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Is cabaret heading for a class war?

As the form goes mainstream, it faces challenges as well as opportunties. But if they can be resolved, cabaret could be the Plan B we're looking for. A talk by Time Out London's cabaret editor at this year's Edinburgh Fringe


Is cabaret heading for a class war?

It’s a provocative title for a talk – deliberately so, I admit. We all know the value of a bit of sensationalism in advertising. So I should say off the bat that my argument here is not to do with one social class facing off against another in the sense of upper class versus working class. When I use the word class, I mean it more in a very broad cultural sense – the sense of whether or not one is part of the conventional cultural establishment – going to drama school, or being classically trained in music or dance, or enjoying a level of mainstream celebrity, or having connections to widely respected institutions and the financial support and professional credibility that can come with that.

More and more people with these kinds of backgrounds are entering the world of cabaret – a world that has been developing over the past decade or so, for the most part, from the ground up, running on spit and sawdust, shoestring budgets and the passion and slog of performers and producers who love what they do. As with everything I’ll say today, there are plenty of exceptions to this – some of the most dynamic figures in the cabaret scene have been to drama school, for instance – but this Fringe has seen what to me seems like a remarkable influx of recent drama graduates, ballet performers, trained opera singers and so on into the cabaret section of the Fringe programme – a new wave of interest from ‘above’, if you’ll pardon the somewhat loaded term.

At the same time, in the wider world, work from ‘below’ – by performers whose background has been in the grass-roots cabaret scene – is finding ever more inroads into the mainstream, from runs at more prominent platforms such as the London Wonderground on the South Bank of the Thames to collaborations with institutions like the British Library or Royal Opera House. (You’ll notice a London bias to my observations, I’m afraid.) The Fringe’s own introduction of a cabaret section to the official programme two years ago is a perfect example of the form’s growing popularity and credibility.

So, this all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Cabaret on the rise, the mainstream taking notice, make way for the future! Well, in a lot of ways, yes – there is a great deal to be excited about, and I’ll come back to that. But as well as opportunities, there are challenges to be faced. And this is where what I’m provocatively calling class war comes in.

What started me thinking in these terms was actually a couple of comments that were made after the first TO&ST in the Afternoon session here in Fringe Central two weeks ago. Both comments were from classically trained performers who were presenting their debut cabaret shows at this year’s Fringe. One of them said she wanted “to make a difference of asserting cabaret as a good art form, just like in the 30s in Berlin, which is clever, satirical, political references…not nipple tassles, bad burlesque, and we need to separate that.

Now, I think that’s a very problematic assertion. Before I talk about why I think that, I want to suggest that it’s not an isolated comment, but is in fact representative of the views of many performers coming to cabaret from ‘above’. There’s another debut show by performers from ‘above’ at the Fringe this year whose title and publicity material are, to put it mildly, strongly redolent of the vernacular of burlesque performance, yet which opens with a song that invites burlesque performers to “see yourself for what you are – you’re just a pretty piece of meat parading round in your bra. Yes yes, you shake those tassels, yes yes, go on – yawn. Well done you, up on stage, giving desperos the horn”.

And this in turn reminded me of the comments Alexander Armstrong, the TV comedian, made when he was announced as part of the line-up of the inaugural London Festival of Cabaret, a season of relatively conventional songbook shows (and also one by Barb Jungr) planned for this October. “I’m convinced that cabaret is set to return,” Armstrong told the Evening Standard. “People said it about burlesque and they weren’t wrong. A whole load of old strippers bought themselves pompons and souped-up their sets and are calling themselves burlesque.” [Armstrong later apologised for the comments.]

Now, burlesque has long been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism even within the grass-roots cabaret community – and indeed, I would argue, there are a number of legitimate political and aesthetic critiques to be leveled at certain aspects of burlesque, as there are critiques to be leveled at certain aspects of drag or circus or any other form of performance. But I don’t think comments of the kind I’ve been quoting are legitimate critiques. I think they’re patronising attacks that are rooted in ignorance, intended to belittle, and suggestive of hypocrisy and insecurity.

