Interview: The Velvet Duke of ALL REQUEST RADIO at the Ottawa Fringe Festival

The Velvet Duke told us about their background, how they came up with the idea for All Request Radio, what we can expect at the show, and what the future may hold.

By: Jun. 04, 2023

The Ottawa Fringe Festival is taking place between June 15th and 25th with an exciting lineup. From stand-up to cabaret, interactive shows, dance, thrillers and more, there is something for everyone. We were delighted to speak with The Velvet Duke, who will be hosting All Request Radio at the Fringe this year. They told us about their background, how they came up with the idea for All Request Radio, what we can expect at the show, and what the future may hold.

The Velvet Duke, a fat Black person of a certain age, looks off to the left side, left hand in an expressive fist. Behind them is a black curtain; Velvet stands in a white spotlight with slight purple hues showing on their face and arms
The Velvet Duke.
Photo by Melody Maloney Photography.

Can you give me a little info about your background? How did you get into show business?

I guess I was one of those theatre kids who liked attention! In terms of getting into the business, I’ve said that I kind of worked backwards; when I was very little, I had a goal to be on the Mr. Dressup show. I met that goal pretty early on and then I said, “Well, now what?” because that was the only thing I really wanted to do as a performer! But then I found an improv comedy community and I’ve been in a community in one way or another ever since. During the pandemic, all the communities isolated and everything shut down. I’d had a taste of a solo show in 2019, but I didn’t have any other outlets. I started focusing on myself and the kinds of shows that I wanted to see and what I was yearning for others to provide. And I thought, well, if they aren’t going to do it, then I will.

I think you need to tell me more about Mr. Dressup (laughs)!

Sure! Mr. Dressup was a national treasure and generations upon generations have watched the show. I got to be on the show twice and it was an opportunity for me to meet Casey and Finnegan and Chester the Crow. My favourite memory was when a new co-worker said, “I know you from somewhere; you were on Mr. Dressup!” And it was their first day of work, but they went around saying, “I know Velvet! I know Velvet!” It was so touching that I had made such an impact on a someone I had never met before. The show that I did last year was called, “Retired Magical Black Man” and it was a puppet show. Part of the reason I created it was because I wondered what would happen if we had an adult version of Mr. Dressup. That was an idea that I just pulled out of my back pocket and people came up to me and said, “this feels right for you”. I do want to do more with that show in the future but, for now, I have this one.

What gave you the idea for All Request Radio?

I have been a musical improvisor for a long time. When I went into improv communities, I found that people either really liked it – or they were afraid of it. Trying to find people who wanted to do it was hit and miss. And when the pandemic hit, I wasn’t finished with performing, so I created a solo format for myself that I broadcasted online. Eventually, I reached out to other performers and brought them in to test the format. But I realized that I had this idea in my head, but not everyone was on the same page in terms of what it felt like and what it looked like. So, I decided to pull it back into a solo format. I had a structure to the show that aligned with the concept of a radio station, which is the premise of the show, but I had the idea that the show could become plug-and-play. So that, at some point, if I step away, another performer could do this exact same format. That’s my long-term goal for this – that, around the world, people can pick this format up and go.

Can you explain a little bit more about the radio show theme and how All Request Radio works?

In All Request Radio, I am the only human part of the show. Everything else is randomized and the show's premise is that the AI has decided everything. The songs that are coming in are the humans’ rebellious acts against the machines. I’m not saying this is Terminator, but we are trying to provide our own context, even in this machine world. The AI is doing its own thing, so I never know what musical track is going to play.

And the audience preemptively sends you song titles?

Yeah, so normally when you come into a Fringe show, there is some pre-show music and, hey, it’s a radio station, so I can have pre-show music too! But I’m going to have a prompt for the audience to provide made up song titles. Literally, they can say anything. If they said, “Mustard Tastes Icky”, that’s going to be the title of the song. From there, I make up the lyrics and neither of us know what style of music it will be until it starts. For example, it could be “Mustard Tastes Icky” and a waltz (laughs). I haven’t selected waltz as a genre, but it could be any genre of music. And then I just go for it as theatrically as I can.

So, the music is randomized from a collection of tracks?

Yes, I have a collection of over three hundred songs. The whole point is that you don’t want to plan. I know the structure of the show, but that doesn’t impact the content. I want to stay challenged and be able to come up with something on the spot and feel good if I succeed and not feel too upset if it doesn’t work (because sometimes, it just doesn’t!). But that’s the nature of an improv show, and I want to stay true to that spirit.

How hard is it for you to come up with random lyrics on the spot?

For me, it’s easy, but the skill set is not. I’ve talked to other people who do other kinds of improv, and it depends on their level of musicality and their comfort level for singing in front of people. The idea of singing out loud is threatening for many performers but, for me, it’s where I feel safest.

