A safe stage
A new live showcase gives women performers a welcoming atmosphere
The Ooley Theater is packed. Viewers sit in the aisles because all 45 seats in the small space are taken. The crowd of mostly women talk as if they all know each other. Some do, but a lot of folks are meeting for the first time and seem comfortable instantly striking up a friendship. They’re all here to see the second installment of the Fierce Femme Show, a variety show with only women, femme-identifying and nonbinary performers. In other words, no men.
When the host and producer of the show, Kelly Appel, comes out onstage, everyone gets quiet.
“Do you ever just stand there minding your own business,” she begins, “when suddenly you can’t tell if you just started your period or it was just a lot of vaginal discharge?”
The crowd erupts in laughter, instantly. Even the men are cracking up. This joke, Appel tells me later when we sit down to talk, doesn’t always get the same reaction.
“I did that at another showcase—it was a mix of men and women—and everyone was silent,” Appel says. “There was one woman that laughed. Everyone else was silent. I even heard one person go, ’Ew.’”
The crowd at the Fierce Femme Show may have been co-ed just like the other showcase, but the big difference was that at the other show, Appel was in the minority as a female comic. Fierce Femme changed the entire mood and energy of the space.
There have only been two Fierce Femme shows so far, and December 16 will be its third performance. Originally, Appel conceived of the idea after seeing the all-femme music festival Sac LadyFest.
“I just thought it was really cool to see something that you don’t see, where it’s just pretty much all women on a stage,” Appel says. “I was just like, ’Why isn’t it something that’s all kinds of performers?’ Because I know that there is a need for femmes to have a platform where they feel 100 percent comfortable making any kind of joke they want, performing any kind of talent they have, and that the environment always feels positive and loving.”
So far, the show has featured comedians, musicians, burlesque dancers and one woman who read a poem describing her transition from male to female. Appel was going to book a fire dancer, but the pyrotechnic ballerina had to cancel last minute. There’s really no limit to the kinds of performers she’ll have on her stage. She’s also clear that it’s not a “women only” show. Performers include all femme-identifying people and nonbinary folks.
“Whether it’s a woman of color, whether it’s a trans woman, a nonbinary person, I just want to give them a space where it’s intended for them, and there’s not going to be any pressure or heckling or harassment that would make them feel unsafe in their bodies and expressions of themselves,” Appel says. “If you’re a femme-identifying person or nonbinary and you have a talent, I have a stage.”
The power of giving the stage to women is pretty remarkable. Every performer, regardless of skill level—some brand new, others at it for several years—seemed to tap into their true selves instantaneously.
Comedian Amber Whitford performed her first ever non-open-mic set at Fierce Femme Show and had a great set.
“The audience was so welcoming and open,” Whitford said afterward. “Their energy made me feel adorable.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Comedian Wendy Lewis has been doing comedy for four years. She was well-acquainted with the mostly male bills that populate the scene.
“Not only do I feel like I have to get up there and make sure I’m funny, but I have to represent females in general, because that’s the stigma, that women aren’t generally thought of as being funny,” Lewis says.
She says she had a blast at Fierce Femme. She was feeling so confident, she even did some material she wrote earlier that day.
“To be actually able to do what you do and not have pressure, and to be able to just be yourself and do what comes natural, it’s beautiful and it’s liberating,” Lewis says. “I feel like if more humans in general, not just us women, had a support system, we could feel like we could totally be OK.”
Many of the performers at the first few Fierce Femme shows have been comedians because Appel came from the comedy world herself. Since starting in the scene a few years ago, she’d met a lot of talented women comics who were underrepresented onstage. That’s when she decided to create her own show.
“The idea’s not necessarily to be exclusive of men, but to be inclusive of people that aren’t always on bills,” Appel says. “I saw it across the board on a lot of shows. It’s so much beyond me because I just saw a need for something, and a lot of people wanted it.”
A key part of the show is that it isn’t exclusively a stand-up comic showcase. This helps to discourage the competitive nature of comedy as well as heckling, which is strictly forbidden.
Pianist Miranda Goodman was one of the noncomic performers at the premiere show. She hadn’t played in front of a crowd in a long time. Goodman performed an extremely vulnerable improvised piece expressing the unfiltered grief she felt of having learned her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a week earlier. The crowd was moved and readily shifted from crazy joke mode to sharing a serious emotional moment with Goodman.
“I felt a positive energy in the entire venue,” Goodman says. “It made me feel accepted, safe and respected knowing that everyone who attended were open-minded folks.”
So far, the show has gone better than Appel imagined, she says. The production is put together mostly by Appel, though her partner Alexander Cain helps out as well as her friend Bella Bennett. In the future, Appel aspires to get more hands involved. For Bennett, the experience of working on the show has been so powerful that she’s experimenting with a stand-up set.
“It’s nice to see something new and something positive about women for once that doesn’t include our sexuality in just a negative way,” Bennett says. “It’s made me want to join in on that fun and sense of freedom.”
Back to the period joke: Appel thinks it perfectly illustrates what’s so special about this space. In her few years of doing comedy, Appel has heard “women aren’t funny” from male comics several times and has been roasted by men who have followed her set. She says her period joke is viewed by these types of performers as evidence of women comics being inherently uninteresting.
“To have a predominately female audience with all-female performers, you don’t get any of that, I don’t feel like there’s repercussions to your jokes,” Appel says.
Most of the men in the audience have been open allies, but some come skeptical. Appel tells me about a 20-something jock from San Diego at the premiere. He seemed hesitant, assuming it would be a bunch of male-bashing. (It was not.) After the show, he had so much fun, Appel says, he couldn’t stop talking about it.
“Any time you’re surrounded by a lot of feminine energy, everything feels a little more enlightened,” Appel says. “There’s no competitiveness because we’re all in it together.”