Tuesday, July 03, 2018

On Acting, Stand-Up Comedy, and Being Directed

Through fault of my own, I am performing in a solo show I wrote. 
From July 21 to July 28, 2018, I will be showing and telling a darkly comedic tale at the Kingston Storefront Fringe Festival. I say “through fault of own” because I wanted to challenge myself creatively. Not content to churn out words on screen and paper, I thought performing my own play would be a suitable endeavour. After all, I'm a stand-up comic and although I may not tour anymore, I still perform at Hirut Fine Ethiopian Cuisine's Hirut Hoot, and other fine comedy establishments. How hard could it be doing my own stuff on stage?

Haaaarrrrddd. Hurry hhhhaaaarrrrrddd.

I am being put through rigorous dramaturgical analysis, a disciplined rehearsal schedule and a physically demanding process. This is all in thanks to my director, Jennifer McKinley. Ms. McKinley is a writer, performer and producer, once co-artistic director of Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival (2014-2017) in Toronto She is a lead coordinator with the Feminist Art Conference, and wrote, produced and performed her solo show, OperationSUNshine at the 2017 Toronto Fringe, as well as at the 2018 Feminist Fuck It Festival in Toronto.

She is a living, breathing theatrical artist. She is as far away from my comfortable stand-up world as I can get.

I saw Operation SUNshine at the FFIF and thought the work unique in voice. Not only is Jennifer a skilled performer, she has a rare ability to merge comedy and horror, sharing personal stories powerfully and with compassion. When I found out I won a berth in the Kingston Fringe, I contacted Jennifer, with the hope of her having the time and interest to direct my show. Fortunately she did and agreed to be my director.

Over the rehearsal process, I've been encouraged to feel the intensity of my character's situation. Here's the difference between stand-up comedy and acting in my opinion: stand-up is like being a commander. You hit the stage, grab the mic and deliver. Your job, above all, is to make people laugh. Material aside, that is your goal, to elicit laughter. It is not to delve into the back story, circumstances or sad psyche of a character. As I have learned, in theatre the actor creates a trusting environment. The actor embraces the audience, rather than controls it. I suppose a lot of stand-ups do this, but I must say that is not my M.O. I think a lot of stand-up comedy comes from a place of anger. At least, it does for me.

This feeling stuff is hard.

As a writer, it is essential that I feel a character. Thoroughly. Down to the bones. In space and time. But that feeling is transmitted through the written word. It's conjured in thought and relayed through the body by breath held, goosebumps raised, and once in awhile, racing heartbeat. This is the goal of the written word – to inhabit the imagination of the reader. Feeling is not thrashed out on stage. That is an actor's job.

This is the job I will be doing soon in Kingston.

As I said, I wanted to challenge myself creatively. That I am. I am having my ass kicked by a social justice warrior-artist almost 20 years my junior. And I love it, my creaking knees and aching joints aside.

My goal is to do right by my characters, by my director, and by my stage manager, the emerging triple threat theatre artist Natasha Rotondaro. 

I am one lucky stand-up comic and writer to have such a dedicated team. Hope to see you in Kingston.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Toronto the Good

Image result for toronto skyline
As some of you may know, I am a born and bred Montrealer. Being a Montrealer of a certain generation, we were inculcated with a profound mistrust and contempt for Toronto. We looked down our nose at Toronto because it symbolized everything staid and boring and grey. When I was growing up, Montreal was Canada's biggest city: its nightlife was legendary, its hockey team supreme, its arts and culture vital to the people. When the Parti Québécois and Bill 101 made it difficult for unilingual anglophones to imagine a life in La Belle Province's new reality, over 100 thousand or so fled down the 401 to settle in staid and boring and grey Toronto, I being one of them. It felt treasonous. How could I ever adjust to this place of 11 p.m. closing times and rehashed British influence? With the last name of Bennett I would have an easier time fitting in, but I could not relate to Toronto's bland reason. I was used to being surrounded by a culture that, by birth, was not mine, but one that held tremendous influence on me. I loved being in the midst of the French because I admired the way they lived (too bad I didn't listen more in French class when in high school). I didn't want to live exclusively with people who looked like me and spoke the same language as me. So for many years I worked and lived and played in Toronto, all the while feeling superior to the denizens of the city unlucky enough to have been born and raised in Hogtown.

