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The Unexpected Variety Show with Jenny Wynter @ Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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by Rob Rimmer (subscribe)
A freelance writer and father of two, I am interested in almost anything the ever-changing city of Brisbane has to offer. When I am not seeking the kid-friendly and affordable, I am tracking the home-grown and the unique... Come and discover with me!
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The Unexpected Variety Show, an exquisite and hilarious hour of one-woman cabaret, Jenny Wynter weaves a sparkling tapestry of song, dance, clowning and puppetry around an intimate narrative core delivered with the clarity and confidence of a seasoned stand-up comedienne. If you are fortunate enough to be able to attend either the Adelaide Fringe Festival (24th February to 18th March) or the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (28th March to 22nd April) this year, this writer urges you to put The Unexpected Variety Show at the top of your must-see list. Neither need Brisbane audiences languish in despair, as this unique and extraordinarily-talented performer will also make a two-nights-only appearance at the Visy Theatre in the Brisbane Powerhouse on the evenings of March 30th and 31st. An emphatic endorsement this may be; however by way of proof that this writer is innocent of any overstatement, please read on as the following short tale unfolds.

The hour is approaching 9pm on the 8th October, 2011; the scene is the foyer of the Revolt Theatrette in Kensington, Melbourne. After her penultimate performance for the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival, rising comic star Jenny Wynter has lingered longer than usual backstage trying to decide whether or not to go to the Festival Awards Night, which is this very minute kicking off over at the Fringe Club. She's heard through the Festival grapevine that the honoured few have already been informed of their nominations, and therefore that any good news on that score would surely have reached her by now. Ordinarily she'd bounce along anyway—a rare mixture of generosity and professionalism, Jenny is well aware that she is only one of twenty-four cabaret performers featuring at the Festival this year, many of whom she vocally admires. But as enticing as the prospect of toasting her fellow artists with a few stiff drinks may be right now, the thought of travelling to North Melbourne exhausted and alone is not.
Touring with a Toddler - a mind-warping experience at times
The past few weeks have been gruelling, a Tuesday through Sunday routine coupling the rigorous demands of solo performance to those of travelling with a homesick toddler. Although Jenny hates to admit it to herself, during this time financial pressure and fatigue have shot large holes in her normally-bulletproof optimism. Having once again depleted her young family's resources to chase a self-funded dream, she has found herself playing night after night to audiences which barely fill the front two seating rows of the theatre. Like any true performing arts professional, she strives to ensure that an audience of four receives the same high-quality show as a packed house, but the cost in terms of energy is brutally high. Even by the famously-unforgiving standards of one-person performance, The Unexpected Variety Show requires an unusual level of commitment and concentration. Not only must she hit all the right marks throughout an hour of self-accompanied song, clowning, stand-up and puppetry in which timing and precision are paramount, but the intimate storytelling whose thread binds the various aspects of the show together is, as she puts it, "insanely personal". While this sharing of self—nothing less than a life-story writ large on the stage—elevates The Unexpected Variety Show beyond simple comic entertainment and into the realm of the truly unforgettable, eliciting wildly enthusiastic responses from every kind of audience, there can be no doubt that each and every night requires a taxing feat of courage and inner strength for what sometimes seems like precious little reward.

Crazy times...

So perhaps the afterglow of performance is best savoured solo tonight. After all, she's just waved farewell to her largest audience yet—a crowd some forty-strong who'd made enough appreciative noise for twice their number. The word may have spread like treacle rather than like wildfire—a complaint she's also heard from more than one fellow Fringe-ster—but surely tonight was confirmation that, after the years of devising, composing, performing and perfecting, The Unexpected Variety Show is now a certified winner? Right now, it's a small and flickering flame of hope she holds—still undeniably alight, but perhaps best nurtured carefully, away from crowds and craziness. Reluctantly she decides to head homeward. Her expectations for the remainder of the evening consist now of a chilly train ride back to temporary lodgings in nearby Parkville, a hushed conversation with a long-suffering babysitter, and—if she's really lucky—a few hours' solid sleep before two-year-old Cassidy wakes, craving attention and breakfast with equal vigour.

Unexpected delight!

