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Sandra Shamas was born in 1957 in the northern Ontario mining town of Sudbury to middle-Eastern parents whose marriage had been arranged. The oldest of three children and an only child until the age of six, Sandra Shamas credits the birth of her brother, Michael, with making her an early feminist. There was a twenty-year age gap between her parents and also much friction between the two. Shamas left home at age 17 before completing high school to escape the turmoil and later moved to Toronto where she held a variety of jobs including bartending and secretarial work.
Later she attended a workshop at Second City, the improvisational theatre company, and became a member of their touring troupe. Dismissed from there in 1984, she worked with other improv groups such as Theatresports and eventually became a puppeteer on the children's television series "Fraggle Rock", where she met her future husband, Frank. Shamas left the series after a couple of years because she felt that the Canadian employees of the program were being treated unfairly by the Americans.
The year 1986 proved to be a turning point in Sandra Shamas's life. The death of her father early in 1986 was a major event that eventually made it into her second one-woman show. Also that year, she travelled to New York City where she saw Lily Tomlin perform at the Plymouth Theater. Tomlin's two-hour show, with a minimum of props, inspired Shamas to think, "I could do that, in my own way". So, the following year, about to turn 30, she applied to the Edmonton Fringe Festival to perform her show, My Boyfriend's Back and There's Gonna Be Laundry. The show, still unwritten then, was accepted by the Festival and so began Shamas's career as a monologuist in her own productions.
The show sold out and Shamas began took the production on tour to various theatre festivals. While parts of the show dealt with her tart observations on commonplace topics such as the inanity of many television commercials and the discord in male-female relations, a great deal of it covered events in her own life such as dating rituals in her hometown and meeting Frank. The reception from audiences was enthusiastic, especially from women, who form the majority of her fans.
By 1989, Shamas was performing the sequel, My Boyfriend's Back and There's Gonna Be Laundry II: The Cycle Continues. It treated some of the topics addressed in the original, such as men's underwear and television commercials, but also included more personal elements such as growing up in Sudbury, her father's death, life with Frank and their decision to marry. That led inevitably to the final part of the trilogy, Wedding Bell Hell that dealt with the craziness of pre-wedding rituals such as the bridal shower and selection of the wedding rings and dress. Worried about the example set by her parents' marriage, Shamas decided to get therapy at the risk of losing her sense of humour.
While Shamas has always used her own life and that of those close to her as material for her stage shows, she insists she has their permission to do so and does not use the shows to heal herself. There is much humour in her shows and audience members often find themselves in tears of laughter, whether at the serious or silly moments. Shamas' work is not fully felt on the printed page; its full effect depends on Shamas' vocal intonations, facial expressions and amazing body contortions.
In 1993, Shamas took her show, My Boyfriend's Back and There's Gonna Be Laundry to the Old Vic Theatre in London, for her first performance outside Canada. She added a few local references and the work was well received by the British audience and critics. The following year, she decided to perform her work in San Francisco. Despite feeling that working there could mean less control of her material, she deliberately left in the Canadian references for a mostly receptive audience. A San Francisco newspaper strike made it impossible to advertise the show. That, combined with a 5-day delay caused by immigration procedures, led to Shamas being sued by the United States producer.
After the five-week San Francisco run and its assorted problems, Sandra Shamas decided a sabbatical was in order, once she completed a few more Canadian commitments. Troubled by nightmares about falling and divorce, she was still shocked when her husband, Frank, announced that he wanted to end their marriage. The resulting division of assets led Shamas to retreat to her farm, Wit's End. Lots of crying followed, along with adjustment to rural life and its charms. That became the focus of her next show, called Wit's End, in which she showed her audience that life does indeed go on.
Wit's End II: Heart's Desire is her latest show and Sandra Shamas fans again look forward to the wonderful release of laughter and tears her performance invariably triggers.
Honours for Shamas include nominations for the Governor General's Literary Award for her trilogy and also for the Stephen Leacock Award. She won a 1991 Gemini Award for Best Performance in Comedy and more recently, won the Best Theatre Award, among 70 competitors, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in March 2003. The recognition went to a mellower Shamas, one who is now willing to consider more work outside Canada. As a performer who writes, directs and produces her own shows and does not allow heckling, Sandra Shamas is very much in control of her productions and her life.
Clark, Andrew. "At Wit's End". Saturday night. Vol. 112, no. 2 (1997). P. 60-67
_____. "Chapter ten : the girl who scared boys". Stand and deliver : inside Canadian comedy. Toronto : Doubleday Canada, 1997. P. 179-192
Finlay, Marion. "Shamas's jock-osity jiggles jowls of staid London critics". Toronto star. April 1, 1993. P. D10
Hampson, Sarah. "Hear me roar". Toronto life. Vol. 33, no. 3 (1999). P. 8-9
Matwychuk, Paul. "A funny thing happened on the way to the farm". Vue weekly. October 5, 2000. P. 42
Ouzonian, Richard. "Shamas gasps to winner's circle in Aspen". Toronto star. March 5, 2003. P. F2
"Sandra Shamas". Contemporary Canadian biographies [computer file]. Scarborough, Ont. : Gale Canada, c1998
"Shamas, Sandra". Canadian theatre encyclopedia [online]. Gaëtan Charlebois, 1998. [Cited April 24, 2003]. Access : www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Shamas%2C%20Sandra
Shamas, Sandra. Sandra Shamas : a trilogy of performances. Toronto : Mercury Press, 1997. 154 p.
_____. Wit's end. Toronto : Mercury Press, 2002. 90 p.
Taylor, Kate. "Older and wryer : life after laundry". The globe and mail. January 2, 1999. P. C1 and C3
Turbide, Diane. "Take my laundry...please!". Maclean's. Vol. 107, no. 6 (1994). P. 62-63
Wisecracks [video recording]. Directed by Gail Singer. Montreal : National Film Board of Canada, 1993. 1 cassette, 93 minutes. Closed captioned