In True B-Girl Fashion
The B-Girls… 2011!
This trio of not-so-nice but completely inseparable fictional characters are featured in the up-coming audio series, Flashback. Not to be confused with fellow Canadians, those irrepressible gals of the popular drag act The B-Girlz.
First a bit of history: Michael Balser (the brains behind the original ideas that became the video Flashback), must have wanted to emulate the new drag act that was hitting the indie stages of Toronto during the 1990s. He himself was no stranger to sarcasm mixed with a touch of celebrity bitchiness. In fact, he could have penned several of the B-Girlz stage shows – if only they had asked him to.
In my humble opinion, where the drag act departed Michael’s world is exactly where the art scene interconnected with it. The B-Girlz were funny and faux-nasty drag queens, but they weren’t really offering much commentary on the egomania rampant in the art scene, at least not as much as Michael would have liked. In fact, I think drag queens rarely put down the local art scene. That would be like biting the hand that applies the lipstick. No, they instead reserve their best vexations for the big celebrity names or those people with even bigger hair than them. In Toronto, the drag acts relied on the art scene as much as the art scene relied on them. Think of all the people who went to see the B-Girlz – many of whom were independent artists, and then think of all the charity events and fundraisers that the B-Girlz participated in. The relationship was truly symbiotic and in a tightly knit art world, there was little room for the kind of self-reflection Michael wanted to get across. Enter his version of the B-Girls.
Going back a couple of entries in this blog, we touched a bit on how the character of Belinda came about. In that entry I mention that Michael approached JoAnne Garries while she was working the door of a new comedy room in Toronto and basically said, “My name is Michael and I have seen you perform several times and I think you are very funny. I have a script with a character based on your stand up and would love it if you would read it.” And that is so Michael too. He was very direct, much more direct than I am and if he wanted something, he wasn’t afraid to just go out and get it.
So really, the characters of the B-Girls kind of emerged from a sort of weird homage to the drag act, mixed in with the sensibilities of what Michael liked about JoAnne’s stand up act. I might even venture to say that I think Michael wanted his B-Girls to rival those of the drag act because these babes were way more tough-assed, nastier than nasty and voiced every gripe Michael himself had about the world around him. These characters were shallow, lazy, materialistic, and basically pretty clueless to what normal, everyday people would value the most in their lives. In Michael’s vision of the B-Girls, these woman – oh and they were women, not Grotesques (as in the “art form”) – these women were the embodiment of everything that he hated about people in high places such as government bureaucracies or corporations, people with the decision to withhold art grants from those obviously deserving but not fashionable enough to understand the way the marketing machine worked, or just people he decided were born stupid but somehow found themselves in positions of power nonetheless. This all might make Michael sound a little bit bitter, but that is not my intention here. I think he saw himself very much as the underdog, fighting for the good of all underdogs and in many ways, he influenced the way I thought about people. I became more wary of those with the power to determine whether or not my career was going to be “good”. I had always thought I was in total control of that but soon came to see it as a kind of dance with the people in high places… those who hadn’t the artistic talent but did have the say over whose artistic talent would see the light of day. Call this the criticism of the benefactors if you will, but that is how many of us lowly artists in the 90s approached the way art was made in Canada. It may not have been true or the best tactic but we embraced it in our disgruntled, slightly self-pitying ways and we thought we were cool for doing it. Maybe we were nothing more than martyrs to the cause but a hell of a lot of good work came out of artists who embraced that ideology. Many of those artists did go on to bigger and better things and were finally recognised for what they achieved, (and most of that time, it was a fame that they achieved on their own). Michael wasn’t as lucky I guess because he died before he could be properly recognised.
But enough of the sad stories of the past. This is about the future and two parallel worlds and all the hi-jinx that the wacky characters can get up to. This is about what happens in 2011 and not what sort of happened way back in 1999. This is about the dismantling of those ten or so in-between years and bringing together people who haven’t worked together in such a very long time. It is about picking up from where we have left off and taking things to new heights. This is about the new Flashback.
New project… but the same old characters? Well, not exactly no. Of course the characters have been brought back but not as those who witnessed the video would remember them. And that is completely intentional too. This is an audio series, completely independent from the video, fully functional without ever knowing about the video. These characters don’t even refer to the video, so if you’ve never seen it, then that is no big loss. You won’t have had to to understand these characters. The audio series is a fresh start, a slightly new take and hopefully the jumping off ground for many more adventures to come. Can you tell that I love these characters yet?