And then something happened. Toronto transformed. It became a welcoming city for people from around the world who wished to settle here and raise their families. It became a city that truly embraced diversity, not just paying lip service to it, but actively promoting it as a source of strength. It opened up and began to celebrate the LBGTQ community, one of the most important groups in the city today. It moved with societal change, not against it. Today, it is a powerhouse for investment and business, science and academia, arts and culture. Who the hell would have thunk it? Not this ex-Montrealer.

So in the aftermath of one of the worst mass murder in Toronto's history, I will tell you now that ... I love this place. This bagel chewing, Hab loving, St. Catherine Street loitering woman loves T.O, the 6, YYZ. I love the stretch of Yonge Street between Finch and Sheppard, where you can get the best Korean food anywhere, where the North York Public Library has provided me with books and a quiet place to write, where I've danced to big band music in Mel Lastman Square. This unassuming, unpretentious stretch of Yonge Street north of the 401 is home to Canadians from many different backgrounds and ways of life. It is wonderful to see Korean businesses next to Persian businesses next to Russian businesses. Keep your food coming! is what I say. While this city is not without its racial tensions, on the whole Toronto comes pretty close to harmony. The biggest threat to this city is rampant greed, but that is another blog...

Toronto has been good to me. It's time for me to give that expression.

There is a vigil Sunday night at Mel Lastman Square for the people of Toronto to stand together and support the victims of the van attack tragedy. On Sunday I will take the TTC up to North York, and demonstrate my sorrow and solidarity with the community in Willowdale. My god, I love you. All who died, who are injured, who are hurting -- I love you. We'll get through this, together. Toronto is our home and we've built it together. No one can take that away from us.

Toronto is not all that has been transformed. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Christmas House

I had never seen anyone die. 

The rasping I read about in fiction was unmistakable. I was the first to hear it. The other women in the room were chatting, doing their best to keep spirits bright.

“Uh, I think it's near.”

I moved over to the bedside and listened to my aunt's breathing. My cousin and my aunt's friend gathered close. I held my aunt's hand. Her respiratory system spasmed. It's an uncanny sound, the death rattle. It's a signal for loved ones to ready themselves.


Around the corner from my apartment is an old house. It is home to a couple of professional set designers. This time of year the house is transformed into pure magic. Why they arrange and construct such an elaborate display and rack up enormous electricity bills year after year, I don't know. All I know is that it brings such inexplicable joy to my heart.


Auntie Martha was what my mother would call a “grand dame”. She never had kids and she had been widowed twice. She loved to travel and collected unique artifacts from her adventures. She loved the ballet and theatre. She had an archness I found admirable. She didn't take herself too seriously. But she was complex in her own way, hard to really know. I had to respect that. For some reason, she asked me to be her power of attorney for health. The honour I initially felt turned to distress when I realized the extent of the responsibilities. Could I do it?


I studied what was my aunt. She had been unconscious for awhile, probably left us some time earlier in the day, but her lungs continued to squeeze out breath. The gasps became fewer and fewer and at longer intervals. Then, one long sigh, and nothing else. I watched her shrink back into the hospital bed. “I'll go get the nurse,” I said to my companions. Not knowing what else to say, I made note of the time. “4:10 p.m. Christmas Day 2016.”


Riding the subway home from the hospital, I saw my aunt's house in my mind, with its bright Christmas decorations, its big red stockings, Santas, and candy canes. She lived alone for years, yet always decorated for the holidays. She had just left the house a week earlier. The little twinkling Christmas tree still stood by the front window. I wiped a quick tear away. Some power of attorney I was. There was no negotiation, not even a plea bargain. I couldn't stop death.


What do you do when you've just witnessed a loved one die, it's Christmas day, and you're on your own? For me it was one of two things: anesthetize myself to blunt the sorrow, or search for beauty to make sense of it all.

Almost every inch of the Christmas house is thoughtfully lit, the colours carefully schemed, the effect glowing. From front to back, lights are arranged in little snowflakes, snowmen, and candy canes. It is my ideal Christmas house. It fills me with awe. This is my hope for Christmas. It was my hope for my aunt that dark, cold night last year as I wondered through shining eyes at the mystery of it all, if her essence glowed in those lights. 

