An Interview with Ellen Peterson & The Fu Fu Chi Chi Choir!

On the eve of In the Chamber: Holiday Special, Playwright Rick Chafe catches up with this year's artists for a glimpse of their new creations.

Every year, Theatre Projects commissions two or more theatre artists to create a new piece for straight-from-the-oven-to-the-audience performance.   December 8-10, In the Chamber: Holiday Special premieres a music/theatre mashup of the artistry of Ellen Peterson and the Fu Fu Chi Chi Choir (aka creative cyclones Sarah Constible and Michelle Boulet plus ten or so best friends) for two plays wrapped in one glittery package.  Rick Chafe stopped the panting artists long enough to get a preview.

Rick: Overview please, what are the two shows in one about?

Sarah: The Fu Fu Chi Chi part takes place in hour 36 of a 12-day Christmas TV marathon. The host, Bobbie Lager, was supposed to be relieved 8 hours ago, and she’s very sick. She shows a selection of musical numbers, each one, coincidentally enough, performed by the choir.

Michelle: And then Sarah and I are sort of the accent in Ellen’s piece, because she’s doing monologues and we’re the ones who give her the chance to change costumes.   We wrote all new songs for the choir for our show, and songs that resonate a lot with Ellen’s themes for hers.

Ellen: Mine is The Eight Tiny Reindeer of the Apocalypse.  It’s about how the end of civilization as we know it is brought to collapse by Christmas.  I play 3 characters over the span of 20 years.  The first is an economics professor who’s seen the signs everywhere and is trying in vain to get people to stop the madness.  Her students wouldn’t listen and she becomes a doomsday prophet, standing out on the corner of Portage and Vaughn.  The next character is a woman who is married and has children, but she had a breakdown the previous year.  She’s trying to get her Christmas mojo together, trying to make the magic happen, but it’s not going very well.  The third is a preacher of a so-called church—but there’s no 2-sentence version of this, so you have to come see.

Rick: Where did the Christmas theme come from?

Ellen: I opened my big yap last year and I said to anyone who would listen, “Oh Christmas!  I’m going to write a show.  And that’s going to be my revenge!  It’s going to be called, Christmas is f****d!”  And then (Theatre Projects Artistic Director) Ardith calls me up and says, “What’s this Christmas idea?”  So I was stuck with writing it.

I guess I realized that Christmas was more than just a problem of my personal stress level.  So I guess the problem is, I still need something from Christmas or I would just not do it.  I’m not a Christian – why can’t I let it go? Why can’t I walk away and say I don’t need it anymore?  What do we all need from Christmas?

Rick: What’s the whole Fu Fu Chi Chi concept?  If you’re a choir, what makes it theatre?

Sarah: It’s an-all female choir.  It started with the Girls! Girls! Girls! Cabaret fundraisers at the Gas Station Theatre.

Michelle: The first two years, Sarah and I did it solo—

Sarah: Or a duet—

Michelle: So we realized we had a bit of a penchant for writing songs together that were also theatrical.   You could put on a funny costume and tell a story without being a folk singer.  So we did two years in a row, the third year we thought we’d make it a choir.  We called up everyone we knew to help.

Sarah: I’d like to have it noted that we’re so lucky to have so many talented friends.  We just call them up and the roster changes, sometimes it’s 3 and sometimes it’s 13 and we adore them so much.

Michelle: And thank God, they’re more musical than us.

Rick: Ellen, you work as a playwright and you work as an actor.  How are you liking the two of them together, as a monologue-ist playwright?

Ellen: I’m happy to say I haven’t made it easy for either one of my selves.  The things I thought would be fun to do as an actor formulated the storywriting in a way.    As a writer I didn’t think about what the actor might be able to pull off.  Both of us are very happy with some cuts I made today.

Rick:  A big part of the Fu Fu Chi Chi experience is the costumes.  Are you going to keep that up for an entire show?

Sarah: That’s her department.

Michelle:  I have sort of conceptualized them so they’re very fast.  It’s not entire costume changes—

Sarah: We want to make it smooth and quick because we don’t have a lot of time.  The songs are only two or three minutes each, no epics, so the costumes have to be instantly recognizable.

Michelle:  But we have a whack of new songs.  We have a narrative that holds the whole thing together.  And we will change costumes.

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Rick Chafe is a Winnipeg playwright.  His play  Shakespeare’s Dog has received major productions at Manitoba Theatre Centre and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, and Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects; The Odyssey won Nova Scotia’s Best Production for 2008; in 2009 he was nominated for the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, and his most recent play, The Secret Mask premiered at Prairie Theatre Exchange…weeks ago!