Risk: True Stories Boldly Told The Great Hall, Toronto ON, October 9
Published Oct 10, 2015Risk — a popular American podcast consisting of amateur and professional storytellers and comedians baring their most uncomfortable life experiences — is the twisted and wonderful brainchild of comedian and host Kevin Allison. The podcast is recorded in front of a live audience, and for the first time in its six years, that audience was Canadian.
True to its name, Risk is not the failsafe province of professionals and fan favourites only. While they do attract some household names — Sarah Silverman, Marc Maron and Margaret Cho to name a few — the live show features guests from a variety of backgrounds, some with little to no stage experience. Last night featured local Torontonians Fatima Saleem, artist Ben Stirling, Graham Isador (staff writer at Scene Point Blank) and actor/producer Gillian English.
The evening walked a characteristically steady line between funny and moving, both sides offering ample material for introspection and identification. Kevin Allison, far and away the storytelling veteran of the evening, kept things light, twisted, crude and funny as he introduced the featured guests.
Fatima Saleem seemed a little new to speaking in front of an audience — a trait not discouraged on the part of Allison's podcast — but with only a few lapses of lethargy, her account of finding her first love on World of Warcraft was as engaging, as it was candidly funny. Her comedic timing in particular was admirable.
Graham Isador's blunt and honest account of rough childhood years, love, anorexia and depression was certainly the most sobering leg of the night. However, for all his sincerity, pointedness and his redemptive conclusion, Isador came off as a bit of a closed door. One of the best things about a live Risk show is its communal atmosphere, and while Isador was worth listening to, he seemed jaded and lacked the sort of welcoming "come on in" quality that makes for an engrossing interaction.
Almost every episode of Risk has its climax in cringe-worthy awkwardness. Risk of second hand embarrassment is always high, and no one was up for the task like Ben Stirling. Perhaps not for any innate comedic talent or instinct, but simply for the toe curling nature of his break-up story. Stirling took the audience through nine blood curdling stages of break-up hell, including breaking up with his partner's parents face-to-face, enduring the wrath of ex-lover turned cruel prankster and finally enduring an ex's summation of their relationship via puppet show. Stirling was the stuff that Risk tales — the funny ones at least — are made of.
Capping off the night was Gillian English, whose piece was probably the most well-rounded and engaging story of the evening. It was funny, a little bit tragic and vulnerable. The actor/producer ostensibly has plenty of experience in capturing people's full attention, and it showed in full array. While recalling an old flame/Shakespearean co-star, their relationship and his close brush with death, she managed to capture human relationships in a way that was neither sentimental nor jaded. Her ingrained sense of narrative certainly didn't hurt either. She was a pro.
All things considered, Risk's podcast might be preferable to the live show. The two go hand-in-hand of course, as all Risk's podcasts are recorded live, but the end result for podcast listeners is a collection of only the best, most engaging live stories collected into each episode. Friday night's participants were funny and engaging, but in a pattern of peaks and valleys — valleys being somewhat rarer in the finished podcast. That said, the live show provided a unique opportunity to experience the oldest, perhaps purest form of entertainment in existence: the act of one person recounting a poignant or important experience, and others listening. Simply setting aside an hour to do just that was refreshing, fun and rewarding.