Last month I happened upon the fellow from the Christmas house toting a ladder, string of lights in tow. I stopped and told him about my aunt's passing last year, and what comfort his Christmas display brought me that night. I thanked him from my heart, and for the happiness he and his partner bring to the neighhourhood. I could see he was visibly touched. 

More than ever, I understand the spirit of Christmas.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An interview with Harvey Weinstein: A two minute play

Scene: A luxury hotel room in New York City. Harvey Weinstein enters wearing a bathrobe. He is disheveled. There is a knock at the door. Harvey goes over to a mirror and smooths his hair. He slaps his face a few times, grunts, then sings.

Hy-Rickety whoop-de-doo,
We're the Men of Sigma Nu!
Hullibaloo, Terickahoo
All together for Sigma Nu, HEY!!

He points at himself in the mirror. Another knock at the door. He saunters to the door and opens it to reveal Writer/Comic Carolyn Bennett, wearing sweat pants, a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey, and a Montreal Expos baseball cap.

Who the hell are you?

Carolyn Bennett. The writer/comic. We met 30 years ago at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.

Wha – I was expecting … you're not Abigail Breslin.

I knew Mark Breslin. And you, sir, are no Mark Breslin.


Don't you remember that night in 1987 with Gilbert Rozen at Foufounes Électriques? I slam-danced you into a mod when you tried to slip your hand up my Youpee doll... you said to give you a call if I wanted to work for Miramax. Well, here I am!

Harvey squints at Bennett. He shrugs and sighs.

Look, do you want to give me a massage or not?

Harvey opens up his bathrobe to reveal his hairy stomach and flaccid penis.

Oh. Wow. Oh...Wow. Yes. I have heard about your legendary prowess. Yes. Let's proceed. Okay, baby, I brought some lube.

Good. I think we'll need it.

Absolutely. Make yourself comfortable and get ready for some slippery love.

Carolyn produces a tube of lubricant. She applies a thick coat to Harvey's genitals.

Feel good, sugar?

Oh yeah.. that's good. That's ..ow.. ow.. OW. OW! OW!!! AAAHHH!! GOODD! AHHA! WHAT DID YOU PUT ON ME!

A little love potion called Rub A535.

AAAAHHHHHH!!! It burns! It buuurrrnnnnsss!

You better get used to that, brother.

Carolyn winds up and kicks Harvey in the testicles. She is about to leave, but turns back to address him as he writhes in pain.

Sorry about the assault. I'm not on Twitter.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Spinning Saves My Life


