New faces in theatre: smile, here’s sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet sketch comedian/ improv star/ comedy writer Sydney Campbell. The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino. Look for others upcoming in this 12thnight series. 

Sydney Campbell, of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Photo by Mike Tan. Make-up by The Raven Virginia.

By Liz Nicholls,

SYDNEY CAMPBELL, sketch comedian, improv star, comedy writer

“This holiday season marks one year since I made a life-changing decision,” says an earnest personage gravely, against a soulful sound score. A major change in career, you wonder?  A new sexual identity, perhaps? Rehab? A cult?

This life-changer, it transpires, is the decision to stop eating turkey. And the short sketch that follows sets forth the motivation: a home invasion by hordes of blood-thirsty turkey vampires exacting a revenge carnage fantasy.

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If you’ve been laughing at short sketches from the queer comedy duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them, on Instagram or TikTok — and if you haven’t, you’re missing out — you’ll already know something about Sydney Campbell’s sense of humour. Along with their sketch partner actor/playwright Elena Belyea (they co-created the online production httpeepee), it’s a sense of funny that plays along the spectrum between the satirical and goofball, revelling in deadpan and anti-climax, and taking shots at the political and the cultural status quo from oblique angles on the way.

“I thought it would be hard to create a lot of content,” says Campbell (they/them), a comedy writer/ sketch comedian/ Rapid Fire Theatre improv star and teacher, who’s a buoyant and droll conversationalist on the phone. They have the kind of laugh that makes you want to say something funny and hear it again. “But the thing is, you need to create less. I’d create a minute-long sketch then challenge myself to cut it in half…. The smaller, the funnier.”

And speaking as we are of ‘smaller,’ “It’s great to work with Elena,” they say, “the only person in the world who is smaller than me. Finally, I get to be the tall one!”

comedy writer/performer Sydney Campbell. Photo supplied.

Campbell, who came to sketch comedy via improv, and improv via theatre, “grew up watching Grease with my mom every weekend, wanting to be Rizzo…. I was never really into musical theatre, but really into theatre. My degree is in drama. But theatre had a huge fall from grace for me,” prompted by the self-assessment that “I’m not as good as other actors. I wouldn’t be great….” A life in comedy wasn’t exactly a comedown. “Nothing could be as fun as comedy —  surprise surprise!”

And Campbell, in their ‘20s, has already made a notable career creating it, directing it, forming it into new shapes, writing it, making it up on the spot — and coaching/ encouraging/ inspiring kids to create that kind of bond with audiences too.

Campbell did improv all through high school, and into university (the U of A) even when they were taking drama courses.” And “this beautiful outlet” took over. “I wanted to make poop jokes. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to have a show that looked as messy as it felt! That transparency — ‘we don’t really really know what we’re doing, any more than you know what you’re gonna see’ —  is so fun, so joyful.”

Sydney Campbell. Photo by Mike Tan. Make-up by The Raven Virginia.

Getting onstage without knowing what’s going to happen sounds to most people (like me), absolutely terrifying, the stuff of actors’ nightmares. Campbell concedes “yeah, terrifying.” But adds “people forget that the audience also knows that you don’t know what you’re doing. So anything you do that’s even slightly funny they’re like ‘o my gawd I can’t believe you created that right off the top of your head’….”

“You get to live in this really special world where you can fail, yes, but where the margin for success is enormous.”

One reason improv in this town is deluxe is the overlap of improv and theatre. Campbell laughs. “It’s a great place for actors with low skills: joke!” In improv, they muse, you’re looking to “tell an honest narrative and have genuine moments onstage. And you have to allow yourself to be surprised, moved, changed” — prime actor skills.

Campbell met Belyea met when the latter hired them as an “assistant stage manager” for Tiny Bear Jaws’ Everyone We Know Will Be There, a play about a teen party that actually was a teen party, in a big suburban house. Campbell’s unique debut in stage management was to “be an audience partner, and take them through everything,” and nudge them to the basement, or to “impromptu” gatherings around the fridge or in a bedroom. Stage management: “not my skill set or forte,” they say firmly. But a creative partnership was born.

When Belyea’s Cleave premiered in 2018, Campbell was the assistant  director to Vanessa Sabourin. “A crash course, Vanessa was very cool to work with, and I learned a ton really quickly.” What they discovered, says Campbell, is “I love directing…. I was like OK, this is what you’re aiming for!”

And they’ve applied that to directing for sketch and improv. In the latter, where “directing” sounds like a sort of showbiz oxymoron, “it’s about curating the tone of the show, the shape, the genre…. it’s ‘I want the show to look like this, however it gets there. And I’m excited to be on that journey’. You’re telling stories, yes, but the fun thing is you never have to do it the same way twice.”

“The director is in cahoots with the audience: ‘I’m here with you. And I’m gonna get you want to see from these improvisers’.”

Campbell is in a cluster of RFT improv troupes. One is Motion, “where we take turns being the director.” Another, a Campbell fave, is Sphinxes, an RFT ensemble of women, female-identifying, trans and non-binary performers. The audience is invited to (anonymously) share a personal moment in their lives in response to three questions, from which scenes are spun onstage. “It’s something really special that this really cool space has been made for women and trans people in comedy. And the audience holds us so tenderly…. It’s a really nice show.”

Sydney Campbell

For five years Campbell has been part of RFT’s outreach program run by Joleen Ballendine. A highlight for them is the live improv comedy classes at the Boyle Street Education Centre. The youth there “have a lot going on their lives; the last thing they’re thinking about is giggling in the afternoon with us…. Boy did I fall in love with that!,” says Campbell of the feeling of providing people with skills “to be listened to by other people.

”I find the biggest joy in the moment when they say something and other people laugh, and you watch them be so proud…. You could be the most cynical person alive but it warms your damn heart.” Besides, they laugh, “I get to play games all day. Which is really up my alley.”

Meanwhile, Campbell and Belyea are equipped with a grant to continue with pre-production for their upcoming seven-episode first season of Gender? web series, to be filmed as soon as that’s feasible. The pilot, was shot (just before the pandemic hammer came down last winter) in a two-block radius of Campbell’s place. “We love that it’s set in in Edmonton; we love the prairie landscape. That’s our vibe.”

“We’re getting together a writing room over Zoom,” they say. “So who’s gonna order the greasy pizza?” Both the writing and the acting ensemble will feature other Alberta talent. “It’s cool not to act in every one, to sit back and watch it all happen!”

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