The Age: Women comedians will be riding the feminist wave

Women comedians will be riding the feminist wave at the 2018 Melbourne laughfest

By Joanne Brookfield

The Fringe Wives Club have found themselves with an "accidentally zeitgeisty" hit on their hands. Forming just over 12 months ago, the trio – Tessa Waters, Victoria Falconer-Pritchard and Rowena Hutson – had been talking one night in Edinburgh over a couple of espresso martinis about some of the experiences they'd had as female performers. They thought there might be enough in it for a show and ended up scoring a Moosehead grant to present Glittery Clittery: a ConSENSUAL Party at last year's Comedy Festival.

"And then, the last 12 months happened," says Falconer-Pritchard, referring to #MeToo and Time's Up, the explosive social movements that have seen feminism ricocheting around the mainstream.

"We realised the fact that we were talking about all these issues quite openly, and more openly than we ever had before, was something that was being echoed in bars and offices and bus stops and water coolers all around the world, particularly on social media," she says.

"This kind of stuff doesn't gain so much traction unless there's so many people that are interested in creating a change, and it just so happened that we're using our own platform to respond to it, and to create the change that we want to see in the world."

They call it "glamtivism", "direct disco for social change", "a cosmic feminist extravaganza". In other words, they've given feminism a new sequinned facade. "So we bring the people in, luring them in with the showbiz and the sparkles and the champagne and the fun times, and then hit them with the hard stuff, because comedy, and music particularly, make issues that people aren't comfortable to talk about more palatable," says Falconer-Pritchard.

Although the three have always individually identified as feminists, Falconer-Pritchard says coming together as the Fringe Wives Club was the first time all three had made work this overtly feminist. In rebooting Glittery they are not the only ones addressing it this Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

While gender has been ever present as a topic within comedy, with "the differences between men and women" a time-honoured trope, this is different. Women, who slowly but steadily are increasing in numbers within the massive program of 600-plus shows this year, are taking to stages and talking explicitly, politically and unapologetically about their experiences.

"We have all talked about this secretly in our little covens, hidden away from the public eye, and it's gotten to the point where it's enough. Everybody is responding in their own way," says Falconer-Pritchard, who in her solo work talks about the issues she faces being both bi-racial and bisexual.

Stand-up comedian Cal Wilson is making a similar shift in her material. She first began broaching more feminist fare in her show last year and will be continuing similarly in Hindsight. Deborah Frances-White's incredibly popular podcast (it's had 10 million-plus downloads) inspired her to start talking publicly about gender issues. "It was listening to The Guilty Feminist and realising that other people were feeling the way I was feeling about stuff," says Wilson.

"It's got so many great insights in it but it's also just really funny," she says, adding that as a comedian the priority is to always keep any social or political commentary funny. "It's far easier to laugh someone into a revelation than it is to browbeat them into a revelation."

Steph Tisdell is hoping for the same result. She's using comedy to tackle white guilt without making audiences feel defensive but rather celebrate her Indigenous culture with her in her debut solo show,Identity Steft, which is about being mixed race. "It's such a strange and difficult line to walk, so the show is all about that, basically not feeling like a good blackfella but also not fitting in with white people," says Tisdell, who was the 2014 Deadly Funny winner.

Strange and difficult only begin to describe Kiwi Angella Dravid's extraordinary story. Growing up in a violent household, she moved to Britain at 17 to marry a man in his 40s and wound up in jail, eventually being deported back to New Zealand. She says her work is often described as dark comedy but she doesn't agree. "I think the situations are bleak but how I look at it is always light," she says.

"There are a couple of reactions," she says of how her show Down The Rabbit Hole is received. "One is that it opens up a world to people who aren't ever exposed to it. Then there's an understanding between people who have gone through something similar and it's like 'oh, finally someone is able to talk about it and I can relate to them', and then there are people who are just intrigued by the whole thing and want to know more. It opens up dialogue between everyone from different perspectives and I think that's good. I think we all need to be talking about these quite serious problems and if comedy is the way to start it, then I'm happy that it's happening," she says.

At the New Zealand International Comedy Festival last year, Dravid won the Billy T Award. Rose Matafeo took out the Fred award for best show, making it the first time two women of colour have been honoured with the top awards. "I don't wanna be like, 'oh my God, it's amazing to be a brown woman doing something'. But, it is cool, because when I see other brown women doing stuff it's amazing and it's awesome and it makes me happy. It's just cool," says Matafeo, who will be in Melbourne with Horndog.