Comments like this are hypocritical because they’re attacking one of the main pillars of the house of cabaret that these performers now seek to enter – there’s simply no question that burlesque audiences have been among the most consistent and passionate constituencies in the rise of cabaret over recent years. And comments like this must be ignorant because no one who had actually seen a decent amount of burlesque would dismiss the form as a whole in such a snotty way – that show I mentioned could in fact have learned a lot from the best burlesque acts about how to structure a show, collaborate with an audience and deliver meaningful satire.

And comments like this are patronising because they speak down in ignorance – either ignorance of the grass-roots scene’s very existence, as in the case of Alexander Armstrong, or of its nature, in the case of another private conversation I had with a classically trained performer this Fringe. This performer felt there was a danger that “some cabaret is being swamped by end-of-the-pier songs about cocks, sexually transmitted diseases, genitalia, wanking and sex”.

I think it’s worth paying attention to these comments because of what they suggest about the attitude of some people coming to cabaret from above, seeking to engage with and, one way or another, profit from the scene while belittling some of its key aspects. It strikes me as being a bit like shaking someone’s hand while at the same time holding your nose, or even sticking up a finger.

Now this simply won’t fly. It just isn’t good enough to look at a scene that is thriving, dynamic and visibly going places, to think ‘I’d be up for a bit of that’, and then to attack its longstanding, pioneering members for being vulgar and cheap. Because as well as being a bit fucking rich, it misses the point that being vulgar and cheap is what has made cabaret the cultural success story of the century so far.

Let’s start with vulgarity, by which I basically mean an interest in the human body and in subject matter considered tasteless in mainstream or bourgeois culture. Now, there’s plenty of bad vulgar work out there in cabaret land, but the problem there is in the badness. The vulgarity in itself is an inextricable aspect of the whole cabaret organism – a vital expression of its privileging of truth over politeness, and one of the essential aspects of why cabaret has been attracting and inspiring ever more audiences. ‘Cocks, sexually transmitted diseases, genitalia, wanking and sex’ are subjects of universal relevance and interest and entirely appropriate subject matter for artistic expression.

Berlin in the 20s and 30s in fact backs this idea up: while the finest, most sophisticated satirical work from that period is what's remembered today, it was in fact a very small fraction of what was being produced. Most Berlin cabarets of the time were titillating, crude or escapist, and that was the context out of which the most durable work was able to grow. The value of cabaret is, or should be, its radical openness – to subject matter, to audiences, to formal experiment. Style is always a welcome ingredient; but good taste is another word for conformity and conformity gets artists exactly nowhere.

So much for vulgar. What about cheap? Cheap, I think, is where the insecurity that I suggested underlies some of these belittling comments comes in. In the established, classical arts, the artist creates and performs. In most cabaret, the artist creates, performs, produces, designs, stage-manages, does the tech, oversees make-up and wardrobe, promotes, publicises, networks, car-shares, washes up, sweeps the floor, turns off the lights and locks up before getting the night bus home. I exaggerate, but not much. To some coming to cabaret from above, this seems like hard work – because it is. But it can also seem distasteful, which it isn’t. It’s extremely useful.

I haven’t really talked about why people are coming to cabaret from above. Broadly, I think there are two interlinked reasons, one economic, one artistic. The economic reason is simple: there’s not much work in the established arts world these days, and there’s probably going to be less and less. Drama students can’t expect to be cast in film or theatre projects. Opera singers and ballet dancers can’t bank on getting the work they trained for. But cabaret is a growth area and, as Orson Welles said, performers are like fruit-pickers – we go where the work is.