            He's yelling at us, like he always does.
            “Deep breaths. Oxygenate the blood. Oxygenate the brain.”
            I like my brain oxygenated, because as Neil says, rust never sleeps.
            “Be confident. Be aggressive.”
            The same mantra every few days. I never get tired of it. Sweat is pouring into my eyes. I lose my grip on the bike – the bars are slick with my yuck.  I recover with a stalwart pace. A pounding techno soundtrack hurls us on. Not many places where a woman over 50 can go to get her freak on and not feel conspicuous. It's a 10a.m. rave, complete with water bottles and ecstasy, but we're high on our own bodies. Happy brain chemicals are doing their thing.
            “Crank it to a seven. Crank it to an eight. A little bit more. A little bit more. Get cranky! Use your anger! That's what it's for. ATTACK!.”
            My heart is pounding at the same rate as the music. God, this feels good. No, this feels euphoric. The chronic pain in my knees is gone, although I can still hear them crunch, and if I don't keep the pace, they can lock. Not cool. So I keep the pace, keep the faith, keep breathing and pushing until I feel like I'm on the verge of vomiting.
            I did a lot of vomiting in my active addiction. Drank until I puked because it was my normal. Used to vomit every time I drank. Got hangovers that made me want to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger. But if I did that, I couldn't drink. So I kept up the vicious cycle of toxic drinking and punishing withdrawal until the day came when, yeah, pulling the trigger was one of two options. Fifteen years later, sobriety is sweetened substantially by spin classes, yoga, pilates, weights and walking.
            “This is the best therapy you can do.”
            The man knows of what he speaks. Peter Gault [petergault.ca] my fitness guru, 59 years old, a hockey ref when he's not kicking our ass in the gym or at this home studio. He refs three, sometimes four shifts a week. Played hockey as a kid with Gretzky. Peter has a shaved head and is tattooed, before it became de rigueur. He's bounced dives in the Lower East Side and lived in his car in Manhattan and on the Florida coast. In his twenties, he wrote a bestseller, a raunchy novel called Goldenrod that made him some dough. He ate nothing but raw food for over a decade and performed at six Burning Man's for a Reno theatre company. At 39, he was certified in spin at Mad Dogg Athletics in NYC. He looks like a viking. The man has lived experience. He comes by his toughness honestly. I love being yelled at by him.
            It is the best therapy that I can do. The 12 step groups are foundational, but sometimes, you know, I don't want to talk. Talking, talking, and then there's the listening. Listening to the talking. Listening to your own talking is the worst. That's the time that I need high intensity exercise. It takes a person out of their mind and into their body.
            “Meditate on that!”
            He knows of what he speaks.
            Recovering addicts are always in danger of relapse. The thought crosses my mind more than I care to say. Sometimes being alive is painful not only physically, but spiritually. Springtime sends my soul into spasms. The burgeoning life all around, the sunshine and blue skies, the foliage and return of songbirds can send me into the stratosphere. It hurts being on earth when I want to fly. Some days the sensation is so intense and uncomfortable that the only thing I can do is spin off the sensory overload. It's either that or attempt poetry. This past spring when I was uncomfortable, I walked and walked and walked.  I walked until I was calm. Our own bodies can be good friends when we decide to befriend them.
            “Be happy. Don't forget to be happy.”
            This is Peter's final mantra as the class slows the pace to a stop. I sop up the sweat on my face with a damp towel. Peter finishes the class by having us do some yoga. I twist my spine, wringing out the regret and shame and pain. I twist the other way, feeling elasticity in the movement. This human vessel that I despised for so long, that I wanted to escape, is today my beloved messenger.
            Be happy.
            Thank you, body. Thank you, Peter.
            I am happy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My Eight Year-Old Neighbour Taught Me A Lesson In Civic Engagement - AND YOU'LL NEVER GUESS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT


            A Tuesday morning, and I'm sitting on a bench at my local park, watching the kids play on the swings, and wondering at what age does it all go wrong. Flashing back to my own childhood; an indifferent grip on the monkey bars; spinning on the merry-go-round to the point of nausea; suggesting to the boys that we play mortician instead of doctor. The idea of play would only take hold in my life as a teenager and adult, as a means to control and suppress a powerful imagination. The Tuesday morning is splendid and the sky is blue and cloudless. I sigh and wipe away a maudlin tear.
            She stands beside me, arms akimbo, frowning.
            "Look at that," she says, pointing her chin toward playground apparatus. "That slide is not up to code."
            I look around to see who she is talking to, and realize it's me.
            "Whose your child?" she asks.
            "I don't have any kids."
            "Why are you watching us play, then?"
            I suddenly feel very conspicuous and guilty for no reason. I response the best I can. "The last time I checked this is a free country. And who says I'm watching you? Don't be so precious."
            "Suit yourself."
            She squints and folds her arms.  "Look at that slide. Do you think that incline is 30 degrees? I'd say it's more like 40 degrees. And what about the slide exit edges? They're rusted. I'm writing a letter to my councillor. This is not safe."
            She is a child of around eight years of age. She has brown hair and is wearing a jacket that is emblazoned with the words L'il Punk on the back. She has pierced ears and her diamond studs flash in the sun. She takes a sip of Global Villager Kombucha from a glass jar.
            I fold my arms as well. "Have you been on the slide?"
            She snorts. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't be caught dead on that contraption. It's a public structure, maintained by the city. Or correction -- I may be caught dead on that structure -- if I slid down it."
            I am growing tired of this killjoy. "Go play with the others now."
            "You say 'the others' like they're aliens."
            "I did not."
            "Yes, you did." She wags a finger at me. "Do you have a problem with me reporting this violation of code to the authorities?"
            "I don't care."
            "Well, maybe you should," she admonishes, "it's people like you who allow our public property to fall into disrepair."
            "I thought you wouldn't be caught dead on the slide?"
            "Well...I..." her voice trails off and she looks over at the swing set. I feel a little bad about questioning her motives. I hope she won't cry. The kid clearly wants to engage me in a substantive conversation, but I want none of it because it's interfering with my brooding. Then she spins around, red-faced.
            "'I'll go back on the swings now. But I'm not happy about it. This doesn't hold a candle to Universal Studios. Something needs to be done about the state of the world"
            She trudges over to the recycling receptacle and tosses in the kombucha beverage. She smooths her long hair into a ponytail and heads over to the swings.
            This kid needs some serious cheering up, I think. She's too young to be jaded.
I make my way over to the swings and take a seat beside her.
            "Is it okay with you if I play on the swings for a bit?"
            "I don't care. It's a free country," she says.
            We swing, the squeals of delight from other children filling our silence.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Why Is Everybody So Glum?