Why do you think that is?

I love music and I have always been very musical. But, I haven’t always had the best memory. I always thought that I couldn’t be a singer because I can’t remember all the words but, as soon as I discovered improv, I realized that I didn’t have to know all the words. And I have ADHD, so the idea of having novel content all the time, of having something new and stimulating, and facing this challenge of coming up with things on the spot, keeps me in the moment. I think that those are my superpowers around this. Being autistic, I also have very good pattern recognition. Where other people may go, “I don’t know the music”, I hear the music and say, “okay, well it’s a western music civilization song so it’s in 4/4 or maybe 3/4". So, at least I know that part of it and I feel comforted and supported by the music, not challenged by it. A lot of my neurodivergent brain is at play with the format and it’s like a blanket for me.

Do you have any other tricks or techniques that you use during your improv?

Another trick I have is patience. I take a moment to listen to the music before I start. A lot of performers will just start to say something out of nervousness. But, knowing that the music is my partner on stage, I can go, “Oh, what are you doing? OK I can do that pattern too, or I can complement it.” I’m often told that my songs could be on the radio, so here I am with a format of being on the radio! There are also other ways to contribute to the song without being verbal, like through choreography.

Since it is sort of a hybrid format between musical theatre and improv, how much speaking is there during your performance?

I am a very verbal person so there’s lots of talking! Since it’s a radio format, I’ll introduce each of the songs. Another trick that I use when I introduce the song is that I give myself a prompt, like what’s the context of the song? How do I feel about it? How famous is it? How new is it? Just like everyone when they hear a new song, they have a feeling about it. I’m also giving myself hydration breaks, and I’m going to have news, weather, and traffic. I’m going to have commercials. It fits the theme of the show, and it gives me a moment, as a performer, to reset. In our society, we are so geared towards always being productive and we don’t take care of our bodies as much as we should. I also have a promo spot in each of my shows so another group can come in and do the format. Since radio stations have guests coming in, we can do a brief interview and have a fun moment together. And then, either they’ll sing a song by themselves or we’ll do a duet together. There will be a lot going on!

What do you do if a song doesn’t work out?

Either I grin and bear it, or I just end it. If something is uncomfortable, it's okay to stop and admit that it didn’t work; that’s just part of improv. And chances are, if you are uncomfortable, someone else is as well. I had one time where the song title was funnier than anything I could come up with. I tried to push through it, but it was like, nope, the joke was the song title!

How does the audience usually react to the show?

They love it! In every test run I’ve done, they were enthralled. I usually get one of two reactions: either “That was amazing” – full stop – or “That was amazing; it was scripted, wasn’t it?” They don’t believe that I am making it all up on the spot. But yes, the audience and I create this together in the moment. The audience comes up with something and, as a reaction, I come up with something.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the show?

It’s very important to me that there are accessibility measures in place in addition to what the Fringe offers. My entire run will be ASL-English interpreted, and I will have open captions in case people don’t know ASL, as well as some audio description. Masks will also be required to attend the show. There will be a Black Out Night held on June 21st. Of course, everybody is welcome, but we are just trying to help people through the door who, historically, haven’t felt welcome.

I’m also going to have a prize giveaway at each of my shows. I have my own merchandise, but I’ve also reached to other shows for merch and, at every show, someone will be walking away with a prize bag.

What's next for you after Fringe?

My long-term goal is to have All Request Radio shared out among the improv community but, in the interim, I will be in San Diego at the end of June for the Impride Festival, a charitable festival to raise funds for queer youth. After that, I’ll be in Baltimore at the beginning of August for their improv festival, and I’ll be in Halifax at the end of August and into September.

The Velvet Duke will be handling your song requests during All Request Radio at the Ottawa Fringe Festival on select nights from June 15th through June 23rd. The complete list of show dates and times, with the names of special guests for each show, is listed below. Click here for more information about The Velvet Duke. You can purchase tickets to All Request Radio - Click Here.

You can also watch the trailer to All Request Radio below.

All Request Radio at the Ottawa Fringe Festival: 

June 15, 2023

8:30 PM

Dangerous Dames Theatre

June 16, 2023

6:00 PM

Michael Lifshitz

June 17, 2023

4:00 PM

Maggie and Meghan

June 18, 2023

5:00 PM

Janelle Niles

June 21, 2023*

8:30 PM

Jinesea Lewis

June 22, 2023

11:00 PM

Josh Mayo

June 23, 2023

7:00 PM

Owen McGowan

June 24, 2023

9:00 PM

Guest to be confirmed

*   Black Out Night

Please note that this interview has been edited for length and conciseness.


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