Fringe controversy: Performers weighing how to balance spontaneity with consent

CALGARY — When a performer at a Fake Mustache Drag King Troupe show sits in the lap of an audience member, the goal is to elicit shock from everyone in the bar except the person being cosied up to.

James Demers, who manages the Calgary group, said someone is planted in the audience or the artist sets ground rules with a patron ahead of time.

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"If there's going to be physical contact, we'd like people to be upfront about that," he said. "The spontaneity makes for a great show, but we don't ever want to make someone uncomfortable."

Earlier this week, a performer at the Edmonton Fringe theatre festival sparked controversy after he pulled an audience member on stage during a racy variety show, grabbed him from behind and unbuttoned his shirt without consent. The man was so upset that he reported it to police, but no charges were laid.

Mike Delamont, who was in character as the "Scottish Drag Queen," apologized and said he stopped as soon as he realized the man wasn't on board. Delamont also said he's volunteered for sensitivity training.

The Fringe has said he won't be in Late Night Cabaret shows for the remainder of the festival.

At Fake Mustache shows, a bigger concern is keeping performers safe from drunk and grabby audience members, Demers said. Patrons are told ahead of time to follow a performer's signals when tipping if it gets too touchy.

He said consent has always been discussed among theatre performers.

"What has changed with the #MeToo movement is that we are now having these conversations with the general public."

Lara Schmitz, a producer for the Dirty Laundry improvised live soap opera show in Calgary, said it's not anything-goes in improv.

"Improv does not get any exception in the understanding of consent and respect," she said.

"Those help to create stronger improvisations — and that is crucial to having a strong ensemble that can trust each other enough to play."

She said actors are encouraged to seek consent while they're in character — asking "may I kiss you" to their on-stage love interests instead of just going in for a smooch.

"If the person says no, you don't kiss them."

Sara Simpson, a co-artistic director at the Kinkonauts Improv Laboratory in Calgary, said performers have to silence their inner censors, but listen to their inner editors.

"If you judge yourself while you're performing, you'll just be silent on stage and nothing will be good enough," she said.

"You still need to not be a jerk."

In the rare instances when the Kinkonauts have an audience member come up on stage, they never pick the person whose hand is being reluctantly forced into the air by a friend, she said. They also won't indulge people in the audience who yell obscene, offensive things for laughs and attention.

Before every show, she said, Kinkonauts tell their fellow troupe members what is and isn't OK. That could mean not wanting to be touched in a certain part of their body or partaking in an overly violent scene.

"That might change from day to day," she said. "It might change based on who I'm performing with."

Actively seeking consent does not equal prudishness, she suggested, recalling one scene where an all-women troupe clutched each other's breasts in a chain.

"In the context of the scene and in the context of these long-standing relationships with these people, it worked, and it was great and it was empowering and it brought the house down."

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