The modest dreams of the grocery cashier: Check Me Out, a Fringe review

By Liz Nicholls,

Check Me Out, NextGen Theatre, Edmonton Fringe 2019.

Check Me Out (Stage 15, Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

In his new comedy, premiering in a NextGen Theatre production, Trevor Schmidt, who has written so often and so well for women, sets about capturing the dynamics of female friendship. And — tricky, this — it’s in a setting that isn’t in itself wildly “dramatic” or traumatizing.

In Check Me Out, we’re backstage, so to speak, at the Pennywise Family Grocery, in the “employees room” out in the back alley. That’s where cashiers go to smoke, hang out, chew the fat, sympathize with each other, bitch about the management, undergo cashier training (and attitude re-training).

There’s a blowsy and good-natured 31-year veteran Shirl (Elizabeth Allison-Jorde, in fanciful boho garb), who’s chronically late for work. There are a couple of young cashiers. Snarly Martha (Morgan Alexandra Donald),  in a cloud of vape, is glued to her phone. Her go-to conversational gambit is “fuck off Tanya.” The latter, a self-important eager-beaver (Janelle Jorde), is, as she’s fond of reminding everyone, the “junior assistant manager.”    

What sets the play in motion is the arrival of a newcomer, Daphne (Blair Wensley), whose husband has dumped her, for an older woman (how hard on the ego is that?). She’s wide-eyed, flustered and nervous about being back in the work force after 32 years, and Wensley captures all those qualities beautifully. She actually blushes, on cue. 

The performances are unforced, and on the money; we feel like we’re eavesdroppers, but the tone isn’t condescending. The humour is gentle, piquant but not pushy. The public address announcements are constantly a bit screwed up. “Everyone loves a good jellied salad.” Secrets are revealed. Suspense comes from the vegetable codes: will Daphne pass the cashier’s test?

And gradually, unobtrusively, you realize that “validation,” like dreams, comes in all shapes and sizes. The modest ones can be the most momentous. 

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What? A rueful, affectionate Mamet? A Life In The Theatre, a Fringe review

David Ley and Sebastien Ley in A Life In the Theatre. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

By Liz Nicholls,

A Life in the Theatre (Stage 28, The Playhouse)

In theory, letting David Mamet loose to satirize the world of theatre and its practitioners is a bit like offering a buffet of legs to a shark. If I were an actor, it would give me nightmares.

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But A Life in the Theatre, one of the earliest Mamets, isn’t the bloodletting you might imagine from the author of such foul-mouthed, viciously carnivorous stage outings as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet’s comedy of two actors — a crumbling veteran and an ambitious upstart in a low-budget rep company— does have its cruelties, true. But the tone is rueful, poignant, not usually part of the signature Mamet palette. It’s almost affectionate, for god’s sake, about the all-consuming world of pretend and fragile egos, its pomposity and hyperboles, its rituals and traditions, its malicious subtexts, its secret rancour.

In Kathleen Weiss’s Vault production, which cleverly moves from dressing room to rehearsal to stage, the father-son duo of David Ley and Sebastien Ley set forth the tensions between collaboration and competition in the double-portrait of the actors. The powers (and memory) of the older Robert are waning. Young John’s career appetites are getting sharper in inverse proportion to his tolerance for patronizing advice from his aging stage mate.

Robert, a bit of a windbag, is prone to lofty pronouncements about the theatre and life. “We must not be afraid of process,” he declares. “We are explorers of the soul.” He’s fond of beginning thus: “When you’ve been in the theatre as long as I have….”

The opening scene will make theatre pros smile (and wince a little). When the curtain comes down, Robert and John’s offstage repartee, starts with positive review of the highlights. There was lots of applause, ergo the audience must have been “acute, discerning.” Amusingly, it doesn’t take long for the knives to come out, but the jabs are sneaky. 

The Leys, father and son, manage the nuances in this interplay with considerable dexterity under Weiss’s direction. And they rise to a series of parody scenes of assorted genres, from dramas of marital infidelity to swashbucklers and war melodramas, with comic zest. 