In his speech at the beginning of this year’s Fringe, the playwright Mark Ravenhill talked about the recent crisis in capitalism and its effect on arts funding. He proposed what was, by his account, the radical thought experiment of making work without public funding. “The paradigm has shifted and new ways of living and behaving are going to be needed if we're going to make our way forward,” he said. “I think we need to have a Plan B.&rdquo

Guess what, all you sisters who have been doing it for yourselves in cabaret land all these years? You are Plan B. You have spent the past decade forging ways of making art on a shoestring, and more and more of you are being recognised for it at higher and higher levels – both for the quality of your work and for the increasingly practical benefit to high-profile institutions of working with artists who know how to stretch a budget, how to adapt to any given set of circumstances, and, most importantly, how to look audiences in the eye and give them a unique experience.

And guess what? At some level, Mark Ravenhill knows you’re Plan B – he had a show in this year’s Fringe cabaret section. And guess what else? Your shows were better than his.

Which is fine. It’s not because he’s bad. It’s because you know what cabaret is today, and he’s just finding out; it’s because he thought you could just write some songs and cast a singer and that would be a cabaret show, and you know there’s more to it than that. Some shows from drama graduates or classically trained performers seem to think cabaret equals evening wear and an invisible fourth wall, Stephen Sondheim and Bob Fosse, Tom Lehrer and a swearword or two. You know that really it’s about – or should be about – the honest expression of your own personal sensibility, and the heartfelt attempt to communicate it to the other people who are in the room when you perform. It’s about the connection, the conversation, the collaboration. It’s about something that is not television – something that invites your involvement and acknowledges your agency. That’s what audiences respond to, and that’s what those coming to cabaret from above will need to master if they’re going to make good work.

It’s exciting to me to see performers from above at this year’s Fringe who recognise that cabaret isn’t just an economic opportunity in hard times, but a thrilling medium of creative expression. And that’s why, despite the issues I’ve raised, I’m excited to see shows like ‘Ballesque’, in which a company of young classically trained dancers are experimenting with ways to use their skills to create their own work and muddy the distance between performers and audience.

And that’s why I was so delighted by the second of the two comments I mentioned from the first TO&ST in the Afternoon session two weeks ago. It was from another classically trained performer, but rather than distancing herself from nipple-tassels, she said the session had been “the most inspirational hour of my career” – that she’s just spent a year trying to develop a personal, conversational show that traditional venues weren’t sure about and people from the classical world weren’t sure about, but here she felt that it all made sense and she wasn’t mad after all.

The exciting grass-roots cabaret work created over the past decade or so has resulted in a demand for more cabaret work from more and more people – bigger, more mainstream audiences. Some of that work will be gloriously and spectacularly perverted performance, like Briefs: The Second Coming, in which a grass-roots company delivers exuberant queer sexuality to mainstream crowds along with slick, glossy circus acts. But it’s inevitable that some of that demand will be supplied by less radical, more palatable work, whether it’s created by cabaret veterans or newcomers. There’s a possibility that, thanks to superior contacts with established institutions, closer social ties or whatever, newcomers will benefit from the demand created by the cabaret boom at the expense of veterans of the scene. That would be frustrating. But I think in the long run it will be okay. Talent will out. And it might help the scene as a whole to raise its game.

I’ve defended grass-roots cabaret against misconceived criticism that it is cheap and vulgar. Another charge I’ve heard this Fringe is that a lot of work is mediocre. My response is that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, while I’m hugely appreciative of well-turned and formally polished work, I’m also very tolerant of elements of mediocrity in the execution of a performance, if I believe the sensibility behind it is truthful, imaginative and progressive. That, to me, is far more interesting than a technically proficient production of an essentially banal or reactionary enterprise. If I want that, I'll turn on the telly.

My basic belief is that cabaret has tremendous potential to push us into thinking about the nature of how we engage with each other – in the room at the time of the performance, and, by extension, in society in general – and this is of huge value at a time of profound social uncertainty, such as today. Audiences don’t respond to cabaret only because of well-turned work, but because it offers an environment in which they sense that they have agency and can affect the outcome. I believe this is what will make cabaret more and more popular. Yet mediocre execution has the potential to hinder this growth: general audiences, I think it’s fair to say, are less forgiving of slapdash execution, however interesting the ideas at work.

