step up, they need to come support women, they need to produce shows where they put more women on the lineup," she said. 

Two women sitting at a table.
Caitlin Bazylykut and Chelsea Antenucci came out to see their friend Belén perform. (Sabrina Jonas/CBC)

In a few not-so-elegant moves, the event's two hosts, Gervais and Darragh Kilkenny-Mondoux — both on rollerskates — clambered onto the stage to a roar of applause from the crowd, kicking off one of the last few shows to ever grace the Diving Bell stage. 

The remainder of the festival's shows will take place at the venue until Sept. 3.  

"If people don't come, it's because they hate feminists!" Kilkenny-Mondoux playfully boomed into the mic, throwing her head back. 

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