Funny from page to stage
By Mireille Piché
Comedian Katherine Levac gave me five off-the-cuff words to describe her writing style.
Levac’s circle of admirers has grown over the years, as she progressed from her bachelor’s degree in French and theatre at the University of Ottawa (BA ʼ11) and her time at the École nationale de l’humour to her current career on television.
Since she won the prize for best newcomer of the year at the 2015 Gala Les Olivier, she’s been popping up all over television. Fans have been watching and re-watching her clips as Paidge Beaulieu on SNL Québec and her skits based on a more, shall we say, pastoral time of her life. Join us as we step into the world of an artist who likes to write while comfortably ensconced in her bed, surrounded by pillows. A hush falls over the crowd. The curtain lifts…Read on to learn about the process that takes her words from page to stage.
1. Her writing style is ... concise.
Being a comedian means being a little obsessed about the length of scripts.
“You’re constantly wondering, is this too long?” says Levac. But as she explains, she got used to thinking that way. She learned to pare down. Over time, her goal has become to try to pack the most content into the fewest words.
“I was told in my early auditions: read the script, and whatever we don’t laugh at, cut it out. That stuck with me!”
That’s why when she writes, Levac scatters all sorts of notes around her, either in the form of notebooks or the recordings she’s done on her cell phone.
“My audio recordings are really useful! When I test out my skits in front of an audience, sometimes I improvise and the sentences flow more naturally. When that happens, I change my original document. It’s the only way to remember exactly what I said. Otherwise, the jokes are lost forever!”
Imagine Katherine Levac on stage. She’s standing up straight, she’s still as can be—with Levac, it’s all in the eyes. She paces her delivery. She projects her words, rapid-firing one joke after another.
“It’s like there’s a metronome in my head. It goes tac, tac, tac,” Levac explains. Her on-stage presence comes from the classical acting techniques she mastered during her theatre and drama courses at the University of Ottawa, alongside professors Jean Stéphane Roy, François Grisé and Sylvain Schryburt, to name only a few.
“To my mind, my classical acting courses changed everything. My comedy style stays true to those roots. Without those courses, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.” In all of her skits, there’s the setup, then the punchline.
“If I don’t get a laugh every time, I lose the flow. I lose what I’m trying to create. The build-up is gone.”
If you want your words to paint a clear picture, you need a solid structure. Levac spends a lot of time thinking about what she’s going to write before she puts pen to paper. Her methods for organizing her thoughts come from a rather unusual former job—she used to be a guide-interpreter at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa.
“When I worked there, I had to talk about one topic for 30 minutes. I’d give presentations on bees, and cows. Granted, it wasn’t funny, but I still had to get an idea across; I had to be clear. I was in front of people, so it was a type of performance.”
Listening to Katherine Levac means listening to true stories.
“Obviously, my anecdotes are exaggerated, modified, and not exactly true to life,” she says. “But if I’m talking about something that bothered me or rattled me, it means I did experience it. I don’t do current events or social commentary comedy—I do skits based on things that have happened to me.”
And that’s probably what people connect with the most about her comedy. After her show, audience members have come up to her and told her that “it sounded true.”
“I’ve thought about writing a funny story that I didn’t actually go through, but it’s hard to think of something that’s made-up from start to finish! I’ve never been able to do that!”
She has had the good fortune to work on TV shows where she can make the scripts her own, changing and adapting them to her style. That’s been the case with SNL Québec and PaparaGilles, on ARTV, where there is creative freedom.
“In my bachelor’s degree in French, I took all the creative writing courses I could and I wanted more! I wanted so badly to write. I hunted for opportunities. I couldn't get enough!”
It’s clear what an impact her French studies have had on her, especially the creative writing courses she took at the Department of French at the University of Ottawa.
“They unleashed my passion. That’s where I had my first writing experiences. I loved it so much!” she remembers fondly. “I would dig through piles of notes, from the characters I’d created during improv throughout high school.”
In closing, Levac says that “comedy is like poetry. It’s like writing a song, because there’s a melody and rhythm in the script. A skit has a beat, a tempo. The words are everything.”
Katherine Levac will be appearing on Le nouveau show soon on tou.tv and in January on Radio-Canada. Also this winter, she will be on Télé-Québec in the sketch comedy Like-moi!. She’s still doing her segment on PaparaGilles and is the opening act for Jean-François Mercier’s show. And tickets for the tour Les 5 prochains are now on sale. Since Levac has stayed close with the University of Ottawa, we will be inviting her back to campus to talk to young grads and currents students about her career. Stay tuned!
In a sketch introducing the 10th episode of SNL Québec, entitled Unemployment, comedians all shout together: “Live from Montreal, it’s Saturday night!” Photo: Télé-Québec