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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ford's Focus: Holly Gauthier-Frankel

(photo credit: Andrea Hausmann)

Life Lesson from Holly Gauthier-Frankel
by Barbara Ford

I first met Holly Gauthier-Frankel in the fall of 2008 when I was the publicist for a small indie production in which she played the elusive moon. As I walked into the rehearsal between scenes, I heard an angelic voice singing show tunes.  Could this be the very same Queen of the Montreal Burlesque scene who seems to have been born in the wrong decade, her voluptuous figure and come-hither doe eyes reminiscent of the most deadly femme fatale from any 1950 film noir? As we spoke by phone on New Year’s Eve, I got a fascinating glimpse  of this very bright, insightful and articulate artist whose one-woman Fringe Fest hit, Miss Sugarpuss Must Die, will be remounted in the upcoming Wildside Festival at Centaur Theatre.

Growing up in a musical home, (Frankel’s mom is a singer and her step-dad, father and brother are all drummers) by the time she was 7 years old she was singing advertising jingles and dubbing movies.   At 10, she saw her first musical (Les Miserables) and knew she wanted to pursue a career in musical theatre.  She attended Roslyn Elementary and Westmount High School but had a hard time fitting in: at age 12 her peers were more likely to be artists in their 30’s and 40’s.  She wasn’t really into pop culture either, favouring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and shamefully admits she had to dumb-down to get by.  Frankel’s own mom coined the pet name “my little anachronism”!

Frankel attended Marianopolis CEGEP, studying theatre with Victor Garaway, whose creativity and progressive approach (using Yoga, Butoh and percussion as theatre training techniques) appealed to her.  She continued her education at McGill, studying English Literature and Women’s Studies, leaving with a Bachelor of Arts Degree and a hefty dose of disdain for what she refers to as a “bastion of non-creativity” that had all but stomped out her originality.

Throughout her school and university years she performed with a youth community theatre program through Shaar Hashomayim where she absorbed valuable performance experience.  Once out of McGill she co-produced for the group alongside Raymond Zilberberg and Adam Blanshay (Schwartz’s: The Musical Assistant Director), presenting shows like Evita and A Chorus Line. Frankel confides that growing up with artists as parents “I was exposed to stuff as a child that no child should be. Work was my salvation … I couldn’t have stopped. It helped me to deal with whatever hardships were in my life at the time.” 

After leaving McGill, she travelled for a while but once back in town got seriously busy at making a career out of her acting, singing and dancing talents. Times were tough though; the golden years when she was the darling of the dubbing scene (mid-teens to early 20’s) were over.  Frankel had her share of Joe-jobs but freely admits, “I’m not office material.  I really get going postal!” 

Several catastrophic events in her personal life, including the break-up of a 6-year relationship and the death of someone close to her, took their toll at this time. In addition, the Cinar scandal substantially reduced her income and her body type was a constant issue with directors and casting agents. “I ran myself to tears on treadmills” she confesses, and tried every diet known to man, finally resorting to bulimia to combat her natural body type. Through therapy and sheer will, she managed to overcome the eating disorder but still no luck in landing an acting gig.

Around this time Frankel’s mother came in from Vegas, where she was singing back-up, with her husband on drums, for Celine Dion and took Frankel to the World Film Festival to see the film The Anatomy of Burlesque, a documentary by the late Lindalee Tracy.   Bingo!  Frankel called up some of her musical theatre friends and after 6 months of research that included reading a ton of material and a trip to the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Vegas, Miss Sugarpuss and her Burley-Q Revue was born, becoming a 2005 Fringe Fest favourite.  

What a release!  Frankel had hit the trifecta, empowering herself as a woman by glorifying her curves, validating the writer in her and finally becoming a stage actor.   Though still shy at her core, no longer was she the social outcast, the “fat girl from high school. I could use someone other than me to exorcise the demons.”  She started to feel like she fit in somewhere and that misanthropic chip she’d been lugging around on her shoulder for years started to crumble.

The group was reaping the rewards of the renewed Burlesque trend and Frankel tried to keep them together as a troupe but it was too difficult so she started to work solo. After years of being overlooked professionally, the bright spotlight of notoriety was a bit overwhelming.  Frankel’s knee-jerk reaction was to go to Singapore with her boyfriend; a move she soon realized was “a bad choice with a bad guy” and returned home, tail between her legs.

Once back, she soon felt the effects of burning your bridges behind you when she couldn’t just pick up where she left off.  She managed to hook up with Dom Castelli’s Diary of a Lost Circus, a kind of renegade variety show where she met fellow cabaret entertainer, Seska Lee.  The two became fast friends and worked as a duo, eventually collaborating to create Miss Sugarpuss and Miss Seska Lee Present the Home for Wayward Girls.  “It was a weird hybrid of shows, experimental theatre, that we presented mostly at MainLine.  We had other Burlesque performers and groups like Uncalled For in the line-ups.”

