For Jessica Rae and Renée Sawtelle, creators of Grit ‘n Gusto’s upcoming one-woman Fringe show Messy Bitch, there’s no shame in being tagged with the once reproachful, now increasingly reclaimed invective.
“Anytime someone’s calling me a bitch, it’s when I’m actually being badass and powerful,” Sawtelle explains. “It’s when I’m speaking up for myself and that’s not a bad thing. That’s what we’re trying to talk about in the show.”
In the comedic 30-minute show directed by Hannah Dorozio, Jessica Rae combines theatre, dance, storytelling and puppetry to explore the changing nature of the label bitch and how society regards the characteristics associated with the term, such as assertiveness and ambition, differently in women versus men.
“There are many double standards with behaviours that are excused for men, but when women have the same behaviours — that are not outrageous, just standing up for themselves or taking up space — then they are called a bitch,” says Rae. “The show is about the societal pressures that are put on women to be apologetic and nice, and what happens when they refuse to do that. It’s about owning your bitchiness by not sacrificing your own boundaries and giving zero fucks. The messiness of it is in the style of the show and in the stories I tell about the messy aspects of my life and debaucherous tales.”
Rae, with a background in competitive dance, burlesque and theatre production, is combining elements from several different performance styles into the show, with a particular emphasis on puppetry. She’s been working with professional puppetmaker Chris Godziuk of Panadream Theatre to develop a handful of highly diverse puppets for the performance, each one drawing out a different aspect of Rae’s personality during the show.
“What appealed to me about puppetry was that you can really just work with the fantastical, and work in this different realm,” says Rae. “You’re creating this art piece of whatever the hell you want, and that allows you as an actor to ramp up your level to meet this fantastical creature that you’ve made. You can be more outrageous and more weird and bizarre.”
The premise of the show is inspired by Rae and Sawtelle’s reallife experiences and observations about current events and their portrayal in the media. Sawtelle explains how the show came together over a series of conversations about cultural norms and attitudes towards women. “We spent a lot of time talking about these ideas and our own personal feelings on them, and taking those initial thoughts and asking ourselves ‘What do we want this show to be about,’ ‘Why is it important to us,’ and ‘What’s happening right now in the media?’ For example, the Jian Ghomeshi trial was going on and that made it feel super pertinent.”
Using puppetry and burlesque-style choreography allows the pair to talk about serious issues in a lighthearted, approachable way. “Satirical burlesque is presenting a more serious issue, but in this beautiful, funny, humourous, weird package, and that’s what I aim to do with my show,” says Rae. “I don’t want to slap anyone on the wrists with anything didactic,” she continues. “We want to present something real in a smart and funny way. You’re going to come out of the theatre laughing, and it’s going to stick with you.” ■
Messy Bitch will be performed at the Black Theatre Workshop Studio (3680 Jeanne-Mance) on June 13 (7:45 p.m.), 15 (11 p.m.), 17 (11:59 p.m.), 18 (4:15 p.m.), 19 (10 p.m.), $10. Go to 2016. montrealfringe.ca for more.