“I loved the staircase scene tonight. Just like a poem,” says Robert, wheedling for kudos and a dinner invitation, and getting irritation instead from his young colleague. “I must tell you this about the theatre …” he begins. But John isn’t listening. He’s working on an audition piece.

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The fine art of Quatsch: An honest* History of Bullshit. A guest 12thnight Fringe review by Marc Horton

Paco Erhard in An honest* History of Bullshit

An honest* History of Bullshit (Stage 8, Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre)

By Marc Horton

In German there are any number of ways to say “bullshit.”

Paco Erhard, a Berlin comic making his second welcome stop at the Fringe, probably knows them all. There’s “Schwachsinn,” “Blodsinn,” with an umlaut over the “o,” and “Quatsch.”

“To bullshit,” an intransitive verb — but you knew that already, didn’t you?— is “veraschen,” and “a load of bullshit,” is “volliger Quatsch,” again with that pesky umlaut over the “o” in volliger.

Alas, I could find no translation for “bullshitter”although a pal whose knowledge of German is vastly better than mine said that “Dreckschwatzer,” might suffice, although he was also pretty sure it was regarded as vulgar and decidedly impolite.

I sincerely hope that Erhard, a genuinely funny guy, doesn’t take this the wrong way, but he is a Dreckschwatzer of the first rank. His 75-minute An honest* History of Bullshit is full of digressions, diversions, observations and the kind of self-deprecating humour that softens what sometimes might seem just a tad harsh. Pedophile priests, for example, come in for some richly deserved condemnation and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church gets a drive-by drubbing as well, which is all well and good.

And while this really isn’t a history of bullshit, it is really funny with just a little history, all of it complete fiction, I suspect, thrown in.

Erhard makes much of his Germanness – “Yes, I am German, but I have other problems, too,” – that drew laughs and applause at a near sellout mid-afternoon show.

He also touched on local issues. Calgary, for example, is “where they think libraries are made to be looked at from the outside.” It was also where he first learned irony, he said. “It’s where you take millions from the firefighters and give it to the Flames,” a quip that works only in cities held hostage by hockey teams.

Many, many things are skewered by Erhard’s wit. The list includes recycling, Americans,  Trump of course, IKEA, the German army, consumerism, religion, racism, nationalism, lefties, righties, liberals, conservatives, Brexiteers, etc., etc.

It’s great fun.

— Marc Horton retired after a four-decade career as a journalist with the Edmonton Journal where he covered cops, courts, city hall, environmental issues, education, indigenous affairs, politics, hockey, football, movies, books and women’s fashion. Only one thing on that list is Quatsch.





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Laughter … and something sinister in Imaginary Friend: A New Musical, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Imaginary Friend: A New Musical (Venue 35, La Cité francophone Theatre)

By Alan Kellogg

It’s been a good year for original Edmonton musicals at the Fringe. And here is another local production worthy of your notice, written by Stephen Allred and Seth Gilfillan, with music by Daniel Belland.

Things are a mess in a working class household. Single mother Pamela is having a terrible time keeping things together, working overtime for a disgusting (male) lecherous creep of a boss who seems to have invented new methods of sexual harassment in the office place.

Meanwhile, daughters teen Lea and 8- (or is it 10-year-old) Juliette are forced spend the long mum-less hours figuring out what to do. They’re running out of frozen dinners, and the lights and heat keep running our due to unpaid bills.

Lea’s escape is her (real) “digital girlfriend,” a love interest she rarely gets to see, while Juliette’s seemingly imaginary cloven-footed friend Rocky (his full name comes clear later) keeps her company and fills her naïve head with general awfulness. Gradually, we learn of his overall plan of possession, and it isn’t pretty. A serious denouement is building up, and it finally happens.

There are uneven performances here and, in the beginning, some intonation issues with a couple of the generally winning singers. Ditto with the dialogue. But the relatively few technical glitches never overwhelm the story or our young Straight Edge Theatre performers, who give it their all.

