The Peers

The Peers

Kate Hammer, comedy scenester

The Montreal improv comic, organizer and host on inclusivity in comedy and parodying Shakespeare at the Fringe.

Kate Hammer is a shockingly busy woman.

For the past year and a half, she’s been hosting the weekly comedy hour Infemous, a show giving space to femme and nonbinary comedians and monologists both with and without experience. She also performs regularly in sketch and improv groups across Montreal. At this month’s Fringe Festival she’s written and directed a Shakespeare mash-up comedy, The Peers, in which she also performs, as well as starring in the queer coming-of-age story Exits, written by Ella Kohlmann and directed by Madie Jolliffe. And because Hammer seemingly doesn’t sleep, this summer she’ll be doing two shows as part of OFF-Just for Laughs: Lesbian Speed Date From Hell! (also being presented at Montreal Pride) and Tinder Tales.

This is one comedian who’s fully committed to thoughtfulness in comedy — to a consideration of what we’re laughing at and who we’re laughing with — but also to playfulness. It’s easy to see that a longstanding love of performance and laughter keep Hammer excited about what she does.

Nora Rosenthal: You have so many projects on the go.

Kate Hammer: Yeah I think that’s why I don’t go to therapy right now. I’m in between therapists because too many want me to slow down and I’m not listening.

NR: What’s your secret to being so busy, other than ditching your therapist?

KH: (laughs) I think most of it’s because I started university “late,” so I had a lot of fun and travelled a lot and met people, and when I finally came to Montreal I was ready to hit the ground running.

NR: Were you already involved in comedy when you created Infemous?

KH: Kind of. I guess I’d been doing improv for a year, which sounds a little unhinged but it’s one of those things that I feel like I prepared myself for throughout my life without meaning to. I grew up with three older brothers and that’s where I learned that there was power in comedy. Whoever was the most funny was the most respected — we were always trying to out-funny each other. So I grew up learning to take my own space. Then out of school I became a tour guide. If I didn’t know a fact and someone asked me, “Oh what’s that building?” I always turned to comedy to save me. I’d be like, “Oh that’s my summer house” and everyone would laugh and they would forget that they asked the question.

NR: I know you do a lot of improv and a lot of sketch still. I feel like, for most people, that sounds like the most terrifying type of comedy. At least in stand-up you have your bit. What is it that draws you to this kind of comedy?

KH: For years I’d known about improv and been so drawn to it and looked up UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) in New York, the improv school that was founded by Amy Poehler and Matt Besser and that crew. Very nerdy improv. A couple of weeks ago I went to New York to take level one of the UCB format. It was such a cool experience. For years I’d wanted to go.

I guess what really got me into it in Montreal was wanting a community, and wanting to make friends, being new in the city. But I think the real drive was to meet those like-minded people and make those bonds by playing pretend on stage as adults.

NR: Speaking of community, I’m interested in the role of the comedian as organizer and host — could you talk about that?

KH: I am a big believer that as a performer you have a responsibility. You have the responsibility to make space for voices, to represent the world that you want to be a part of. You know at so many shows it’s the same performers and it’s a bunch of white men and people are like, “This is because they’re just the best people,” and well, are you giving space for anyone else to have a chance? So whenever I produce a show, I always try and mix in newer performers, people who have never done stand-up. I want them on my show because I want that space for new comedians who don’t punch down, who support each other and have unique points of view, voices that need to be heard.

NR: Is there anything you’d like to see happening differently in Montreal’s comedy and theatre scenes?

KH: Yeah, definitely. I think people need to take a chance and stop thinking that they know the equation or the formula to make a successful show. I got into [comedy] because I respect comedy as a vessel to explore emotions and humanity. It’s such a relatable form of art that a lot people watch. And I think reaching for that low-hanging fruit of sexism and racism pushes a dangerous narrative. No matter how small a stage, that audience is going to know that that idea’s validated in a public space. When we put something on stage, who are we doing it for and why? I think we’re not asking that enough.

The Montreal scene has made some great leaps in being inclusive and accessible but it’s really hard to see that dangerous narrative of comedy getting positive feedback. Because for every good show — and by good I mean inclusive and accessible, no rape jokes, LGBTQ+ positive — here’s five shows of the opposite, so it can feel like a really uphill battle.

NR: To return to your (lighthearted!) show for a moment, The Peers. What was the genesis of this idea of a Shakespeare mash-up?

KH: First and foremost I promised myself that I would have fun. I’m really interested in questioning what’s in our canon of literature and theatre. Why do we hold Shakespeare and other names up instead of building a new narrative out of something current and alive? I don’t think any of it is terrible, but we’re like this is the level you have to reach to be considered poetry, to be considered good. It’s also a fun thing to play with because everyone knows Shakespeare to some extent. Even if you’ve never read Shakespeare, you’ve for sure seen something else in the zeitgeist that has parodied Shakespeare.

I realized that I missed a lot seeing shows. You know I feel like I get A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’ve seen it how many times? But when you go over it again, you’re like, oh I forgot that the fairy queen was trying to keep a small child as a slave.

NR: Anything else about the show, any favourite moments?

KH: There’s a Björk reference that I particularly love, more because I get to wear a swan than anything else.

I cast [The Peers] before I wrote it because I really wanted the characters to be inspired by the actors. All the characters are called by our own names cause they’re playing very heightened versions of ourselves.

I’ve tried to rein myself in over the years, not to make others uncomfortable, not to be too much, and writing this show is the first time in a long time that I feel like I’ve been allowed to be big and to be myself. ■

The Peers plays at Théâtre Impro Montréal (3697 St-Laurent) June 7, 9, 10, 13, 15 & 16, various times, $10–$12