Sarah Adams is an artist who wants to fail. And though she happens to be an Alberta College of Art and Design-trained visual artist, co-founder of the Pith Galleries and a gourmet cakesmith, she doesn’t want that failure to happen in the quiet space of a kitchen or studio — she wants to be in front of an audience that’s expecting to laugh.
After a year in Calgary’s growing standup comedy scene, where she recently opened for a Sled Island standup showcase featuring Natasha Leggero and Todd Barry, Adams is preparing for a two-month experimental comedy workshop at The Banff Centre. Led by Michael Portnoy, a performance artist who once crashed a Bob Dylan performance at the Grammys by dancing with “Soy Bomb” written across his bare chest, The 24 Experimental Comedy Training Camp aims to “take funny people and make them funnier, and make their humour approach a state of panic.”
For Adams, that’s a perfect starting point for performance that embraces disaster.
“Mainly, I like letting go of the idea of failure,” she says. “When the spirit of experimentation is embraced, I think people may be less concerned about bombing. Standup gets pretty commercial pretty fast. It would be nice if there were more places to be ridiculous.”
Adams’ comedic role model for such a ridiculous place was a scruffy late-night fixture at Broken City called Talk Show Thursdays. The show was the brainchild of Calgary’s Arbour Lake Sghool (not a typo), a shit-disturbing arts collective spearheaded by visual artist John Frosst. Talk Show Thursdays was a chaotic cabaret that usually began with the sun already down and the audience a few drinks in.
Hosted by Calgary comics Chris Gordon and Don Wood, shows included live music, projected drawing and unforgettable set pieces like Gordon hammering the stage with a claw hammer while screaming Thor-inspired one-liners. Jokes failed (or didn’t), routines dragged on to silence (or didn’t) and audience members could tune out and wander to the Drunken Arts and Crafts table set up beside the stage. The show was a train wreck engineered by deliberately aiming its tracks off a cliff. In short: it was a heck of a ride.
But when the shows stopped running, Adams, who had been one of the collaborators, found herself without an outlet.
“I’ve talked to John Frosst about bringing it back, but he liked where it ended,” she says. “I’d like to continue on. I thought it was beneficial for the visual arts to have this shit-show where failure wasn’t really an issue.
“It wasn’t purporting to change standup comedy,” she adds. “It was just: ‘We’re doing this thing and it’s going to be whatever.’”
Adams hopes to revive the spirit of Talk Show Thursdays’ reckless evenings under the banner of The Pretty Good Show, a project-in-the-making that will feature a collection of American, Canadian and international comedians. She hopes to launch the show and take it on tour next year. In the spirit of her visual arts background, her plan is to use her Banff residency as a platform for funding applications, which are rare in the intensely commercial world of standup.
But if Adams’ background as a visual artist gives her approach to funding a comedy show a fine-arts-inspired bent, she’s just as happy to turn some of comedy’s conventions on visual arts. Namely: its honesty.
“Working in a gallery, there’s a lot of work that does fail, but part of my thing when I was reviewing art [for the visual arts site Akimbo.ca], I went on and on about the community not having a mature critical dialogue. It’s impossible to be a critic in this community and to a larger extent in the Canadian visual arts community. It’s hard to criticize a visual arts show because, in a community like Calgary, it’s small, tight-knit. And if you do a bad review, you’ve hurt your friends’ feelings.
“I don’t think anyone learns anything unless failure is acknowledged,” she continues.
On the stage, especially when the audience is already drunk enough to forget they don’t have to deliver play-by-play opinions on the jokes, there’s precious little room for social niceties. Comedy is a contact sport where it’s not hard to know which jokes score and which give the comic the psychological equivalent of being crushed into the boards. But if Adams has her way, the two worlds will find a single place where failure’s not ignored or devastating, just something that can happen when an artist takes a chance.
“Maybe we can suck it up a bit more and take some criticism and not worry about how it’s going to affect our CV,” she suggests.