Imagine: writing an original musical for the local Fringe with a live band and a tale that keeps us engaged, with some laughs and some genuine creepiness. Full marks for the cast and creators: the large house thoroughly enjoyed their work.

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Life’s rich pageant at the pub: Two, a Fringe review.

Ruth Alexander and Julien Arnold in Two. Photo by Mat Simpson

By Liz Nicholls,

Two (Stage 12, Varscona Theatre)

“Wot’s your poison, luv?” says our genial host (Julien Arnold) in a rowdy pub somewhere in the north of Jolly Olde. His other half (Ruth Alexander), too, is pulling pints behind the bar. And they’re slinging insults at each other. 

You can just about smell the stale beer and the carpet that will never, in the history of the world, give up its special pub whiff of old cig smoke and ground-up chips (sorry, crisps). Which is odd, since the stage is completely bare, save the chalk semi-circular outline of an English bar.

Which just goes to show you just how authentic Max Rubin’s Atlas Theatre production feels. Two, the 1989 two-hander by the English playwright Jim Cartwright, is based on the social proposition — which is also a theatrical proposition — that the neighbourhood pub is a magnet for an all-ages community cross-section. 

Between them Arnold and Edmonton newcomer Alexander, a couple of very engaging and skilful actors, play 14 characters, and individualize them with impressive economy in gesture, voice, posture, slight adjustments of accent. There are couples in varying degrees of dissonance. There’s an elderly lady on an outing break from her invalid husband; she’s  hot for the butcher (“blood everywhere!”). There’s a flirtatious old ladykiller who sponges off his put-upon lady friend. There’s a lonely old widower, and a middle-aged woman with a pipsqueak boyfriend and a preference for “gargantuan men.”

The palette runs from wistful (the “other woman” hoping to get a glimpse of her man with his wife) to raucous (a couple of plump-sters riffing amusingly on their fat). The queasiest is a control-freak husband and his cowed wife. And there’s even a kid, looking for his dad.

In this dexterous production the tone darkens from the comic; the cumulative character sketches return us to the pub-owner couple whose rancorous bickering has turned lethal. The dénouement steps audaciously up to a secret tragedy. And, thanks to the performances, it never feels grafted on. I toast them. 


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Special of the day, a genuine home-cooked musical: Meat, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Meat (The Musical) (Venue 34, Varscona Hotel, Thomas Bennett Room)

By Alan Kellogg

The history of talented (and not so talented) actors, dancers and singers supplementing their income with stints at a restaurant likely goes back to harlequins and the medieval groaning board.

But few over the years have deigned to recount their pay-the-rent offstage gigs with original theatrical works — not to mention musicals — on the subject. Fewer still have actually enjoyed the experience waiting tables or filling salt shakers over long, potentially greasy hours.

But here it is, a sincere homage to Strathcona’s own Meat the Restaurant located just a few blocks east of this sweaty Fringe venue — performed, written, scored and choreographed by Meat employees. If that seems dodgy from a Fringe show consumer standpoint, so be it. But the good news is that like the excellent beanery itself, Meat the Musical is actually good, quite good. It’s endearing too, and Edmonton Proud. What a wonderful surprise. And you won’t gain a kilogram.

The song titles – many of them funny, touching and tuneful – give you a taste.  Mixing Drinks, Stuck, Servers are People Too, When Vegans Attack, Corners, Get Saucy – you get the idea.

So the kitchen curtain is pulled back to allow us access to what really happens among young staffers before, during and after service. MtM has been carefully written (book and score) by Shaney Borden and Sarah Adam, who also play Rosemary and Wendy, respectively. And well. The hard work shows across the board in the smallest details and many of the performances are absolutely Equity-quality professional.

There is romance, angst, yuks and more here. You’ll leave happy, a bit wiser and sated. The only problem is that during an afternoon show, you can’t debrief at Meat the Restaurant afterwards over brisket and pulled pork. I’d recommend the Fringe non-meat special broccoli-cheddar burger if you can’t get into the show, which has been packed. It’s delicious, like this heartwarming example of homemade musical theatre.

