Sphinxes, with its cast of all-female, trans or non-binary and racially diverse improvisers, is one of the most popular comedy shows with Rapid Fire Theatre company. The show, which runs out of the city’s old Citadel Theatre, is the brainchild of Amy Shostak, an Edmonton-turned-Vancouver improviser who created it for a Fringe Festival performance.
But, after seeing the impact of the show, she decided to hand over its reins to Sphinxes’ current directors, Joleen Ballendine and Julia Grochowski.
Since Calgary doesn’t have any similar kind of group, Calgary Journal interviewed some of the Sphinxes to find out why and what it’s like being a gender minority in the comedy improv community.
Ballendine started improvising in 2007. While still in high school, she won several awards for her work and was asked to be a cast member of Rapid Fire Theatre — Edmonton’s longest-running and award-winning improv group. Despite this success, she had never thought of herself as funny in high school.
“I started improv because I wanted to hang out with my friends after school,” she said.
“Those five guys all considered themselves hilarious, but I never did. Even my drama teacher, who I loved, never thought that women improvisers were funny. And it’s not because she thought that women weren’t funny. It was because the only successful shows she had seen were all white men.”
Nor was this the first time Ballendine had felt out of place in comedy.
“I remember a video in biology when I was really young that asked about the most attractive thing about the other sex,” Ballendine said.
“Both women and men said it was a sense of humour. But when asked to define that, the women said, ‘Someone that can make me laugh,’ and the men said, ‘Someone that will laugh at my jokes.’”
This ingrained idea of comedy being just for men stuck with Ballendine, especially when she was first starting improv.
“I felt like there was no permission to be funny. Or if there was, it was always the same roles and patterns.”
These experiences, however, were exactly why Ballendine and Grochowski wanted to continue Sphinxes after Shostak had left to pursue her career in Vancouver.
“It was a space that we all needed to feel safe and just plain funny. We had that permission.”
While casting the show, there was a lot of work to be done in making the space as inclusive as possible. That is when Ballendine and Grochowski decided to make any cast member of Rapid Fire Theatre that was a gender minority part of Sphinxes.
Once the show had been cast, Ballendine and Grochowski turned their attention to figuring out its format and making it freeing and safe for the performers.
“There’s always those shows that are titled, ‘Ladies Night Out!’, and are always advertised like, ‘women are funny too!’, or something else that’s dumb and undercutting, and the audience is always small and weird, and everyone is always uncomfortable. People can do that. That’s fine. It just doesn’t feel liberating. So when we were chatting about how to make Sphinxes, we knew that’s not what we wanted.”
The show evolved into a question-based format, where the cast members ask the audience meaningful questions to spark ideas for scenes in their performance. This is also where they found the name for the troupe, Sphinxes, which is named after a mythical creature who would allow you safe passage if you solved a riddle.
But neither the questions nor the show focuses on the gender of the performers. “The idea is just to have a space to be funny and to feel like you’re heard. It’s just about creating that inclusive space.”
But why does this type of theatre exist in Edmonton, but not Calgary?
According to Ballendine, the show exists mainly because of the opportunities provided by Rapid Fire Theatre, such as space to hold workshops for the cast.
“We pitched the idea and there was no micromanaging, they just told us to roll with it. That’s an experience that isn’t too common in the industry.”
Campbell, another seasoned improviser, started improv in 2010 while they were still in high school. It was then that they were given the opportunity to be in the Wildfire festival, an annual improv festival for teens hosted by Rapid Fire Theatre. This eventually led to their career with the company.
Then, in 2017, Campbell was cast as one of the original Sphinxes, and was the company’s first non-binary member, meaning that they identify as a gender outside the binary of female and male.
However, they didn’t start in Rapid Fire as an out, non- binary person. Campbell’s identity grew from their time there as a performer.
“This one time before a performance, before I had told anyone about my identity but my current girlfriend, we were introducing ourselves and I introduced myself as they/them. And everyone accepted it. It made me feel safe, and like I had an actual space there.”
But that wasn’t the only time Campbell was allowed to safely proclaim their identity as part of the Sphinxes.
In their first performance with the group, Campbell was their first “director,” or the first person to introduce a scene to the audience.
“I went up there and said, ‘Hi, my name is Syd, and today is transgender awareness day. And I’m proud to stand here and say that I’m trans.’ And it was amazing.”
According to Campbell, the biggest difference between Sphinxes and other shows like it is that it emphasizes the idea that gender minorities can be serious in comedy.
“In Sphinxes, it’s about being able to say, ‘I’m a woman/non-binary/trans person and I’m funny,’ rather than ‘I’m a woman/non-binary/trans person but I’m funny.’ And that’s extremely important in representation.”
However, gender minorities aren’t the only marginalized group that faces issues in the improv and comedy community — something that Campbell experienced firsthand.
“I started Rapid Fire with a friend of mine who was the first Indigenous member of [the] Rapid Fire cast, and her struggle was very different from mine. There’s a lot of things we all have to go through, but I had it much easier than her.”
Rapid Fire Theatre, in Campbell’s eyes, cultivated an inclusive place so that Sphinxes were able to grow.
Prusko, a younger improviser, started out improvising a little later than the others. But, similar to Ballendine, Prusko didn’t start improv for the simple love of theatre.
“I had really bad anxiety in high school and I did the auditions for the improv club because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” they said.
“My drama teacher put me on the team and drilled it into me that I had something and that I was actually funny. It was a really positive experience.”
Because of this support from their teacher, Prusko started doing more and more improv. That eventually resulted in them representing Alberta in the 2017 Canadian Improv Games. After that, they were asked to be a cast member for Rapid Fire’s improv team once they graduated.
“I feel bad because my experience going into improv wasn’t really an uphill battle like lots of others,” they said. “It was really inclusive and gave me the space to be comfortable with who I was.”
Prusko first saw Sphinxes perform while they were still in high school, just as the show was starting to get popular.
As it turns out, that performance contributed to Prusko’s success as a non-binary performer.
“I had watched Sphinxes before I knew I was non-binary. When I saw it in high school it was all women and one non-binary person. And even though it was only one, I didn’t realize how much I needed that space for being a non-binary person.”
Now, as a member of Sphinxes, the troupe has helped Prusko feel accepted in their community.
“At the beginning of the show, it’s all directed scenes by the whole cast. So we rotate. And it’s nice having that role as a non-binary person because you have the choice to show your unique experiences or perspectives which isn’t really all that common.”
The show also gives Prusko the chance to be comfortable in their humour and relating it to their identity.
“I remember at the end of a scene I said, ‘Bless my trans ass!’ and the whole audience laughed. And that’s when I realized that it was okay to be trans on stage, and it was okay to be funny about it.”
According to Prusko, the main reason why something like Sphinxes exists in Edmonton is because of Rapid Fire Theatre itself.
“I think that Rapid Fire has created a really special thing,” they said.
“It allows us to share our unique experiences and it also allows us to be like, ‘this is who we are!’ and be completely honest about that. Plus the fact that we are still a part of the community, but we’re given that specific place by the theatre to be authentically ourselves.”