I arranged to meet up with JoAnne in a bar… er perhaps it was more of a tavern… in the middle of a cold November day, when she had finished work early and the plan was that we’d just talk. Just catch up a bit, you know? After all, I hadn’t seen her for ten years. Would I even recognise her? Would she recognise me? Would all the celebratory talk we’ve exchanged in our emails suddenly fall silent and both of us look at each other and say, “Um… maybe this project isn’t such a good idea after all… we’re so different. I think we’ve moved on. Thanks but no thanks?” I guess I was a bit nervous about it. But really I shouldn’t have been, for when she walked in it was like those ten years disappeared completely… evaporated into the ether and we were smiling wryly and tittering on about what we’ve been doing, what we want to do, our regrets in life, our triumphs in life – pretty much all the kinds of things good friends talk about. It was very easy to talk to JoAnne and I assured her that her time commitment to the project was going to be only a couple of afternoons recording. Boy was I under-estimating it a bit! Of course I realised that her character had the most dialogue and interactions in the script – I think Michael would have wanted it that way too – but I think I got it slightly wrong when I said we’d only need such and such time to do it in. I’ve learnt that one should never rush an artiste! LOL!
Well, that isn’t strictly true but I will admit the first few scenes we recorded weren’t completely what I had hoped for, and that isn’t any reflection on JoAnne’s talents at all. It was a combination of me hearing a voice in my head – the character’s voice before any of you start thinking I’m more mad than normal – and the fact that JoAnne is such a nice person that she gave Belinda way too much, well… niceness! Belinda was all of a sudden airy and breezy and… gasp… happy! Oh no, that could never do! Belinda was the embodiment of evil… okay, not evil but all those things I’ve just outlined that Michael wanted her to be… and besides, she was based on JoAnne’s own stand up act, so where was that sarcasm, eh? It took me a few minutes to realise that as we age and mature, we also lose a lot of that petty scorn. We become less the martyrs for the cause and more the silent observers. Our humour goes into subtle drive and JoAnne was no exception to this rule. Her sense of humour had mellowed… okay not mellowed but evolved… matured, became more discriminating and, in fact funnier than before. It saddened me a bit to learn that she was no longer doing stand up and I’ll tell you, it is a damn pity because the stand up world lost a fabulous talent when she retired from it. However, their loss was my gain and after a conversation on restoring wickedness and shallowness to the character of Belinda, we resumed recording. And I giggled and spoilt a take because she nailed the tone exactly… bitingly… wonderfully. My writing came alive at that moment. Belinda was back and as bad-assed as ever.
The same has to be said about Elfriede Erzen, now a married woman and mother of two young boys. By choice, her acting days are fading behind her as new responsibilities call for new priorities, new jobs, new plans for the future. Acting has become so much of a luxury to artists these days because, in the ever-increasing world of competition and dire lack of gigs, acting on its own as a career choice just doesn’t pay the bills. It is a sad truth but a very real situation for many people out there.
Seeing Elfriede again, though not after as many years as ten, (only two as I visited her when she lived in Ireland for a while), was also lovely and equally warm and special as seeing JoAnne. Okay, there’s the friendships to remember but also hearing these ladies bring to life the text on the many pages of the scripts they were presented with, was an experience that is hard to describe. I think I had to coach Elfriede on her initial delivery as well, because she too was far too nice – gosh, they’re all far too nice to actually be as nasty as the characters call for! But after a few minutes and my assurances that yes, the new, harsher tone of delivery was actually the correct choice, we ended up recording over half of Bellissima‘s lines in just under five hours.
Audio is a strange beast that’s for sure and coming from the visual medium, audio can seem very daunting to the uninitiated. While most people may think audio should be easier because there are far less details to present, audio can be a trickier medium in which to get across ideas succinctly and properly to a discerning audience. When actors are in front of a camera, they are allowed to move about in space. They can gesture and make faces. They can respond by guttural or physical methods or both. With audio there are limitations that sitting or standing in front of a microphone can create – and all for the sake of getting good sound quality.
One such problem is physical action. The simple task of walking in the front door, putting down a bunch of shopping, turning to another character and while speaking to them, taking off one’s gloves or shoes or whatever, becomes an interesting series of sounds to convey to the listener. If it is performed incorrectly, it can be misinterpreted or worse… not even believed at all. Too much interpretation can make it sound like instead of taking off shoes, one is having a small fit or episode. Too little and the listener isn’t convinced that person is doing what they say they are doing. All of this needs to be taken into account when the lines are being delivered and all of it is the responsibility of the director to get what he/she wants. In my case, I was listening very closely to what my actors said, then how they said it and then the context in which they were saying it. For some of my actors this was the first time they had ever done voice work that wasn’t a radio advert. It took a lot of paying attention to detail but I think we managed to achieve the illusion.