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The fascination of escape: Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, a review

Miranda Allen in Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 

Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs (Stage 17, Roxy on Gateway)

This show premiered in the Roxy Performance Series in January. It’s back at the Roxy on Gateway (aka Stage 17) for the Fringe. Here’s my original review:

The international stage repertoire has no shortage of shows about the entertainment world and its fractious backstage — where dreamers and achievers, stars and wannabes, artsy bright-idea types and antsy bottom-line producers, collide.

Still, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs is, I strongly suspect, the only show of the season in which new play development, and rehearsals, involve a handcuffed performer sticking her head in a bucket of water, and emerging with a gasp, triumphantly dangling the cuffs.

The fascinating new play, by magician/ illusionist/ playwright Ron Pearson, stars a stunning performer with an equally improbable collection of those qualifier slashes, actor/ escape artist Miranda Allen, in a production directed by Theatre Network’s Bradley Moss.

It opens in the dark, to the sound of water and a ticking clock. Together, they equal suspense. In the show that follows, we meet an entertainer who finds her place in showbiz and her true self in life holding her breath underwater, breaking free of chains and ropes and locks of every kind, and counting down to deadlines. It makes me nervous even thinking about it. 

Uniquely qualified for the role, Allen plays the real-life Edwardian escape artist Minerva Vano, whose prowess (and radical novelty as a woman showing it off) made her a sensation — and a rival of Harry Houdini. And Pearson’s script, which springboards from the gallery of characters provided by history, all of them male except her, has an organic feminist momentum to it.

The real-life Minerva, turn-of-the-century escape artist. Photo supplied.

It’s framed by flashbacks to performances and backstage encounters conjured under hypnosis, a new turn-of-the-century fad. Plagued by crippling mid-career panic and anxiety — in that line of work, who wouldn’t be? —  Minerva consults a hypnotist (the chameleonic Richard Lee Hsi, in one of his multiple roles). And under his prompting, her memory coughs up flashbacks from a career built on an extraordinary talent for escaping shackles, of one kind or another.

What is it you do? wonders the hypnotist. “I escape from things,” says Minerva. And then, onstage and with audience participation to tie the ropes, tighten the straps, and lock the locks, she does. 

Allen and Lee Hsi deftly create a performance style that nods to the period and the vintage escapes that are its source material. Allen’s Minerva doesn’t have a contemporary street hustle and edge about her as she deals with her audience volunteers: there’s a whiff of risqué about her bustling cheerfulness, but only a whiff. Radicalism still wears button shoes, a high-topped dress, and a pleasant smile in 1905.

Miranda Allen and Richard Lee Hsi, Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs, Ghostwriter Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

As all the men in Minerva’s world, including the suave and threatening Houdini, a villain in a tux, Lee Hsi creates a variety of 19th century showbiz men, from the patronizing to the sinister. They don’t realize that the era is changing, right under their well-shod feet. 

Minerva’s signature act and greatest hit was escaping from a water-filled barrel while chained (while it’s not re-enacted, it’s evoked). For run-of-the-mill claustrophobes such as myself, this is of course the ultimate nightmare, followed closely by jumping off bridges while chained. But for Minerva, who’s addicted to the adrenalin rush from escaping as the clock ticks, panic is a horrifying new development.

We see Minerva with her first husband Willie, a n’er-do-well touring magician with a certain chipper, wheedling, ever-hopeful charm and the financial acumen of a gnat, as Lee Hsi plays him. And Minerva’s first escapes are from flea-bag hotels in the middle of the night, to avoid paying. “We’re gonna hit the big time,” Willie is fond of saying. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, it’s Willie who suggests an “escape act” involving water and a locked barrel. He needs, he says, “something no one else is doing.” Minerva is game, but wonders “so how exactly do you escape?” And he cries “details!” Idea guys are like that. He reads the racing form while Minerva hits the (rehearsal) bucket.

