The church of no fourth wall

Reverend Billy at Tate Modern Reverend Billy at Tate Modern
Posted: Thu Sep 13 2012

Cabaret's profile continues to rise, with ever-glitzier shows. But its real value lies in the way it enables artists and audiences to collaborate and envision the possibility of change

One of the biggest cabaret shows London has seen in decades is about to open: 'Forever Crazy', from ultra-glamorous Parisian institution Crazy Horse, will run in a Spiegeltent on the South Bank for 14 weeks. It's exciting that cabaret is gaining a higher profile but it's also good to think about what can be at stake at a time of change.

A show like 'Forever Crazy', with its nude tableaux, regimented choreography and complex lighting effects, is meticulously planned, rehearsed and (one hopes) executed. There's little or no room for adaptation or improvisation and the audience's role is one of passive appreciation. Cabaret, viewed through this lens, offers a glimpse of something naughty, a holiday from a workaday life whose continuation is taken for granted.

But there's another, more radical vision of what cabaret can do. Rather than being just a transaction - a slice of entertainment exchanged for a fee - it can be a collaboration. Arguably, the form's essential quality is its lack of the 'fourth wall' behind which most conventional live performance takes place: there's no pretence that anyone in the room is invisible or inaudible to anyone else. Any cabaret artist worth their salt has fun with this, engaging with the crowd and acknowledging disruptions, feeding that energy into the show rather than letting it distract from it. The really bold ones consciously give the audience a measure of responsibility for the content and success of the show - and this is where the spirit of cabaret has the potential to go beyond entertainment.

When I talk about collaboration and responsibility, I don't mean an act picking on a powerless punter. I mean an artist inspiring all the people in a room to work together to create things that he or she couldn't deliver alone. At this year's Edinburgh Fringe, for instance, Lady Rizo stood in the middle of an audience that became a forest teeming with noise and ideas, and Tomás Ford inspired those present in the back room of a pub to bear him on their shoulders into the street. Or, earlier this month, the performers of 'Carnesky's Tarot Drome' reached out to touch their visitors, to feed them fruit, to look into their eyes and press their hands to their bodies.

This kind of cabaret is about making eye contact and saying yes, being part of a gathering in which each person's concern about ego recedes as their sense of participation increases. This is what Penny Arcade channels when she brings her audience to its feet to dance. And while this kind of engagement is uniquely central to cabaret, it's on the rise in all areas of performance. 'You Me Bum Bum Train' brings it to experimental theatre; Doctor Brown, winner of this year's Fosters Edinburgh Best Comedy Show Award, excels at it; live and expanded film events like Secret Cinema tap into it. The singer Amanda Palmer revels in hands-on encounters, inviting her audiences to draw on her naked body.

Palmer has also pioneered the expansion of this sense of engagement to the economic-industrial sphere, attracting more than a million dollars of backing through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The collaborative Free Fringe model in Edinburgh also goes from strength to strength.

We can follow this spirit to the sphere of politics too: Pussy Riot's protest performances in Russia, and the supportive shows their consequent imprisonment inspired, confirm the links between art and power, a sense of justice and a sense of humour. You might even think of the broom-wielding clean-ups that followed last year's London riots as a kind of mass performance.

The outstanding proponent of this kind of work is the Reverend Billy Talen, an American performer and campaigner whose 'Church of Stop Shopping' fuses the ecstatic forms of gospel praise with radical activism and raucous fun; last year, he conducted a hysterical 'exorcism' of BP from Tate Modern. It's in such work that the congregational potential of cabaret blossoms most beautifully.

Now is the time for such work: our world is uncertain; traumatic change is afoot. Themes of armageddon lace the cabaret landscape, from 'I Love You but We Only Have 14 Minutes to Save the Earth' (which you can see this Saturday) and 'The Apocalypse Gameshow' (on next week) to the upcoming production 'The Last Tea Party', starring Rhyannon (formerly Ryan) Styles. Such pieces are not just diversions but thought experiments, encouraging us to imagine different realities and offering us a measure of influence in how the night turns out.

Taking on responsibility for the outcome of an event, in however small a way, confirms that what you do matters; that engagement brings control; that control enables change. You are neither inconsequential nor invisible. It's a feeling many of us struggle to find in everyday life. It can be empowering, even euphoric - bigger than spectatorship. And it can be carried beyond the performance space.

In the near future, those with money to spend will be able to go to more lavish cabaret shows to be dazzled, you'd hope, with imagination, talent and production values. Others, looking lower down the entertainment industry food chain, might find other values - and ideas on living in a changing world.