The success of films like Barbie and TV shows like Bridgerton make it clear that there is an appetite for women-centred media. Montreal is not surprisingly ahead of the curve on this one with Ladyfest, which began celebrating women-centred comedy starting in 2015. Now headed by local performer Sara Meleika, the festival is back for five nights of improv, stand-up, a cabaret, and sketch comedy along with a podcast.
Meleika took the helm after participating in the festival first as an artist and then as a producer. “I first got involved as an artist in 2016, and in 2017, the organizers of Ladyfest asked me to produce a show that I was already producing, Colour Outside the Lines, which celebrates people of colour. I did that for a few years and I was chosen as the successor when the previous organizer stepped down,” she says.
Taking charge of the long running festival definitely is a challenge, but Meleika takes it all in stride. “It feels like adding to a tapestry,” she says. “Someone has left you something that they’ve woven together already and you get to weave in new threads.”
Meleika speaks with deep respect for the early founders, and how “it felt like a gift” to inherit the festival. “Erin Hall was excellent with her vision for a festival. She thought of this image of a narwhal breaking through a glass ceiling as the symbol of the festival. That’s a strong image which is both fun and meaningful as the message of the festival.”
Further, Meleika notes that she can build on that strong foundation to expand the festival’s mission of inclusivity. “It helps not to start from scratch,” she says, “I can focus more on uplifting BIPOC and trans performers and not worry branding.” So while the festival is called Ladyfest and features many women, it has always included performers who identify as transmen, transwomen, and gender non-conforming as well. “It’s not about excluding other identities but celebrating comedy that focuses on women who are comics,” says Meleika.
Meleika has chops in Montreal’s comedy scene. She has produced and performed in a number of regular shows on Montreal’s indie comedy and performance circuit. One of her bi-monthly shows, They Go Low, We Go Laugh is part of this year’s Ladyfest on September 1. The show is a variety show focusing on “folx of colour and marginalized identities” who do stand-up, improv, storytelling, sketches, monologues, etc. Meleika will also be appearing in the Ladyfest edition of Tales of Gender Affirmation, which focuses on trans and gender-non-comforming people and their allies. “I get to be the ally every once in awhile on the show,” she says.
New this year at Ladyfest on August 27 is a live recording of Abby Stonehouse’s podcast, House of Stone. Stonehouse will interview two special guests about their lives in comedy. Meleika adds that Stonehouse has focused on making sure her show is accessible to people with hearing impairments, by providing subtitles and ASL interpreters. “We’re happy to have her involved,” she says.
Other shows to keep an eye out for are Funny Over 40, where Monica Hamburg and Jennifer-June Chapman, both of a certain age, prove that being funny doesn’t stop at age 39 (or 49), and Bridgerton Improvised by Priddy Playful Productions on August 30. There’s plenty more: This & That on August 30, A Very Pretentious Comedy Show with Rachel Maestre on August 31, Chinatown Comedy Night on September 3, and I Don’t Belong Here with Mariam Khan on Sept 1.
This year, Ladyfest’s shows take place at the Diving Bell Social Club. Meleika draws attention to the fact that the venue will be closing its doors in December and that the loss of the space is going to impact the comedy community since many shows take place there. Meleika is hopeful that the venue will find a new home. However, she is certain that there will be more Ladyfests.
She says, “Last year, I brought it back because it was an important space to me. It was my first festival credit as a performer. It was the first time I produced a show in a festival and it helped support me as an artist. There’s a new generation of people who feel an attachment to it. It feels important to the community here.”
Ladyfest takes place on August 27 – September 3. Shows are at the Diving Bell Social Club. The full list of shows can be accessed via Facebook.