            My ninety-seven-year-old friend seemed agitated. Fists pounding on the armrest of her wheelchair, Loretta would not hear otherwise.
            "I'm telling you, Donald Trump is the President of the United States!"
            Did the nursing home hop her up on more goofballs? I have heard that it is better to go along with an elderly person's delusions than to point out reality. If she would not listen to reason, then I would have to placate her.
            "Okay, Loretta. You're right and I am wrong. Donald Trump is President of the United States."
            "Don't patronize me you little shit. Can you ask the volunteer agency to send me another friendly visitor?  No offense, but you can be a dimwit."
            I didn't take her insult personally. She was clearly lashing out.
            "Yes, I'll ask. In the meantime I'll see you in a few days. By the way, can you lend me $20?
            Her foot made hard contact with my shin. "Get out."
            I have been volunteering at the West End Nursing Home and Spa for a few months, hoping to gain some insider intel into what my future might resemble. It didn't differ too much from my present: board games, television, soft food, no family dropping by. The residents of the home appeared particularly grumpy the last several weeks though, sighing and angry outbursts ramped up from the norm. I found their behaviours odd, especially since the constant stream of CNN on the televisions in the common rooms had ceased. It was as if the residents had cut themselves off from keeping abreast. Their media consumption was replaced by bizarre ramblings about the United States refusing to admit immigrants and travellers from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Disconcerting, sure, but the aging brain can be like the contents in a raffle drum; memories, thoughts and feelings scrambling around until a random item is selected and fixated on.
            My Uber driver also had a bee in his bonnet that day. He craned his neck to address me.
            "The whole world has gone insane."
            "Trump is a sociopath."
            I played along, like our conversation was an improv game. "Yes, and."
            "Yes, and? He's going to take us all down with him."
            "Yes, and."
            "Yes, and? He's got the keys to the White House and a nuclear arsenal."
            "Yes, and."
            Is that all you can say? Yes, and? What the hell is wrong with you?"
            I was none too keen on the way he addressed me. We were driving in Toronto, not New York City for goodness sake.
            "Sir, I would like to disembark at this intersection."
            "Get out."
            Even the folks at the laundry mat were ill-tempered. When I politely asked a young woman to remove her clean wet clothes from a washer that I wanted to use, she snarled at me.
            "Sure, whatever you want, whitey."
            I let a giggle escape. I may be white, but so was she. I wanted to say to her, "why so crabby, cakes?", but that may have been an invitation to get knifed, so I kept my yap shut. I smiled broadly, which she didn't like.
            My friend behind the counter grimaced at an open newspaper. When I asked him to make change for my $20, he shrugged his shoulders.
            "I've worked here for 25 years, and for what? To be held in suspicion by people like Trump. Sure, miss. Here's your change."
            He hastily folded up the paper, tossed the loonies and quarters on the counter, and looked away, his eyes glistening.
            I couldn't figure out why everyone was talking about Donald Trump, a reality TV performer and American businessman. It was as if everyone I met was personally affected by his existence, as if he held some malevolent power over society. And the notion that he was President of the United States was particularly absurd. The President of the United States is a public servant, a selfless citizen who works on behalf of the people of America.  Why were my friends, acquaintances, and fellow citizens in Toronto believing that Donald Trump was President? By all accounts, he is the antithesis of a public servant. He is a businessman, and a government cannot be run solely as a business. It is much more than that. It is the embodiment of common values and aspirations, a collective that cares for all individuals. By definition, Donald Trump could never actually be president of that great, wacky democracy. He could play-act the role, but never truly be president because of his overwhelming self-interest.
            I went home with my clean clothes, switched on the TV, and curled up with a bowl of lentil soup and my Looney Tunes collection. A weird day is nothing Bugs Bunny can't fix ... I keep telling myself.