Celebrating the Underdog!
Words Fay Edwards
Find Crips & Creeps on Instagram and Facebook
My interview with Madeleine Stewart, the founder of the Crips and Creeps comedy room, began after I had swerved my way through Sydney’s traffic and sprinted a few blocks to arrive – puffing, flustered and sweaty – at 107 Projects. Despite my horribly late arrival, Madeleine greeted me warmly and assured me it was okay. I felt instantly calm, knowing with feeling that she really meant it.
Throughout the course of our conversation back in September 2019, I realised that this was Madeleine’s nature. Her awareness of the small things that make people feel welcome and safe is evident in the way she runs the Crips & Creeps comedy room at 107 Projects. With hard work and intention, Madeleine has carefully created a comedy room that is as accessible to as many people as possible. And by ‘accessible’, Madeleine means a place that is not only physically accessible, but also somewhere that people who are often treated as outsiders feel nurtured.
Crips & Creeps is a place where people across the spectrum of our community feel welcome to participate, as an audience member or a performer. The shows are inclusive, considerate and most of all, damn funny.
Before COVID-19 and the government pulled the rug from underneath the entire arts & cultural sector, I went to one of the Crips & Creeps shows at 107 Projects. As someone who has always been a little uncomfortable with almost all stand-up comedy, it was a relief to experience a comedy set that wasn’t discriminatory or derogatory towards anyone – all the while being absolutely hilarious. It wasn’t until I chatted to Madeleine afterwards that I understood the amount of effort and care that goes into creating this space.
Madeleine spoke to me about all the obvious things that can make a place more accessible and inclusive. Details like the lighting of the room, the noise level, the availability of an Auslan interpreter and a quiet room to breathe when you need to – alongside cheap tickets and an open-hearted audience – are just some of them.
But really, Madeleine says it all boils down to common sense. Be aware and considerate of the needs of others, be open to all the colours of a community, and be honest.
Fay: What inspired you to start the Crips & Creeps comedy room?
Madeleine: Sydney is an incredibly inaccessible city for people with disabilities. As a comedian myself, I’ve experienced the barriers to disabled performers first-hand. Friends of mine tell stories of having to leave their wheelchairs at the bottom of the stairs to climb their way to the top for a gig. These people have had to sacrifice their dignity to work. I wanted to create a space where people of disability and from marginalised communities felt able and welcome to participate.
Fay: What makes a venue accessible?
Madeleine: So many little things!! But to figure it out I went out to performers and asked them what their dream space would look like. What were the little details that I wasn’t aware of that would allow disabled and marginalised people to perform?
Fay: What are some of these details?
Madeleine: Performers with disability expressed the need for a physically accessible space, and accessible stage. You’ll notice that at Crips & Creeps shows we don’t have a stage – it’s at ground level and that’s on purpose. Some audience members who are wheelchair-users expressed that they hated that ‘wheelchair accessible spaces’ were always right up front. What if they wanted to sit in the back with their friends? So, we have accessible space running up the side of the seats rather than in front.
But I must say that of ALL marginalised groups (LGBTQI+, female, diverse cultural backgrounds, people with disability), the overwhelming requirement was safety. Just that – safety in our workplace. There is a startling lack of measures enforced in comedy clubs that protect marginalised performers from being harassed verbally, physically or sexually. How sad is that?
But even sadder, most of this harassment is done right in front of other comedians, managers and audience… most of the time by other (male) comedians. What makes it worse is that every Tom, Dick and Harry say online that they will walk us to our car, that they want to enforce safety in our workplace – but never really act on it.
In fact, the (male) comedians who inflict this abuse and harassment are idolised in the comedy community. Currently there are a few on television. Every female comedian I speak to has a story of harassment based around the comedy community. And now it’s getting to a point where we are used to it. If you ever wonder why there aren’t more female comedians….just reflect on this.
I will not tolerate harassment or abuse at Crips & Creeps or any other event I run. I will not employ performers who behave in such a way, nor will I tolerate audience members who behave negatively. The safety of my performers and audience is very high on my priority list. I hope my audience and performers know beyond any doubt that I have their back and I will protect them in their workplace…and help them to get home safely afterwards.
Fay: What made you choose 107 Projects as the venue?
Madeleine: 107 Projects was the perfect place for it. Aside from being physically accessible, I also didn’t have to work to create a loving, creative community. I needed an Inclusive space and 107 Projects was it.
Fay: What has the response been like to Crips & Crips? Both from the audience and performers?
Madeleine: I’ve been wanting to open a comedy club like this for many years and to see such a positive response is so overwhelming…in a good way! It’s gratifying to see it all come together so smoothly and professionally.
It’s created a wave of excitement in the comedy community, there’s no other night like ours and it’s the personal favourite of a few comedians. It offers performers a taste of Auslan interpreting, leading the way and creating a baseline example of accessible and inclusive performances. Hopefully more comedians will follow our lead and we will see an increase of accessibility during comedy festival seasons.
Our audience is growing, with a large range of people from all areas of the community. In each new show, I’ve been noticing more and more people with disability or who are deaf – most of whom become regulars. I’ve also noticed lots of young able-bodied people in our audience. Often for our able-bodied audience, this is their first time experiencing the world of Disability or LQBTQI+ or other marginalised communities. Through sharing a laugh I think we can break down barriers and reveal our shared experiences.
Fay: What has the pandemic meant for Crips & Creeps?
Madeleine: Crips & Creeps were all set to perform at Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I received the AMP Tomorrow Maker Award and that was going to support us financially. Very exciting stuff… and then it was no more! But worst of all, Covid-19 meant that Crips & Creeps has had to go on a little break. Lots of other shows have dived into the live streaming world, and we considered this. However, stand-up is a very unique art form that feeds 90% on the audience. Stand-up without the audience is terrifying and awkward for everyone involved. I decided that I would rather deny my audience shows than offer sub-par performances.
But when we come back, watch out! I’ve had lots of time to think and plan, and the next lot of Crips & Creeps shows will be our best ever.
Fay: What has the pandemic meant for you?
Madeleine: Oh man, it has been difficult for all artists during Covid-19. It was definitely an experience, and the jury’s still out on whether it was good or bad. Not only did I lose all of my work immediately for an unforeseen amount of time, but I lost my sense of identity and community. Artists put so much of themselves into their work, revolve their lives and self-worth around their work…what happens when it disappears?
After weeks of binging Seinfeld, listening to stock tracks of audience laughter, and many gins, work started to filter in again. It was a lot of corporate online hosting and educational talks on accessibility and inclusivity for conferences, but it was nice get dressed up again.
I also miraculously landed a paid internship working with my favourite theatre company, ‘Back to Back’. Covid-19 had it’s good and pretty crumby moments, but if I had to find a lesson in all of it, it’s that it taught me to be more adaptable and draw on my other, less nurtured skills.
Fay: And how about comedy more generally – what’s the path forward after a truly awful start to 2020?
Madeleine: I honestly have no idea what’s in store for comedy as a whole. But I do know one thing for sure… there will be an intolerable amount of Covid-19 jokes for a long time. God help us.
Fay: When can we expect the next Crips & Creeps comedy show, and how can we keep in touch?
Madeleine: We will be back as soon as I can be sure I can create a Covid-19 Free space. I have some fantastic shows in the brewing at 107, but also currently planning a big Crips & Creeps tour (as soon as its safe). But most exciting, we have merch coming! Sexy sexy Crips & Creeps merch.