Deviant Women in Comedy: The Travelling Sisters

The Travelling Sisters, a trio of sketch comedy, musical clowns, are carving themselves a sweet slice of cult-comedy pie, packing out audiences in their recent Adelaide Fringe tour, on the back of a super successful Edinburgh run where they were labelled The Guardians ‘Pick of the Fringe.’ After their time at The Producers, and ahead of their Melbourne International Comedy Festival run, I sat down with The Travelling Sisters, Lucy Fox, Ell Sachs and Laura Trenery, and my Deviant Women co-host Alicia Carter (cross-promotion!) to chat all things costumes, touring and – gasp! – women being funny.

‘It’s a difficult concept!’ says Lucy, in response to idea that women in comedy are still seen as a bit of an anomaly. They experienced their first big wave of, ‘Ooh, weird, women in comedy, are you really funny?’ at Edinburgh last year.

Laura Trenery: It didn’t happen all the time and Edinburgh is so diverse, most people are really accepting and loving and know that women are funny.

Lucy Fox: But saying that, it definitely happened every day.

Lauren Butterworth: Did they actually come out and ‘I don’t find women funny.’

Ell Sachs: Yes, it was crazy, there was this moment where I was like, am I a human standing in front of this human? It’s a weird thing when you are selling your show to someone, trying to get them along, and they’re so used to other people trying to show their show to them, so they kind of dehumanise you in a really weird way, and I think it makes it easier for them to say, ‘I don’t find women funny.’

LF: I flyered these two girls and said, ‘Oh here you go, do you wanna see some character comedy, three women, whatever’, and she was like, 'Ugh vaginas, no thanks.' I said to her, 'Well what do you mean?' And she said, ‘Oh, I just don’t find women funny.’ She’s sitting there with her friend and I looked at her and said, ‘I am so sorry that your friend doesn’t find you funny,’ and she goes, ‘Oh I didn’t mean it like that!’ Then she starts back peddling, she’s like, ‘No, no women on stage, women on stage’ and I took the flyer off her and gave it to her friend and said, ‘Don’t come, maybe you’ll be interested’. I was like, ‘I’m really, really sorry that you don’t find any of your female friends funny, have a nice life,’ and I left. And I just thought, God I hope she thinks about that because it’s the most ridiculous thing.

LB: Part of the reason I was so enthralled by you guys is because it was the character based absurdist comedy which was something I was so looking for so much when I was younger. Did you guys have any influences in terms of your creations, whether they be male or female?

LF: Gosh that’s such an interesting question. I think we had a lot of freedom. We didn’t start off being sort of ‘we are females in comedy’, we never thought of ourselves as that.

LT: Not at all.

LF: We kind of slipped into comedy, and because we had a theatre background – and we had a background in Shakespeare as well – we felt like we could do anything we wanted and so we created what we wanted, and it wasn’t until our first show and an old lecturer came to see it and said, ‘Oh that was an amazing piece of feminist theatre.’ And we were like, ‘What do you mean it was feminist theatre?’ He was like, ‘Well it was from your point of view, so naturally it is feminist, because it is through your gaze, it is through your lens, and that is what you’re giving to the world.’ That kind of changed our perspective entirely in that it doesn’t have to be stories about women, it doesn’t have to be characters that are women, because underneath all the layers it’s the voice of women, it’s from our perspective. And aside from everything else in history, that has been pushed down – our voice.

LT: I think we’ve been influenced by a lot of different things. People are always asking us what we’re like and who we’re like and that’s really hard because there’s no female groups, like none that we can think of, so you’ll be like, a little bit Mighty Boosh, a little bit like Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French but like, not really. And all of these things as well, they’re all ten years old or more, so I don’t feel like we’re influenced on this contemporary basis. For us, a lot of our gender bending comes from our love of costume. We all studied at Gaulier, which is this theatre school in France, and you do heaps of different things: clown and theatre and Shakespeare and every course you’re in costume. In character course they’re like, ‘Come to school tomorrow in disguise: we don’t want to recognise you.’ For me that was massive: I created this character and every day I’d look in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, no one can recognise me!’ And that’s something we really started playing with when we started creating we started characters together, because it’s not like we ever sat down were, ‘Ooh, let’s be a sketch character group’. Our love of making music and storytelling and comedy all kind of meshed into whatever the show is now. I think costumes and wigs for us have been a massive thing: it’s a massive freedom because you can be anything – you can be a potato, you can be a man, you can be an old woman – and the audience just goes for it!

ES: If you commit and you’re having fun, you can be a fucking dirty toad from down the road.

LB: Do you think you can just own that: we are the female Mighty Boosh. Do you think the fact that there aren’t that many female absurdist sketch troupes around carves you a space to break new ground and to be really special: we are this new thing which is really innovative and exciting? You can use your gender to in your favour in a lot of ways as well. Do you think there’s any space for that?

LT: Yeah, it’s that thing where you’re like, God I hope that this is something that is interesting to people. We’re still just trying to find the way to explain that in a way that will make people be like, ooh cool. But yeah, definitely.

ES: It is our hope that we present ourselves as kind of a new flavour, and our own flavour of comedy that’s influenced by this absurd thing. And if we make a segue to something like The Mighty Boosh then it’s like, cool, but who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we won’t be making that segue, maybe we will be defining our brand more solidly

Alicia Carter: And other people will be segueing to you!

LT: That will be amazing!

LF: We hope so! And hopefully in ten or twenty years’ time there’ll be a heap more female comedians and groups that you can say, ‘We are like such and such.’ That’s where we are in history. That’s what we are carving.

You can catch the rest of the Travelling Sisters’ adventures, from their dirty backpacking through the Balkans, living and learning in London and Paris, to the strangely extravagant Clockenflap, as we discuss favourite audiences, identity crises, and what it’s like to be a dancing potato, at the Deviant Women podcast.