By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You knew this already. But it bears repetition, in an era that has deprived us of the hug: and the handshake: never under-estimate the ingenuity of our artists.
What happens when an actor and a writer play improv tag with each other online? For the last two months of pandemic lockdown, at random intervals, actor/Die-Nasty star/aerialist Stephanie Wolfe has been the recipient of a letter. Each of the nine so far is from someone with a pandemic grievance or lament or boiling point reached. And each is addressed to a teacher, a relative, an employer, the Alberta premier perhaps — someone different every time.
The letters come from the agile brain of a writer, award-winning novelist/playwright/storyteller Marty Chan, who wanted to do something “topical and local, and edgier, about the pandemic,” as Wolfe puts it. What happens after that is that she dives into “a giant tickle trunk” of wigs, costume bits, make-up, accents. She creates a distinctive character, who’s writing a letter of outrage or desperation or general crackpot lunacy to someone real or fictional. And she sends back a video to Chan. “I never know what I’ll get, or when, and I don’t tell Marty what character I’m going to do.… Cat and mouse!”
“I film my take on it somewhere in my house; he gets it back and puts in sound and all that. We surprise each other with what we add to the mix. It’s never too planned. He has no idea what my character will be and I have no idea what the letter will entail.”
And so another episode of Letters of the Pandemic, their satirical YouTube series, is born. Among the characters we’ve met so far is a conspiracy theorist fresh from igniting a 5G tower so that the government can’t transmit the virus via your cellphone. She’s writing to her son, reminding him that a roasted garlic up each nostril is much more efficacious than a mask in protecting you from germs.
We’ve met a mom imprisoned with her impossible kids all day, listening to the word “awesome” and unravelling under the strain of home-schooling. She’s writing to one kid’s teacher, by way of apology for ever dissing the profession and its two-month vacation: “The days are bleeding into nights. And my sleepless nights are turning into a waking nightmare.” An intensely helpful Dr. Hinshaw groupie, a frazzled Costco employee, a woman trying to badger her hairdresser into remedying a tonsorial emergency…. they’re a gallery designed to tickle your sense of the absurd (in case it was atrophying).
Wolfe says her biggest challenge, and “most fun in creating” was the series’ only man (so far), who’s fed up that golf courses aren’t designated essential services to the public. He possibly occasioned Edmonton’s only “curbside moustache and beard pick-up,” courtesy of notable makeup artist Prudence Olenik.
Wolfe had to adjust his other accoutrements. “OMG, I looked like the Tiger King, and that was NOT the goal….”
“We’ve used every corner of my house, including bathroom and closet,” she says of Letters of the Pandemic. Why would the re-opening of Alberta, bit by bit, be the end of it? “Re-emergence is a whole other shit show. We’ll just keep going!”
In fact, the upcoming episode will be a tour de force: no fewer than five characters at once. Says Wolfe, “wigs are flying!”