On its first anniversary, Open Michelle is more vital than ever

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Adam Lawler attends the vibrant first anniversary edition of the women-only comedy night and chats to event runner Heather Hodges about its journey to conception and what lies in the future for the event.

It’s a beautiful evening to go underground. The North Side of Dublin is languishing in the sun, moving slowly and contentedly, and those who enter the Black Sheep bring that warm, relaxed vibe with them. Specifically to the basement, where an audience of 99% women have gathered for the first anniversary edition of Open Michelle, the all-female comedy night that’s still going strong and, going by the quality of material tonight, only seems to be getting stronger. 

Decorations and heart-shaped balloons (slightly phallic, as more than one comedian pointed out) adorn the room as people file in to an air of welcome and support and give rapturous applause to each and every performer. Gillian Fitz kicks off proceedings and gets the wheels turning with stories of Tinder and farmers in Kerry, giving way to Louise O’ Toole and Fiona Kenny, who litters her set with sharp references to discrimination and has a running bit where she shows the audience pictures of typically Irish things and proceeds to debunk them. For the last picture she holds up a blank page, quipping that it represents the evidence supporting a link between vaccination and autism. 

The first half is quality, and the sheer range of topics and styles on display is both staggering and representative of the encouraging ethos of the event. Kate Feeney’s lambasting of Southside personalities — or lack thereof — is uproarious, as is Emily Ashbourne’s laconic delivery and self-deprecating college dropout affectations, and Tara Calihman, who spears the typical Greystones character. After the break is the open mic half which, apart from the odd nervous fumble, is indistinguishable in quality from the first half, and keeps the audience enraptured and red in the face until the very end. 

“‘I find comedy to be a very vulnerable art form under any circumstance, and I really wanted to provide a space for women comics to work on their material without having to put up with comics who are more focused on trying to shock the audience instead of making them laugh’”

 

The word “wholesome” is bandied about too much, but this night can’t be described as anything else. Throughout the evening MC and organiser Heather Hodges welcomes each comedian to the stage and makes sure to plug the next dates they’re performing. It’s a simple gesture, but one that asserts Open Michelle as a funnel through which to filter the best comedic talent in the city, to hold up some of the funniest people, and the whole affair was strikingly lovely. Heather Hodges spoke to BND afterwards via e-mail to tell the story of Open Michelle, its journey to conception, and what she sees in the event’s future.

 

How did Open Michelle come about? 

 This is actually something I wanted to do back in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, but never got the chance before I moved away to Ireland for a postgrad program at Trinity College. At the time I had been living in Richmond and doing the regular open mic grind for a bit. There was a particularly rough open mic where I saw a man do 5 solid minutes of material on rape. No jokes. Just material I suspected he thought was edgy. I find comedy to be a very vulnerable art form under any circumstance, and I really wanted to provide a space for women comics to work on their material without having to put up with comics who are more focused on trying to shock the audience instead of making them laugh. 

When I moved to Dublin, I was new to the comedy community and thought starting Open Michelle would be a way for me to get involved while providing more space for women to develop their material. It was one part selfish, because I wanted the space to work on my own material, and one part public service, because I wanted to support other women in comedy. 

What was the process of setting up the event like? 

When I was in Richmond, I had been part of the improv and stand up community, so I already had a solid group of comics who I had floated the idea to, but the hang up with finding a venue before I had to leave. In Dublin, I called around to a few places and the Black Sheep were receptive to the idea so I went with them! It was suspiciously easy. Since I was so new, getting the word out and finding comics who were interested was my main concern. 

 “‘I was very conscious that I was an outsider to Dublin and the Dublin comedy community, and this would be my introduction to a lot of people. Like, this is a good idea, but who am I?’”

Once the date and venue were locked in, I posted to Facebook that I was putting a comedy night together for women. I was nervous because it was the internet, and with the internet there's always a risk of trolls, so I assumed there would be backlash or maybe even no response at all.  However, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The spots filled up almost immediately and I had to add a waiting list!

Could you describe the first Open Michelle; how it went, the atmosphere, your thoughts? 

I was sweating bullets. Half because of last summer's heatwave and half out of nerves. I was very conscious that I was an outsider to Dublin and the Dublin comedy community, and this would be my introduction to a lot of people. Like, this is a good idea, but who am I? Lots of imposter syndrome going on. This was also the first time producing a comedy night myself. I had been doing improv and stand up for some time but this was my first try at doing something I had ownership over, which of course is terrifying. I remember the comics arriving 30 minutes before the mic was to start and the closer we inched to the start time the more concerned I was that no one would show up. Something that was present from day one was a warm and supportive vibe from the audience and performers. 

“Something that was present from day one was a warm and supportive vibe from the audience and performers”

 

Were there any worries at any point in the event’s conception? How has the event turned out differently to what you imagined? 

I am so overwhelmed by the positive reception the night has received. I was worried about negative feedback, and there have been a few critics over the last year questioning the need for a space like Open Michelle, one being that there shouldn't be nights specified for underrepresented groups in comedy, rather that underrepresented groups should be included in line ups for all comedy gigs. Yes. Agreed. 100%. More seats at the table, please! The Dublin comedy scene is actually impressive to me because I do see a conscious effort on the part of organisers and promoters to be inclusive of lots of different voices. However, by creating more space for female comics to develop their craft, I'm hoping the pipeline of burgeoning female comics headed towards bigger gigs grows. 

Do you have a personal favourite night of Open Michelle? 

This is a tough call, but I'm not going to lie, the anniversary was pretty special to me. You can't always tell if the work you do is appreciated, but I got cards and notes from comedians who had been part of the night in the past thanking me for building a supportive space. There was a theme of women who were on the fence about doing stand up, and that Open Michelle acted as a catalyst for their comedy pursuits. They're so funny and hardworking and I'M TAKING FULL CREDIT FOR THEIR SUCCESS!

Where do you see Open Michelle in the future? 

I would love to grow but am still deciding which directions to pursue next. I feel there are other underrepresented communities I'd like to be more inclusive of, and I'd love to add another event marked for more informal development of ideas. Working title: “Women Be Workshopping”. I'd love to see more collaboration and, also, more selfishly, more external pressure means I get more writing done.

The next edition of Open Michelle takes place on the 14th of July in the Black Sheep, Capel St.