Tuesday 10 June 2014

Geek Girl Review: Roller Derby Saved My Soul

By Katie Bonnar

60 minutes: the exact length of a roller derby bout and, coincidently, the running time of Nancy Kenny’s phenomenal fringe show, Roller Derby Saved My Soul. Capital Geek Girls has mentioned this show before and Assistant Editor Courtney and I were lucky enough to be able to attend the one-off fundraising performance here in Ottawa before Kenny headed off across the country to Canadian fringes far and wide for performances and to film her documentary on Canadian fringe festivals.

As a retired derby player, I had two prevailing thoughts going into the performance: how can roller derby translate in a theatre space? And, will non-derby audiences “get” it? The short answers to both are through clever staging and YES.

Using very pared down set, the story moves through several environments without fuss. A simplified track is taped out on the floor and a bench is placed in the centre with her few props. Scenes switch fluidly from Amy’s apartment to the track and even out to the bar for celebratory drinks. Kenny’s script fills in the scenery and ensures the focus stays on the performance. Through an elaborate superhero-esque montage, Kenny suits up in her roller derby equipment fairly early on in the performance, leaving her to perform the bulk of the hour-long show in full roller derby gear- even skates!

Nancy Kenny’s time spent on skates and around roller derby women definitely shows. Her protagonist, Amy, embodies one of the two most common personas in roller derby, the timid superhero-wannabe. While Amy’s sister June, also played by Kenny, is alpha female through and through. Having been away from the game for over two years, I could finally see what Kenny was highlighting. Roller derby is a highly-charged and dramatic environment – fertile ground for humorous commentary and her witty script delivers regardless of your knowledge of the sport. Rink rash, when explained in gory detail, is remarkable and amusing to all, while the inlines vs quad skates argument bubbles up briefly and gives the initiated a chance to knowingly smirk. That each girl assumes a derby name, which must be unique and registered with a worldwide roster is, let’s be honest, teetering on the ridiculous. Though I did check, and my name is still registered.

Kenny goes about this mild roasting of roller derby with respect and admiration. She has chosen to single out the very best parts of the game and leave them as the focus. While roller derby may completely absorb your time, leaving little for friends and family, there is a strong sisterhood formed over hours on and off the track that develops and, for better or worse, replaces many non-derby friends. And, to her credit, Kenny makes it very clear: roller derby is filled with body diversity. There is room for every shape and size on the track – something few other competitive sports can proudly boast. She also touches upon the emotionally-charged aspects of an all-female team and how that can, in many circumstances, become a safe place for experimentation and personal expression.

Roller Derby Saved My Soul plays touching and clever homage to a sport that reaches beyond the physical game. It is a passion, a family and for so many women like Amy, their doorway to becoming the superhero that’s always been lurking inside, waiting for her chance to shine.

Kenny will be performing at eight different fringe festivals across Canada this summer: London, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. Highly recommended for non-derby and derby aficionados alike.

Katie Bonnar is a modern renaissance woman, which is reflected in her interests. She is a seriously devoted fan of music, art, photography, arm chair economics, fashion, culture, language and My Little Pony. She's an early adopter and, while obsessed with the visually stunning and well-designed, she's also on a quest to minimise the ephemera in her life. You can find her on Twitter at @iamkatiebonnar

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