My first Fringe show was an intimate performance for a friend and me in an old, parked car. We, the audience of two, occupied the back seat; the two actors were in the front. Long before I had ever heard the term "site-specific," I became a certified Fringe fan.
I love the Fringe festival. I love the fact that you can encounter exciting, innovative, completely unexpected performances by people you have never heard of that can be life-altering – all for $10 or so. And if you happen upon a dud, no big deal – it will be over in an hour.
But why not start with a sure bet? This year, the beloved Vancouver group Assaulted Fish is marking 10 years in the sketch comedy business with a best-of show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Assaulted Fish: Sacred and Profane features some of their favourite (or, as they put it, "least worst") sketches from the past decade.
Assaulted Fish was created in 2003, not by a group of friends whose chemistry demanded they hook up officially and perform; they were all strangers – recruited by the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. VACT had organized a sketch comedy competition, and wanted to enter its own group. They wound up winning an audience award.
In 2004, Assaulted Fish really solidified. Nelson Wong joined the group, as did Yumi Ogawa (who has since left and had her own Fringe hit, Japanglish). They broke off from VACT as their ideas about sketch comedy crystallized.
"That was when the chemistry really happened. It was literally five of us laughing at the same things," Kuan Foo said during an interview on Thursday night, as the Fringe Festival opened.
"It was magic," Marlene Dong added.
There have been different directors and cast changes over the years. Now, they are four: Mr. Foo, Mr. Wong, Ms. Dong and Diana Bang.
Yes, they are all Asian-Canadian, and another strong common philosophy has centred on how that plays into their work – or doesn't.
"One thing that was very important for us at the very beginning is we were very conscious of our identity as an Asian-Canadian comedy troupe. We'd seen a lot of comedy that we didn't like, particularly around issues of race and ethnicity and culture, so at the very beginning, one thing that we really made a conscious decision about was not to do humour that relied on … the easy and the cheap stereotypes. We'd all seen examples of comedy that we didn't like," Mr. Foo said.
"I remember watching one stand-up and just thinking how is this joke any less offensive coming from a Chinese-Canadian stand-up [as it would be] coming from somebody who wasn't Chinese-Canadian? It's like the same joke."
"Our DNA is Asian-Canadian," Mr. Wong said in a separate interview. "The content, therefore, we consider it Asian-Canadian – but it's not pigeon-holed into any sort of tropes that would lend themselves to being identified as Asian. And what I mean by that is we're not so concerned about stereotypes or bucking stereotypes or driving into the same corners of family history. We're excited about what other things we find funny and we feel we want to explore."
The group is diverse: the members come from different backgrounds, there's gender balance, Mr. Wong is gay. They are certainly not in it for the money (whatever they earn essentially covers expenses), and all have day jobs (or night jobs, as it were). Ms. Bang is a receptionist and an actor; Mr. Foo and Ms. Dong both work at postsecondary institutions; Mr. Wong is a manager/bartender at a nightclub, and also an actor.
It is because of his acting that Mr. Wong will not be on stage with the others at the Fringe for the 10-year review (which will include old favourites such as Sexy on a Budget and Reincarnation Station). A friend who is a director wrote a part in a film for him, and the production schedule overlaps with the festival. He had to make a tough decision to do the film rather than the Fringe.
"I'm very depressed about it," Mr. Wong said. "It was quite the ordeal. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Die-hard fans can take heart: Actor Chris Lam is pinch-hitting for Mr. Wong at Fringe, and the troupe says that has brought a new dynamic to the work.
And there will be more opportunities to see the Fishies in action, together. With the resurgence of the sketch comedy scene in Vancouver, a new festival is planned for next year. It's hard to imagine Assaulted Fish would not be part of it.
Mr. Foo says they are going to keep at it "as long as we feel we have something to say. It's really just been about doing the work. Doing the best work that we can and trying to develop as artists and performers. And I still feel we have a long way to go."
Fringe shows are notoriously hit and miss. Here are five picks to get you started:
Chris Earle's award-winning 1999 Fringe show about a silver-tongued voice actor who comes unglued while trying to record a 30-second radio ad finally its Vancouver premiere.
Tonya Jone Miller wrote and performs this harrowing one-woman show based on her mother's experiences in Vietnam during the war.
Vancouver's wonderful Mind of a Snail (Chloe Ziner and Jessica Gabriel) performs shadow puppetry with an overhead projector featuring anti-gravity protesters, an advice-giving snail – and music.
Bring tissues for B.C.-based Julia Mackey's one-woman show about a Canadian Second World War vet who is reluctant to return to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Hockey Night at the Puck & Pickle Pub
Fringe legends Jon Paterson (BoyGroove) and Ryan Gladstone (The Seven Lives of Louis Riel) play fans watching the 2014 Olympic gold medal hockey game at the Puck & Pickle Pub.