"What's it like being a woman in comedy? I don't know. The last six years I've been a man," quips Zoe Coombs Marr, referring to her sexist alter-ego Dave. Her stand-up character Dave – complete with neck beard – originated from her frustrations on the stand-up circuit earlier in her career. "I created that character because I didn't feel like there was any other way that I could exist in that space," she says. Ironically, in playing a comedian she was hailed by critics as a "genius" and won the 2016 Barry Award. Although she's not abandoning her politics this festival, Coombs Marr is finally doing stand-up as herself. Called Bossy Bottom, she says her intent was to create a show that was "just fun and stupid and silly and joyful". While the show will contain the "meta trickery" of her other shows ("turns out that's just what I like to do"), she's promising lots of "dumb sex jokes. Like a lot of really blue jokes about genitals and essentially, I'm kind of just doing what male comics have been doing for ages," she says. "But of course all of that is from my perspective, so it's all from a lesbian perspective. So that's all in there."

However the topic of gender is being discussed on stage, the hot topic off-stage is intersectionality. The conversation isn't just about continuing to increase the representation and visibility of women, but also include within that performers of colour and those from the queer community, and anyone traditionally marginalised. "We need to be allies for each other," says Wilson.

Annie Louey discovered her love of making people laugh when a teenager and entered the comedy festival's Class Clowns at 16. That same year, she fainted into a fire and received first-, second- and third-degree burns. She tells that story in her debut solo show, Butt Donut. ("The show title was inspired by the cushion that you sit on if you've had skin grafts.") In the show she's touching on issues of gender and race, plus "I explore some of the minefields around dating, travelling and daily life as a Millennial Australian and culturally diverse female," she says. Telling her own story has not only been empowering for herself, but she hopes will also be for others like her.

"There is still more to be done with encouraging culturally diverse people to try stand-up. Sometimes I convince myself to continue staying in the game because, as a worst-case scenario, even if I'm not good at comedy, I might inspire another female and/or someone with a culturally diverse background to give it a crack," she says, implicitly referencing the often-quoted mantra "if she can see it, she can be it".

The women in comedy are doing more than just talking about intersectional feminism, with many taking action to create actual change. "I have often complained about structures that I've had to work in. So, I'm in the process of building my own," says producer Linda Catalano, who in presenting Briefs and Hot Brown Honey has not only created a platform for the telling of queer and mixed-race stories, but proved there's an insatiable demand from audiences for this kind of content.

"They are moving tickets," she says emphatically of Briefs, a camp circus cabaret that explores masculinity, back for the festival, and Hot Brown Honey, which was selling out every night of its run in Edinburgh last year. "Hot Brown Honey is about the representation of not just black and mixed-race women, but women in general and their stories," she says.

When she first took them on, she had a colleague laugh at her chances of succeeding with them. "I think the gatekeepers need to take a look at what they think people want to see versus what people actually want to see," says Catalano, who is returning to her roots as a performer, restaging her show One Suitcase: Four Stories, about four female relatives and their journey to Australia.

"The way forward is to look out for one another and to help each other up," says Tessa Waters. To that end, she has also started a company to produce the work of others plus a mentoring program for 20 emerging artists. "I also want to support new voices, artists we haven't heard from, perspectives we haven't heard from," says Waters, who, like Catalano, is celebrating the strength of previous generations of women in her family in Volcano. "If you come from any perspective that isn't straight, white and male, you have to fight that extra amount just to get in the room, to the mic," she says.

The show Lemon Comedy has emerged in response to that, actively booking "comedians of colour, female-identifying and non-binary comedians, comedians from the LGBTQ+ community and those living with disability or mental illness," explains co-founder Lorelei Mathias. Rose Callaghan will be one of the guest MCs during Lemon's five-night run during the festival.

The consistently hilarious Callaghan, doing solo show No Way Rose, has been running a weekly room for the past year and informally mentoring female performers as part of that.

Geraldine Hickey, already busy with her own solo show this festival, plus hosting Triple R Breakfasters, has created a space for women to play during the festival with her live tonight show, It's My Show, with mates Isabel Angus, Kelly Fastuca, Nicolette Minster and Laura Dunemann. "I saw so many late-night group shows or live podcast recordings that was mostly a group of dudes having fun. I wanted to create that environment for me and other women," she says.

As the world changes, so too will the comedy we see being reflected back at us. For Wilson, the sharing of these stories creates change by helping build connection and empathy. "The more connected we are, the more we have respect for each other and understanding for each other and when you see someone else's experience, you understand them a bit more," she says. "New perspectives are exciting and interesting and funny.

Comedy is about going like, 'oh, have you ever thought about it this way?'" says Coombs Marr. "We just need more cool, smart audience members to come to all of the shows listed in this article. Wink."