Shoshana Sperling has opened for stadiums full of Jann Arden fans, wowed Fringe audiences with her funny-sad solo shows and made queer crowds feel gayer than they were before. But for the love of god, will somebody please hold her hand?"I'm always terrified," says the 5-foot-nothing writer and performer whose most ambitious project yet, the ensemble drama Finding Regina, opens tonight (Thursday February 20) at Theatre Passe Muraille.
"I'm terrified of this play. I'm terrified no one will come. I'm terrified that if people come they'll hate it. Hey, I'm in therapy! What do you want?"
That's a typical Sperling outburst, full of equal parts love-me-please insecurity and shrill bravado. It's also a way of getting us on her side. She's taking out insurance. If we laugh with her over her insecurities, we won't judge her, right?
Sperling tells me that during rehearsals she was having problems playing a scene.
"Um, is Caroline Gillis doing anything right now?" she asked director Kelly Thornton. Gillis played Sperling's part in the play's workshop. "Let's get Caroline. Oh, I hope she's free."
Thornton, artistic director of feminist company Nightwood -- co-producer of the show -- of course said no. She sees Finding Regina as a breakthrough. It's not a coincidence that she also shepherded Sonja Mills's The Danish Play to success last fall.
"Both Sonja and Shoshana were ready to be taken seriously as playwrights," she explains. "They were both slotted in comedy, or sort of sketch theatre, not considered the real thing. But look at this play. I don't know if anyone expects this kind of work to come out of her."
In Sperling's deceptively simple piece, three former high school friends meet up in the local ICU when another friend attempts suicide. They reconnect, throw their weight around, smoke up, then bemoan their current lives and chip away at the past and each other with emotional ice picks.
Think The Big Chill meets Northern Exposure.
"Yeah, and in the end I fuck William Hurt," blurts out Sperling. "And JoBeth Williams. Because I'm still dabbling. No, I'm done with that!"
The playwright says the themes go back years, back to when she attended the funeral of a friend who'd shot himself in the head. It was one of many suicides to come.
"I wondered if I was at the age when friends started dying," she recalls. "I flew back to Regina thinking I was so smart and had my life together, and ended up changing the way I thought about everything."
What she saw was that a whole group of Regina kids felt stuck, with seemingly nowhere to go. Tragic, since many of them were the offspring of radical intellectuals who -- blacklisted from many American university faculties -- emigrated to the leftist University of Regina in the 60s and 70s.
"I grew up in a house full of people arguing about Trotsky and Mao's dialectic," says Sperling, whose dad is a retired political science and journalism prof and mom (they're divorced) a union rep in Vancouver.
At five, Sperling, who had dreams of becoming the next Shirley Temple ("Eventually my cup size grew too big"), got up at workers' rallies to sing union songs.
"I loved that," she says. "It wasn't just entertainment. It made me look at performing in a whole different way. I could move people to picket."
After a stint at York's theatre school, unsatisfying except for the fact that she met future comedy partner Lisa Brooke, Sperling dropped out, moved to Winnipeg for a year, then studied theatre at Concordia. She returned to T.O. to work on clown and sketch with Brooke.
The two made a name for themselves at festivals like March Of Dames with their character-based comedy, which included everything from a Kiss send-up (in full Kiss regalia) to the dead-on satire of the Sunshine Steppers, a pair of flaky New Agers.
"When you do comedy, people tend to write you off as someone who farts a lot," admits Sperling. "Not gassy farts, but you know what I mean. If you do comedy, you're not an actor. You don't have real things to say."
Ironic, especially since underlying all of Sperling's character work is some dark social satire. Take Shasty, a nasty but hilarious look at a Britney Spears-like performer who's been completely manufactured. Or Saucy Gaucho, who unsmilingly targets everything politically incorrect or ecologically unsound around her. Both are hits wherever she goes, especially at feminist functions like Nightwood's annual FemCab or queer cabarets (Sperling's considered an honourary dyke) like Strange Sisters and Cheap Queers.
Finding Regina hits way closer to home. Literally. Sperling's brother and father still live there. She spends all her vacations there. The play premiered at Regina's Globe Theatre last summer and raised some local eyebrows with its frank depiction of anomie and sex, not to mention the fact that the playwright hadn't changed some of the characters' last names.
"It was great to see Shoshana in that environment," says actor Teresa Pavlinek. "We all got a sense of how much the place means to her, how it's affected her and made her who she is."
"Where we are from is who we are," says Sperling, who lives with fellow Regina pal musician Maury LaFoy, of the Supers. "I'm still friends with so many people from Regina.
"When I meet people from the Prairies, even from Winnipeg, there's a bond. Maybe it's the weather that makes you reach out. If you see a car on the side of the road you pull over, because there's not going to be another for a long time and that person might freeze to death."email@example.com
FINDING REGINA by Shoshana Sperling, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Sperling, Teresa Pavlinek and Jeremy Harris. Presented by Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 20) and runs to March 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $23-$32, Sunday pwyc. 416-504-7529.