Edmonton Fringe Fest skit gone wrong draws anger, apologies, discussion about boundaries

A late-night comedy skit that went wrong at the Edmonton Fringe Festival has prompted anger and apologies, touched off a controversy, and sparked a wider discussion about boundaries between performers and their audience, and what constitutes consent.

Police were called to the scene, but determined no charges would be laid

Crowds in Old Strathcona taking in the Edmonton Fringe Festival, which included a cabaret skit gone wrong. (CBC)

A late-night comedy skit that went wrong at the Edmonton Fringe Festival has prompted anger and apologies, touched off a controversy, and sparked a wider discussion about boundaries between performers and their audience, and what constitutes consent.

The Late Night Cabaret at the festival is described on the event's website as a variety show that features performers, guests and a house band. The cabaret show is rated as adult, with an online warning about nudity and adult language. 

At Wednesday's performance, which was billed as "naked night," performer Michael Delamont invited a man in the audience on stage. While standing behind the audience member and lip-syncing to the song Let's Get It On by Marvin Gaye, Delamont unbuttoned the man's shirt.

That's where everything went wrong.

Vikki Wiercinski made her feelings known on social media after Delamont — in character as the Scottish Drag Queen —  unbuttoned her husband's shirt with what she said was "zero consent," exposing his bare chest to an audience of 100 or so people.

"He's the chillest human on Earth and I have never seen him this furious," Wiercinski said Thursday of her husband, Jim, who did not want to be interviewed or have his last name published.

For his part, Delamont said in an interview with CBC News on Thursday he was "heartbroken" about what happened.

Late Night Cabaret performer Michael Delamont spoke to CBC News on Thursday about his controversial performance the night before that involved a man in the audience coming on stage. (Trevor Wilson/ CBC)

"I just feel awful that this has happened. What I should have done when I brought him up was asked to do that [remove his shirt]. I've made a career out of making people laugh and making people really happy, and the idea that one of my silly skits caused this much hurt is heartbreaking to me.

"It really opened up my eyes to realize how vigilant I need to be as a performer."

There has been a cultural shift in recent years, in part due to the #MeToo movement, that has forced performers and audience members to think more deeply about the meaning of consent, said Samantha Jeffery, an Edmonton-based actor and intimacy co-ordinator.

"The idea of 'no means no' has been around for a long time. But the idea that only 'yes means yes' hasn't been around for as long. As we move forward as a society, our idea of what consent looks like has shifted, changed and is constantly changing."

Consent must be ongoing, enthusiastic and informed or it's not really consent, said Jeffery, who is part of an emerging trend that has sprung up on film and theatre sets across North America to help ensure actors' boundaries and consent are respected during productions.

"Wearing a low-cut dress doesn't mean yes. What you wear doesn't imply consent the same way that going on stage doesn't mean you're giving a carte blanche for anything to be done, even if it's nudity night. Unless you've expressly given consent."

Jeffery said actors are trained to stop a rehearsal if the scene is making that person uncomfortable or crosses certain boundaries. 

"They [audience members] don't know they're allowed to stop a scene," she said. "So even just letting an audience member know, 'Hey, if something happens and you don't feel safe, you're allowed to stop it,' and making sure they know what they've signed up for when they step on stage."

The man who briefly shared the stage with Delamont on Wednesday was so angry that he called police.

After taking witness statements from those involved, police decided no charges were warranted, the festival said in a news release.

Delamont said he thought about consent during Wednesday's cabaret and realized about a minute into the performance the man on stage with him hadn't consented to having his shirt unbuttoned.

"As we were in the moment, I realized I can't see his face," Delamont said. "He got up, what I felt to be enthusiastically, but that's not consenting to what's happening. And I realized, I don't know if he's having a good time. I don't know if he's OK with this."

He said he quickly ended the song and escorted the audience member off stage, and learned later the man was angry and offended by the experience.

Wiercinski said a discussion was held before Wednesday's cabaret show about creating a "safe space" in line with the festival's policy.

The policy includes a lengthy section that defines consent as "a voluntary, ongoing, active, and conscious agreement to engage in the activity in question."

The policy directs all involved to practise "active consent when engaging in activities of a sexual nature."

Festival executive director Adam Mitchell said the incident is a reminder of why the safer spaces policy is important. He said Delamont has been removed from any further cabaret performances, but will continue to perform in his own show at the festival.

The poster wall at the Fringe Festival includes an ad for the Late Night Cabaret. (CBC)

"Ultimately we do believe that the recognition of breach of consent in the moment and the apology that was made in the moment is enough for the steps we've taken so far," Mitchell said. "This process is not done. We will continue to work through it with the artist and with the patron."

Mitchell said the festival provides consent and safer spaces training to patrons, staff and volunteers. It is not mandatory training but now Delamont will be required to complete it. It was unclear what impact this could have on his participation in future festivals. 

Wiercinski said she was shocked during Wednesday's performance and thinks staff were not prepared to handle the situation.

"That kind of people management can be addressed through appropriate consent training," Wiercinski said. "If you know that that's going to happen or if there's a chance that could happen, then somebody should actually know a more specific technique on how to deal with it."

Wiercinski said she was not happy to hear that Delamont would still be performing his show and said her husband is unhappy about the way the festival handled the situation.

The 2019 Fringe Festival cited the safer spaces policy as the reason it cancelled a play written by David Belke, who had been found guilty of child pornography possession in 2017.

With files from The Canadian Press