This is an area in which people from classically trained backgrounds have a huge amount to offer. Similarly, those from ‘above’ who have access to wealth or power by virtue of institutional connections, or to publicity, by virtue of their celebrity, and who recognise the power of the true spirit of cabaret, are in a strong position to take that spirit deeper into mainstream culture than the grass-roots scene would be able to do on its own.

What do I mean by the true spirit of cabaret? I mean the thing that audiences respond to at a visceral level – the fact that it’s real and it’s true. It says here I am, and here you are, and we’re going to make something happen together. You can see this at any good Fringe show but the ones that really put it out there – Tomas Ford’s Electric Midnight Cabaret, the Creative Martyrs’ After the Apocalypse, Red Bastard, even Drum Struck – these are shows that literally couldn’t happen without the active collaboration of the audience. We can make something happen together, something we simply couldn’t do as lone individuals. That’s a powerful message right now.

These are dark times and lights are going out all over the world. Look at the rise of fascism in Greece. Look at the persecution of LGBT people in Russia. Look at the political currents in this country that encourage us to think of journalists as terrorists, or to think of ‘immigrants’ or ‘benefits claimants’ as that little bit less human than everyone else.

When people are worried about money, about their jobs, their homes, their ability to feed their children, they’re less inclined to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s easier to keep your head down and look out for number one. When we don’t have much, our instinct is to protect our own, not to extend a hand – perhaps even to clench a fist. It gets a bit easier to make negative assumptions about other people’s intentions. Who needs immigrants when there’s barely enough to go round as it is?

So to those who have been living in cabaret land for five, ten or twenty years, this influx of newcomers is challenging. Their backgrounds and experiences and ideas seem different. Is that a threat, or an opportunity? Are they snobs who are going to steal your jobs or collaborators you haven’t met yet? Are you going to tell them to go home, or find out what they’re really like?

And to those who are just entering cabaret land, what to make of the locals? Their backgrounds and experiences and ideas seem different. Is that a threat, or an opportunity? Are they strippers and clowns who get drunk all the time – well, yes, but are they only that, or are they also collaborators you haven’t met yet? Are you going to turn your nose up at them, or find out what they’re really like?

Are we going to ask what we can all do together? What might become possible if talents for self-sufficiency, adaptability and audience engagement joined forces with formally acquired high-level skills, access to prestigious institutions and the potential to reach a wider audience than ever?

These are dark times and lights are going out all over the world. Cabaret turns lights on. Every time someone on a stage truly connects to someone in the audience – to another person in that room – a little light comes on. Every time those audience members connect with each other, more little lights comes on. Every time people prove to themselves that they can find meaning and joy by collaborating, a slightly bigger light comes on.

Now, a lot of those lights don’t make it out of the venue. They burn for a moment then die, and life goes on, and bad things happen. But a lot of those lights do make it out of the venue. And once they’re out there, they have a way of spreading. Art is social. Art is political. Reach people through argument and you might change their mind; reach them through sex and pathos and laughter and you might change their heart, and that’s a very dangerous thing for the forces of darkness. That’s why the Nazis closed the cabarets. That’s why Russia put Pussy Riot in jail.

So, there are challenges ahead but there are opportunities too. There’s plenty of potential for snobbery, resentment and insecurity. But there’s also potential for new kinds of performance, new kinds of collaboration, new ways of being. Is cabaret heading for a class war? I don’t think it is. I think we’re experiencing something like the birth pangs of a new way of doing art. I think this is Plan B. And I think we can turn on some lights.

Thank you.

This is the transcript of a talk given at Edinburgh's Fringe Central on August 21, 2013. See Ben Walters's Edinburgh cabaret reviews here or follow him on Twitter @not_television

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