Half an hour later Jenny is ascending the stairs to the Fringe Club stage, giggling deliriously, having just received the 2011 Melbourne Fringe Festival Award for Excellence in Cabaret. She'd literally been on her way out the front door of the Revolt Theatre when the venue's Artistic Director, Ryan Hodge, told her he was going to the Awards Night and offered her a lift. Jenny's finely-attuned serendipity-sensor had sounded a clear tone, and she'd responded in habitual fashion—she'd taken the opportunity. Thus, yet another remarkable chapter has now been added to a career history in which the unexpected has played such a prominent role as to have become almost, well, expected.

Sometimes gladness, sometimes grief.

So consummate a performer does Jenny Wynter seem—as she unravels her audiences with piercing candour only to stitch them up again a moment later with superbly-timed gags, as she switches seamlessly from outlandish characterisation to eighties-style dance number to raunchy cabaret tune, as every rich note in every song rings at perfect pitch—that one is scarcely able to credit how much of her development as a comedienne has hinged upon events over which she had no control. Not all of these have been pleasant surprises such as the one described above. Some, while ultimately joyful, have thrown her world into disarray—like discovering that she was pregnant with her first child mere weeks after having moved from Brisbane to Sydney to pursue a "serious" (she insists that this word be spoken with an Alec Guinness accent) acting career. Others have brought all of the disarray and none of the joy: a major car accident in 2010 not only prevented Jenny from performing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival that year, but consigned her to a slow and painful recovery process, the protracted difficulty of which makes her presence at this year's Festival a triumph even before the first inevitable belly-laughs roar out from her opening-night audience.

Laughter on the lips / steel in the soul.

Still other unexpected events in Jenny's life have been nothing short of heart-breaking. When Jenny was five years old her mother passed away suddenly from an aneurysm, leaving Jenny and her younger sister to be raised by their grandmother. That Jenny now credits this shattering moment with having set her on the path to a career in comedy reveals much about the depth of intelligence which animates her work. A comic performer who is intimately acquainted with the fine line between the hilarious and the unbearable, she has laboured intensively at the level of stagecraft in order to bring her audiences dancing gracefully across that tightrope with her. While the content of The Unexpected Variety Show may be highly personal, at no stage does its delivery become amateurish or self-indulgent—a fact which is readily explained by a quick glance at Jenny's impressive performance and professional development track record.

A seasoned performer

A seven-year veteran of stand-up scenes in three countries, Jenny completed a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada before winning a Lord Mayor's Fellowship in 2006, allowing her to train in New York, Boston, Las Vegas and Los Angeles with famed improv company Second City. In this same year she made her debut at The Woodford Folk Festival, where she has been a regular feature ever since. Although The Unexpected Variety Showhad its beginnings in workshops with Dennis Cahill, director of Canadian company Loose Moose Theatre, and was first performed for live audiences at the Calgary Fringe Festival, the show was refined into its current form after a grant from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust enabled Jenny to once again travel to Los Angeles. There, she received direction from comedy legend Gary Austin, whose theatre company The Groundlings provided the career departure point for such luminaries as Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow and Helen Hunt. In addition to her Woodford appearances, she has graced stages at a diverse array of Australian festivals, including the Bangalow Big Joke, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and both the Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe Festivals.

The one-woman extravaganza that is The Unexpected Variety Show would be worth the ticket price even if it was merely the sum of its parts. What makes the whole truly special, however, is the story at its heart. With generosity, courage and skill, Jenny Wynter tells a tale which transports us beyond the laughs—and there are plenty—to the place within us where laughter itself originates; a place where delight and anguish are more closely-entwined than we usually realise. Here, with Jenny, we find causes both for consolation and for celebration, and return to the unexpected variety shows of our own lives feeling lighter of heart and less alone.

The Butterfly Club - Unexpected Variety Show venue during Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2012

The Unexpected Variety Show (as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2012)
The Butterfly Club
204 Bank St, South Melbourne.
Tuesday 10th to Sunday 22nd April (no show Monday 16th)
6pm Tues/Weds/Sun and 7pm Thurs/Fri/Sat
27 / $24 / $23 groups (8 or more)

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Why? For an evening of sparkling cabaret and hilarious comedy,
When: 6pm Tues / Wed / Sun; 7pm Thurs / Fri / Sat
Where: The Butterfly Club, 204 Bank St, South Melbourne, Victoria
Cost: $27 / $24 / $23 (groups of 8 or more)
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