Tessa Stamp’s design for Moss’s production, lit by Scott Peters, is responsive to the conjuring that goes into magic-making and escape. The fore-stage has an alluring simplicity: a trunk, a chair, hanging bulbs. They’re the props of a magic that has to start from nothing to be persuasive, and transcends predictable human possibility. The backstage, shrouded behind a black veil, is lit by a dim chandelier. The combination of preternatural skill and mystery, what is lit and what is in darkness, is at the heart of the show.

And by the time Allen is escaping from a triple-knotted noose or an impossibly tightened straitjacket in three minutes — will she? won’t she? is this the one performance where the straitjacket wins? — you feel you’re holding your breath. Artfully framed as a story, the play relies on that escalation of tension and sense of wonder.

For all that, and the big reveal of a mystery at the end — it’s a wowsa! — there’s a certain heart-on-sleeve innocence about Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs. Bonds and escapes, it points out, come in many challenges, both literal and metaphorical. It’s a man’s world, after all.

It invites you to cheer when Minerva unlocks thumb cuffs “used by Scotland Yard.” And, equally, you’re invited to cheer when Minerva declares her intention to have a solo escapist career, or resists sexist advances from a thuggish manager in an expensive coat. It wants to be inspiring in the time-honoured, applause-magnet way that escape acts work. And it is.



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The anti-rom-com rom-com: You Are Happy, a Fringe review.

Jenny McKillop, Jezec Sanders, Madelaine Knight in You Are Happy, Dog Heart/ Blarney Productions. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls,

You Are Happy (Stage 19, Sugar Swing Ballroom, Upstairs)

There are two kinds of people in the world, as Bridgette (Jenny McKillop) briskly explains in this sour, tart little fable by the young Quebec playwright Rebecca Deraspé. And the grid is lop-sided.

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There’s the 92 per cent of the human population “who need to be two to be happy,” she explains. And there’s the 8 per cent who don’t. 

Since the play opens with Bridgette’s brother Jeremy (Jezec Sanders) in her closet, holding a noose and preparing to use it, he’s obviously single. Why else would a young man who knows how to sail want to commit suicide?

His sister, a paid-up member of the 8 per cent, undertakes his rescue, — by going shopping for a partner for him. Naturally, she looks in a supermarket, where singles feel most like outsiders. In the great collective dream of finding the perfect life partner Chloe (Madelaine Knight) has nearly given up. Which makes her susceptible to Bridgette’s project.

One two-year contract later, Chloe and Jeremy are A Couple. And, lo and behold, against the odds, it’s true love, or a reasonable facsimile. Which is all you really need not to end up in a closet, or feel like a total loser out in the world.

April Banigan, one of our experienced and versatile actors, makes her directing debut with this acrid little tale of love constructed from scratch, like a puzzle or an equation. And her production, with its trio of charming actors, goes for a bouncy, bright, shiny performance style: the premise is that the characters assume they’re in a rom-com even though they’re really not.

McKillop’s Bridgette never stops beaming, as she lays down the law: a fairy godmother with a steely side. Sanders’ amusing Jeremy commits the odd masculine slip-up, but he learns how to make up for it with romantic gestures. He’s a quick study when it comes to dietary preferences, for example. And he’s hip to the salutary effects of neck massages at moments of crisis.

And, as the pushover Chloe, whose reservations about the creepiness and improbability of it all are easily overcome by her romantic neediness, Knight captures the sense of a character torn between amazement and delight. Chloe retains vestiges of skepticism, in the self-deprecating little laugh she attaches to the end of every line. 

Banigan’s Blarney/ Dog Heart production enjoys the theatrical style of a comedy that’s about the artifice of love. The characters look us in the eye, and set the scene. “I’m in the elevator, and you’re in there with me.”   

Is enforced couple-hood, nailed down with research, a workable solution to life’s great conundrum, i.e. happiness? It’s probably revealing that the original French title, Deux Ans De Votre Vie, literally “two years of your life,” is translated in English as You Are Happy.

