Fragmented, complicated and wondrous

I fell in love with cabaret in my early 20s, the way I fell in love with everything in my early 20s: suddenly, intensely and while I was slightly drunk.

After some years in comedy, I found myself in a venue in Bethnal Green that opened up a whole new genre for me: cabaret. From spoken word, to burlesque, to puppetry, to multimedia, in a fusion of things I can’t really describe, I was struck by its weirdness, uniqueness and unapologetic creativity. Still today, even if I don’t find an act to my liking, I rarely see anything that falls into the ‘live art’ category where I don’t at least appreciate the fact they thought to create what they did. So, as a producer and creative, cabaret seemed like the path for me.

Through obsessive enthusiasm, seeking opportunities (and you know, hard work and stuff) eventually I’ve been given the platform to produce my own cabaret project, which I describe as a “shameless come on/work in progress evening”. Kiss My Scratch welcomes everything and anything. This makes sense to me – if my favourite thing about cabaret is the sheer creativity of thought, then inviting creators at the point when their thoughts are at their rawest seems the most exciting thing to do.

Wonderfully, it seems I’m onto something as a fair few people want to get on board. This means I am suddenly faced with the reality of taking all this weird and wonderful work, and trying to see some sort of pattern or relevance so I can piece together a coherent show.

Cabaret and live arts are quite inclusive spaces, so it is no surprise that a high percentage of performers come from backgrounds less privileged within kyriarchy. (If patriarchy is a masculine-dominated world, kyriarchy is a world dominated by each and every cultural majority: white people, straight people, posh people and so on.) But the pattern that jumps out at me once I analyse the submissions, is the way that arts forms are being used in relation to cultural background.

Though not a blanket rule across the board, in my submission process I’m finding that artists from more privileged backgrounds, particularly straight white cis men, focus a lot on the simple goal of using alternative practices to be surprising: ‘challenging the form’. They want to break down performance conventions or make surrealist work because of a hunger to keep art evolving. Some also take a satirical viewpoint – using art to look at figures in popular culture or unpack social concepts such as Brexit, commercialism or religion. And I hasten to add that I do enjoy these tremendously, finding their work resonant, humorous and of course excitingly new.

That being said, in contrast, women, queer artists and artists of colour more often root their shows in a sense of self. “I want to use X, Y and Z to reflect something personal to me.” Frequently: “I want to use X, Y & Z to challenge what other people think of me.” They are also more likely to work with multiple disciplines and mash up varied styles to show how their identity sits within the national or global culture. It seems that the work needs to be fragmented, complicated and wondrous to come even close to representing a self that is too easily pigeon-holed or negated. And if an artist is political by their very existence, then simply commanding the stage can be a challenging act. That’s it, that’s
the beauty, that’s the show.

It’s been a pleasure to programme our first night with these diverse performers and work. Not to say of course that cabaret is a community without faults. There is perhaps a bittersweet note in all of this that we often have to apply some exaggeration and even aggression for our complexities to be seen. Additionally, with all my talk of inclusivity, and while I know there are some great performance artists out there, I notice that I have had no submissions from artists who reference disability in their work. I have a theory that this has something to do with the inaccessibility of many fringe venues, but a theory is not a justification, and I’m certainly going to be investigating how to improve this.

I am a little more mature and cautious now than when I started out in my 20s. And also a little less drunk. But my passion for cabaret and its freedom for individuals to be totally individual is still as intense as it was on that very first night. I see critiques of our cabaret scene as a challenge rather than a defeat, and in the end, that’s what art is all about anyway.

Kiss My Scratch is at Pleasance Theatre, London on Monday 24 June.

The image shows a microphone and microphone stand in front of a backdrop showing massive pink lips on a black and white zebra background. It’s very dark and stage lights and haze can also be seen.