Through the Fringe Festivals, Frankel had met alternative performers from all over the world and a group from Tokyo asked her to perform there. “I like to experience new things and I need to explore life as an artist but I was terrified too.”  Frankel’s nomadic sprit won out and since someone else was footing the travel and accommodations costs, there was really nothing to lose and everything to gain. She put her trust in the hands of her friends and needless to say, the Tokyo audiences loved her.  She got a new roommate to boot, her artistic circle widened considerably and she now visits as regularly as her schedule and finances allow. 

It’s 2009 and Frankel’s astute inner voice (she calls it her metronome) is telling her the Burlesque scene is changing but she’s not sure how to adjust.  On a whim, she applies to the Fringe Festival lottery with only the barest thread of an idea and nary a word on paper and promptly forgets about it, figuring it won’t pan out.  Months later the call comes that she won a spot and now the pressure is on.  Two days before the deadline to retract from the Fringe she was frantic and seriously thinking of pulling out  but friend and ally Jody Burkholder urged her to stick it out.

In 2008 Paul Van Dyck had asked Frankel to be in his play, The Cyclops, but the timing was bad and she wasn’t available.  A year later she saw him in MainLine’s The Real Inspector Hound and his own adaptation of Paradise Lost, where she instantly recognized someone who really understood solo-artist shows so she approached Paul to ask for his direction.

“I really dragged my feet on this one.  It was a long labour; it just didn’t want to come out” but Paul’s patience never wavered and by May, just weeks before the Fringe, they finally had a working script. Perhaps it was the deeply personal aspects of the play that made it difficult to write. She was about to hang her dirty laundry on the line for all to see: a scary prospect. It struck me as Frankel candidly broached all manner of taboo subjects on the phone that this is one brave and passionate woman, willing to take risks both personally and professionally, persevering in the search to understand herself and blessed with the brains and talent to not only learn from her mistakes but use them, examine them with a writer’s observant eye and shape them into art.  

Miss Sugarpuss Must Die was a Fringe hit, officially, winning the Best Production Frankie award and landing it a spot in the current Wildside Festival.  A great way to start 2011 but 2010 didn’t end too shabbily either with a glorious singing role in the Greek chorus of Scapegoat Carnivale’s Medea in October, quickly followed with a leading role in Tableau D’Hôte’s ensemble piece, Dark Owl, at Mainline in November. But there’s more … this February Frankel goes to Key West, Florida for the Burlesque Festival and then in March she’s into rehearsal for Centaur’s  Schwartz’s: The Musical.  By May, she’s says she’ll be ready to do a little hibernating, maybe travel a bit and get out into nature, do some serious writing. 

She has an idea for something but is letting it simmer for a while, though while renovating Sugarpuss costumes during a New York visit over Christmas, some persistent ideas wouldn’t let her hot-glue one more sequin until she committed them to paper.  Frankel’s writing process is not one of routine: she doesn’t have a ritual and prefers it that way.  She keeps a journal but doesn’t write in it every day.  Previously journaling by hand, she has recently unearthed an old-school typewriter and is exploring how the outmoded apparatus affects the creative process.  Can’t you just picture Miss Sugarpuss typing madly away on an old Corona? … right off the cover of a dime store detective novel.

With writing on the horizon, to get her into writer mode she’s revisiting her literature roots reading lots of poetry.  Some of her favourites are Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, James Joyce, and all the Victorian poets, especially Tennyson.  She was recently introduced to Russian poetry and is all over that at the moment.

At 31, Frankel says she lived and played hard at a young age, fell into the party-girl cliché but saw how her birth father, who she’s slowly reconnecting with, had to learn some crazy lessons with his own addictions and didn’t want to go down that path.  Turning her back on the 24/7 party meant losing some friends as well but she trusted the little voice in her head that helped her claw her way out of some really bad situations in the past, preferring now to avoid anything that can muddy her sensibilities. With a fair share of therapy behind her, Frankel continues to search the inner depths through meditation and spiritual readings, stays in shape physically with Yoga and dance and enjoys cooking in her little St-Henri apartment, maintaining a vegetarian diet.  Most importantly she tries to be mindful, laughingly stating, “There’s always room for a lesson from the universe.”

Quite a ride from awkward school girl to toast of the town.  “I know absolutely nothing; I just follow my gut and you can’t be afraid; you have to get the joy in what you’re doing.  I’m like a funny hybrid forest creature that fell into the theatre scene.  I’ve come into myself as a woman and feel such absolute love and generosity from Montreal. I relish it – love it. I want people to know that honesty and openness can create massive positive change.”

So boys and girls, what have we learned from this scintillating, titillating personality? Fly your freak flag- it’s what you came here to do!  

You can catch Miss Sugarpuss waving her particular brand of sequined and feathered flags at Centaur from January 4 to 16 (Box Office: 514-288-3161).  

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