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The crazy spirit of the Fringe, on legs: Are You Lovin’ It?, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Alan Kellogg

Are You Lovin’ It? Theatre Group GUMBO, photo by Sue Brenner

Are You Lovin’ It (Venue 5, King Edward School)

By Alan Kellogg

Need a non-alcoholic break from one too many coming-of-age identity plays or satanic jugglers? Look no further, dear festival-goers. Relief is available from Osaka’s Theatre Group GUMBO.

Here is, I dunno, a company of Japanese Dadaist clowns or something like that, some dressed as WacDonalds employees. They gleefully, energetically, deliver a naughty, certifiably mad and political (but-endearingly not politically-correct) hour of vignettes and audience participation bits that will leave you sputtering with joy and amazement.

Dancing turds, Donald Trump, fast-food One World milkshakes including, well, a whizzed-up baby, intestines that reach into the audience and serve as a limbo stick and jump rope, a stereotypical maniacally laughing Japanese businessman no one but a countryman could get away with, a dancing, prancing Jesus Christ character complete with a crown of thorns — are you getting the gist of this?

So if you’re not revolted, by all means catch this one, which approaches a kind of kinked genius for the not-faint of heart. Now that’s it’s legal and as long as you’re not driving, might I suggest a dropper of Aurora oil to complement the show….

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And the kids came through! Raymond and the Monster, a guest 12thnight Fringe review by Marc Horton

Raymond and the Monster.

By Marc Horton

Raymond and the Monster (Stage 16, Sanctuary Stage at Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

In the interests of full and complete disclosure, I must say that I didn’t want to review this play. What if the kids in Raymond and the Monster couldn’t sing? Couldn’t dance? Couldn’t act?

What if Raymond and the Monster was boring? Unwatchable? Awful?

If all those dire things turned out to be true, it would ruin next Christmas and many Christmases to come in our house; it would make my life hell on all sorts of levels. You see, my granddaughter Poppy has a role in Raymond and the Monster — she’s the cute 10-year-old in the blue smock — and it is very, very, very important to her.

I am unbelievably happy to report that Christmas in our house is safe, and that Raymond and the Monster and its cast of more than two dozen kids from age 8 to 15 are a thorough delight. These youngsters can sing, can dance, can act. This play is wonderfully inventive, superbly presented and undeniably funny.


Full credit must go to directors Alyson Connolly and Elaine Dunbar who put this show together over the course of a nine-day camp. One can only admire the patience, the skill and the dedication required to fashion something as accomplished as this over the course of just a little over a week.

The seemingly simple story has villagers in an unnamed village in thrall to a wicked ruling duchess, played with a perfect blend of venality and menace by a terrific Pearl Philip. The duchess has convinced the villagers that she alone can control a monster held in her castle’s dungeon, but that keeping it penned up is costly indeed.

Thus, she taxes everything: milk, shoes, water, beds … children.

And should the parents not come up with the necessary gold pieces that are a head tax on their kids, well, things could get rough for everyone. The duchess has specific plans for all the loot she’s collecting. She wants to purchase the Camelon sceptre from her broke but aristocratic cousin and would-be sonneteer, the Count of Camelon, played with much charm by Ronan Faria

It seems that the only thing standing between the kids and being tossed into the dungeon is Raymond, the town scamp and an orphan who has no one to pay for him. He’s an inventive lad — Edward Bennett brings a proper impishness to the part — and while we all know things will likely turn out for the best, there’s a lot of fun to be had watching it all unfold as it should.

A word here about the music. There are some surprisingly strong voices in this young cast, notable among those is Chloe Brinco who plays the village seamstress and the mother of two, and Sam Michaelchuk, the town crier.

The best tune among the half dozen songs is The Sonnet Song written by Elaine Dunbar. It’s full of wonderful word play and manages to explain, more or less, the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and those of a more Petrarchan bent. I loved it.

—  Marc Horton is the former movie reviewer and books editor at the Edmonton Journal. We compared Fringe credentials with Poppy when they met for a post-show burger. His said “Media,” hers said “Artist.” Hers looked better.



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