They’re not coming by galley, but Toronto’s The Weaker Vessels are pulling along the 401 to reach us from Toronto in time for Sketchfest. Billing themselves as a transatlantic group, I was curious how they got started.
“We met while studying in different conservatory groups at the Second City Training Centre, and immediately started working with our Director Frank McAnulty (a Second City Alum and Teacher),” says Colin Sharpe. “We formed at the end of 2011 and started performing together in 2012.” As for the ‘transatlantic’ part, two of the original members, Charlie Booth and Allan Cooke, come from England. However, both are no longer in the group, so the four current members (Lance Byrd, Jeff Clark, Nadine Djoury, and Colin Sharpe) are riding on their international status until the statue of limitations on that runs out.
In addition to sketch comedy, the members of The Weaker Vessels are all involved in improv. Some also do stand-up. You can catch members performing with a number of other known Toronto sketch troupes, O Dat Dum, The Second City Touring Company, and The Sketchersons.
Each group has its set of goals, and for The Weaker Vessels, theirs is producing one brand new, multiple-night run in a theatre yearly. Sharpe says, “In the months leading up to that, we pitch new sketches every week, pick the best ones, and then edit/punch them up as a group. That gives us fresh material to perform for the rest of the year when we’re booked on other people’s shows, between our own revues.”
The Weaker Vessels has recently faced one of the most tragic and difficult events of all: a death. Frank McAnulty, director and mentor of The Weaker Vessels, since its inception, passed away on April 3 from a heart attack. Sharpe says that the troupe’s ethos “We strive to push boundaries, while remaining truthful” was encouraged by McAnulty.
“He was incredibly generous with his time, refusing to accept money from us, as he insisted on ‘giving back to the community.’ On April 3rd 2016, he tragically passed away from a massive heart attack,” says Sharpe. “It’s been an emotional few weeks, but fortunately The Second City in Toronto hosted a Memorial for Frank on Sunday April 24th, with hundreds of people showing up. It was a wonderful day filled with laughs and tears, and it went a long way in bringing some closure to a very sad event. We made a video for him (with past and current Weaker Vessels members), directed and edited by Paul Aihoshi. People seemed to really enjoy it.”
I also want to know what a perfect night is for The Weaker Vessels.
“When every sketch works, and the audience is totally on board with any strange/uncomfortable place we want to take them,” says Sharpe.
Okay, makes sense. But they’ve certainly had to endure a few difficult moments in their five years performing. Sharpe recalls that they once agreed to do a fundraiser and were told to expect 100-200 people in attendance. Nothing could be further from that. “When we showed up at the venue (a high-end restaurant), the people running the charity had just left, leaving brochures for the producer of the show to hand out to the ZERO people who showed up. Apparently they didn’t bother to promote their own event, or even stick around themselves. We performed only to the other performers on the show, who couldn’t hear us, as there was a large group of people having a loud work party, and they had no idea there was going to be live comedy that night. We had to shout every word.”
With five years under their belts, I also am curious how they’ve seen sketch comedy evolve. “There’s more sketch comedy shows being produced for television, although the networks seem to like to cancel them after only one or two seasons,” says Sharpe. “We hope networks continue to invest more money in sketch comedy, but without being so quick to give up on it.”
As for the Weaker Vessels, the death of McAnulty has put them at a crossroads. Sketchfest is their first show since he has passed away. “We’re hoping it’ll be a cathartic experience for us,” Sharpe says. “For the first time, we’re not really thinking about what our next move is, but perhaps when the wounds aren’t quite so raw, we’ll sit down and make plans.”
The Weaker Vessels are playing at Montreal Sketchfest on May 7 at 7 p.m. with the Palcoholics at the Theatre St. Catherine (264 St Catherine E). $12. Tickets HERE. Montreal Sketchfest takes place May 5-14. Information and tickets HERE.