Anna Renzenbrink didn’t fly 9,000 miles from Melbourne, Australia, to Austin, Texas, to be nice.
Renzenbrink, who braved innumerable in-flight movies to appear in the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, will appear with local improvisers Kaci Beeler, Jill Bernard, and Megan Flynn this Sunday in Spider Dance, an improvised comedy show she describes as “seeing how bad we can be, really.”
“Not bad as in awful,” she quickly adds. “Bad as in cheeky.”
This is a fortuitous choice of words, considering that Spider Dance is named after a scandalous burlesque show once performed in Melbourne by 19th Century courtesan and all-around bad girl Lola Montez. The year was 1855, and Montez reportedly lifted her skirts to her waist—revealing a distinct lack of undergarments.
While there won’t be any flashing of knickers (or lack thereof) in the show, Renzenbrink designed its montage-like format to bring out the best of the worst in the women who perform it. “It’s a bit disgusting, a bit delicious—and you don’t have to worry about being pretty and nice onstage. You can even be ugly.”
The invitation to be ugly may be freeing for some female performers who are tired of trying to look like poster art on stage. Renzenbrink, who has been performing with the repertory company Impro Melbourne for ten years, says that while the pressure to be beautiful on stage doesn’t afflict all women, many, including herself, experience inhibitions because of it.
“You’re only letting your guard down so much. You’ve got layers and layers of being concerned about, you know, body image, or what you're looking like. I know that women always sort of do stage makeup. You notice that little bit of confidence, that mask—holding yourself up, chest out, tummy tucked in. I guess that, for me, it's finally getting to a point where you just don't care so much about what people think of you, and you're ready to reveal that darker side that you've been keeping hidden.”
Therefore, when Out of Bounds executive producer Jeremy Sweetlamb offered to round up local female talent for Renzenbrink to perform with, she specifically requested “ladies with tons of short form improv game experience and a feisty, dark side to their humor.”
The assembled cast includes Drum Machine's Jill Bernard, Girls Girls Girls' Megan Flynn as well as Parallelogramophonograph's Kaci Beeler. Sweetlamb states, “Anyone who is familiar with the three ladies we chose knows that we were able to find that for sure.”
Renzenbrink considers sharing the stage exclusively with female performers a valuable experience occasionally, especially coming from an improv scene where men generally outnumber women. “So we end up playing love interests or mums, or things like that. To just play with women, I feel like the dynamic shifts a little bit. It pushes you just a little bit further, into different character territory.”
For her, those characters could be “a mother and daughter being really vile to each other, as opposed to a tender heartfelt scene between them. Or someone horrible, like a demented cat lady, who's actually got some poetry or philosophical truths in her.”
While Renzenbrink has always enjoyed playing quirky characters, she typically gravitates toward those she describes as “historical ladies, prone to a bit of hysteria.” Ladies like Tilly and Flora from her most recent show “In the Parlour,” a pair of sisters loosely based on the characters of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
“These women completely overreact if someone comes round and it's the wrong time of day, or they're wearing the wrong bonnet, or they don't have the right cake.”
In such situations, tiny breaches of etiquette create tempests in teakettles. As in the sketches of Monty Python, to which Renzenbrink listened repeatedly on cassette tapes as a child, much of the humor comes from sending up these stuffy ideals and mannerisms.
But beneath the mockery of rules is a hint of real nostalgia for them, which Renzenbrink attributes to Victorian fiction she read as a child. “Whether it was Anne of Green Gables or Jane Eyre, people were really stifled in their lives in those books,” she says. The advantage to strict rules of decorum? “It’s so easy to create drama, because you just have to break one of them.”
Which brings us back to “Spider Dance,” which one Melbourne reviewer called “beautiful women doing ugly things.”
Renzenbrink admits, “You know, I'm one of those people who if I swear, people still seem shocked. You know I have a day job that's all about rules. I work for an insurance company, and my job is to make sure everyone complies with the laws. So yeah, it is a little bit about breaking rules.”
Anna Renzenbrink performs in Spider Dance with special OOB guests Kaci Beeler, Jill Bernard, and Megan Flynn on Sunday, Sep. 2 at 7:00 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Theater. Tickets are available at the Out of Bounds website.