I know Elfriede was curious about my direction of aiming for “over-the-top” acting. Coming from a theatre background, and even a clowning background, she was no stranger to heightened performances. But I think she wanted to know why this script worked better when the performances were slightly more well… “over-the-top”? I think that because these scripts are extremely wordy, coupled with the fact that they are essentially a comedy, the characterisations need to be OTT just to convey the concepts in a grander way. I can’t imagine Absolutely Fabulous being as successful as it was if the characters weren’t that little bit over-eccentric or OTT. Plus, listeners, unlike viewers, don’t want to end up confused, trying to guess which character said what in a scene that contains more than five characters. If everyone has the same tone of voice, that confusion is a very real possibility, especially on single word or shorter sentences. If every character has a recognisable way of speaking, or a slurred tone or a quirky intonation, then listeners won’t have that difficult a time discerning who said what. Plus, most of the jokes are ONE… TWO… THREE punches with the set-up line being a question that one character proposes, the answer line comes from the second character, while the actual punch-line comes from the third character, and so on and so on. As a triumvirate, the B-Girls are hilarious because they work so well off of each other.
The difficulty all the actors had was working on their own, especially after so many years apart and away from these particular characters. It wasn’t a surprise to me that I had to pop in occasionally with a line reading to get across one element of the joke. And of course, again, it has nothing to do with the talents of the actors, but more to do with the fact that I’ve written the joke by hearing the voices in my head. When the delivery is different, the director in me has to weigh it all and decide whether the new delivery is better or works on a different level, or whether it in fact, lessens the impact of the joke or point of the dialogue. To be fair though, all the actors were marvellous and graciously allowed line readings whenever they felt they didn’t quite hit the correct note. There really was no such thing as an “ego” present during the recordings.
So, while I had recorded only a third of JoAnne‘s script and two thirds of Elfriede‘s script playing opposite them, I really wanted to record with them playing off each other, so I booked some time for the girls to get together and play some of the later scenes or the more important ones together. Also, I had to wait until Tara Samuel was in town, as she had to fly up from Los Angeles near the very end of my time in Toronto.
But of course I needed to work with Tara alone for a bit as well, and Tara was nothing short of hilarious. Crossing the street, I spied her walking up the pavement and I just bounded for her… she looked up, startled but not thrown, and then basically tackled me to the ground. I firmly believe now that THAT is the way people should greet each other after ten years of not seeing one another. Passers-by were more than a little confused and probably annoyed that we were so jovial and immature on a briskly cold day, but who really cares, eh?
Out of the three of the B-Girls, Tara is the only one still regularly acting and making a living off it. She regaled me with tales of her most recent experiences shooting a feature film in America where she worked with marvellous people, some of whom didn’t even speak English, but just went along with the wacky script because they were fascinated by the whole process. I can’t wait to see the film either… it looks to be very interesting indeed! Check it out if you get the chance: it’s called Ruby Booby. I told her that she had fans of her character Tara Williams in Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye in Britain. I think that tickled her a bit and she joked about inappropriate colour schemes for her character’s wardrobe… not garish, but deliberately drab… and SO VERY unlike the real Tara!
What I loved most about Tara’s performance was her voice. She’s got this husky quality to a very feminine sound and that makes for an interesting combination. She is certainly distinct sounding and it is nice to know that living in the States hasn’t dulled her Canadian accent, nor her wit. She came up with so many good ideas as additions to the character of Barroqa that I just had to hold my sides for fear of splitting them with excessive laughter. Let me just mention her excellent and OTT impression of Canadian politician René Lévesque talking about “little ponies” and “des boutique shoppes”… wait and you’ll understand when you hear but I’m not wanting to give away any of the jokes! If you know of good ol’ René and his very unique way of speaking, you’ll have some clue as to the type of performance. Tara also single-handedly whistles up an audio tribute to many science fiction films and television shows and that alone is worth the price of the CD box set, surely?
And so finally I got them all together, the three of them: JoAnne, Elfriede and Tara, all in the same room, performing their scenes together and it was like we were back in time. I couldn’t have done this project without the three of them. They are so very special and dear to my heart. They put in hours and hours of time and even didn’t believe they would be getting paid for it either! That is how dedicated they are and how committed to the work. At the end of the last scene, once the characters had said their very last lines, we all looked at each other and despite feeling a bit tired after, we all just said… is that it? Is that really all? No one could believe that it was over, that it was in the can. I can attest that a tear or two were shed because the intensity of the process had given way to a complete project on their part. All that is left is for me to do is to weave it all together and to present it to you, the listener… the ultimate appreciators.
It certainly has been a roller-coaster ride so far, with few signs of it letting up for me. I’ve got dialogue edits to complete, more recordings to do with the British cast – Sarah Douglas and Nigel Fairs among them, and then Foley work, music arrangements, sound effects and mixing… the work goes on for a while yet. But what I’ve put together so far has left me smiling. It is so very very amazing to hear this series coming together, coming to life after more than a decade of sitting in the back of my mind.
CD box set buyers will have the added advantage of listening to a series of interviews with the cast and may even have to listen to my actual voice, rambling on about how wonderful everyone is. But I tell you this, it won’t be lie… that’s for sure!