By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Overheard out in the real world — a cafe maybe, or a wine bar: Three women at the next table are laughing uproariously. “That’s a sketch!” floats your way through the air, like a winged mantra. Chances are you’re sitting next to Girl Brain.
“Anything that happens out of the ordinary, or makes us laugh, or makes us think” could elicit a cry of “that’s a sketch!,” as Ellie Heath says. Dreams, the absurdity, the hypocrisies of the world, dating, relationships, the craziness of theatre … all of it a rich vein of raw material that Heath, Alyson Dicey and Caley Suliak are happy to mine.
They’re the trio of Edmonton actor/writers who share a brain, a Girl Brain. And the synapses are firing on all cylinders. The popular sketch comedy troupe arrives on the Citadel’s Rice stage this weekend (as part of the House Series), on an upward trajectory powered by applause from club and festival houses across the country.
“The universe just led us to it,” says Dicey by way of explaining the birth of Girl Brain. There’s a kind of cosmic inevitability, not least because theatre and a hot tub are involved. For starters the trio are actor pals of long standing who love to write almost as much as they love to laugh. “Writing stems from being working actors, and the desire to create your own work … to take charge and not wait around for people to cast you,” says Suliak. “And don’t get me wrong; I’d still love for people to cast me!” Laughter all round.
“Actually we’re so busy doing Girl Brain we don’t always have the time to do other acting gigs,” says Heath.
They’d been returned to each other’s company through the interventions of (showbiz-friendly) fate. Why sketch comedy? Heath, who’d written a Fringe play (Tree Hugger) with Dicey — they’ve known each other since they were 15, at Arts Trek — had been in a Vancouver sketch group, The Sweater Zeppelin. Caley Suliak, a Grant MacEwan grad who’d starred in RibbitRePublic’s Spiral Dive and written kids’ plays and her own solo memoir Inside Out, had lived in San Francisco for a while. “When Caley came back we just started telling our stories to each other — and they came out in short vignettes,” says Dicey, a member of Thou Art Here, a “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare troupe.
Their great pal Byron Martin was launching the Grindstone Comedy Club in the spring of 2018. And he was casting about for comedy shows that weren’t improv, to add dimension to programming. Which brings us to the hot tub, the group conversation therein, and Dicey’s helpful “I have an idea!”
“We spent a lot of time together before we got Girl Brain off the ground, basically over glasses of wine, laughing hysterically.… We all love to write,” says Dicey. “And sketch comedy is such a nice art form,” says Heath cheerfully, to general assent. “You get your ideas out in two pages, as opposed to 75 pages!”
In April of 2018, Girl Brain was born, in an hour-long sketch show that instantly became a monthly gig at the Grindstone. “I was so nervous,” says Heath. “I had no idea what to expect, no idea if people were going to like it.” In the end “we were two people away from selling out that show, and it went off like fireworks! Just insane, the reception we got for that show. We were on a cloud for a week after that, so proud of what we accomplished!”
Some of Girl Brain’s signature recurring characters were born in that debut show. Anxiety and Depression are two favourites: Suliak plays the former (“she comes to me really easily,” laughs the actor); Dicey the latter. “Ellie’s character is always in some situation where they show up unannounced, and try to ruin her life!” says Dicey. “In an interview, say, or swimsuit shopping, the doctor’s office, weddings, New Year’s parties.… Kinda cool.” Says Heath, “sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t.”
“A strength we have as a sketch troupe, that sets us apart, is our theatrical background…. We put a lot of thought into characters; that’s our strong suit.” And the three actors get a particular charge out of writing characters for each other. “I think it’s hilarious when Caley plays ‘the mansplaining guy’.” says Dicey. Heath plays a Suliak creation, Magda, an “aggressive blind Russian lady” who reads people’s skin, their acne, their boobs.
No age or gender is safe. Dicey and Heath love playing a recurring male cop duo who are secretly in love. “They solve crime; they go to therapy,” says Dicey. Every once in a while, “it’s ‘what did Dr. Abigail say?’ and the scene just continues.”
The large, and multiplying, coterie of their returning fans (there’s even a Girl Brain fan club) make it “so satisfying to do recurring characters and have knowing laughter in the audience,” says Heath. “We can feel an energy in the room, a powerful and loving energy.”
If dating worked out all the time, would Girl Brain suffer from oxygen deprivation? “We’d have a lot less material,” laughs Suliak who admits that “sometimes I go on Tinder just to get material, and go on a date…. Men of Edmonton, I’m exploiting you!”
The troupe got its name from a catchy Suliak aphorism: “O man, I’m having girl brain today!” as opposed to “logic brain.” And “as we’ve grown together,” girl brain has turned out to be a validation, a position of strength. “It’s about being empowered; we’re smart women!”
“We try to send a message of love and positivity,” says Heath. “You are beautiful no matter what you look like. Love yourself! Being weird is beautiful!” Says Suliak “embrace your weirdness!”
“The writing has evolved,” she says. “Practice makes perfect, right? The more we write, the more we learn. And we’ve learned so much from making connections at sketch festivals. When we started we really didn’t know much about it!”
Dicey laughs. “Talk about not knowing anything! …. When Carolyn Taylor (of CBC’s Baroness von Sketch) asked us ‘do you do black-outs?’ we said ‘yeah, we turn out the lights after every scene.” A black-out, in sketch-speak, is a snappy two-line scene.
At the Toronto Sketch Fest last March, Girl Brain met Good Game, three guys from London, Ont. whose take on sketch comedy is to follow a narrative through a whole show. “They inspired us; We put that into practice in our Fringe show,” says Heath.
This season, Girl Brain expands its reach, first to the Citadel and this weekend’s House Series gig and then to four dates (Dec. 14, Feb. 29, March 28 and May 16) in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series.
The Citadel show, a dream gig directed by actor/playwright/improviser Belinda Cornish, expands the usual hour-long format into two 45-minute acts, organized on the theme “Girl Brain grows up,” from the adolescent years of Act I to “where we are in life right now in Act II,” as Dicey puts it. And for the first time, a sketch troupe accustomed to being ingenious with a couple of black chairs, gets costumes and a bona fide set (designer: Tessa Stamp), who’s provided “a beautiful girl’s bedroom” for them to play in.
All very deluxe “and feeling more formal and legit,” as Heath puts it. But be assured, “Anxiety and Depression will be there!” Suliak laughs. “Especially Anxiety. Right before the curtain goes up!”
Created by and starring: Alyson Dicey, Ellie Heath, Caley Suliak
Directed by: Belinda Cornish
Where: Citadel Rice Theatre
Running: Thursday (added due to popular demand) through Saturday
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com