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What Is Performance Cabaret?

What Is Performance Cabaret?

Performance Cabaret
by Sara Lyons

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality Performance,  Performance Cabaret, Immersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. “What is  Mixed Reality Performance?” is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts. 

Performance Cabaret queers the classic cabaret refrain “Let me entertain you!” towards work that engages high and low culture together, uniting crisscrossing roots in musical cabaret, variety, comedy, drag, burlesque, and performance art. Performance cabaret is typically driven by an auteur who acts as writer/performer, utilizing formal training in one or more of the aforementioned traditions and a developed performance persona towards work that weaves contemporary social criticism, activism, and identity politics with ironic humor, drag ethos, and pop culture deconstructions. Typical to performance cabaret are identity politics as a point of entry for performance content, direct audience engagement, and bright and scrappy performance aesthetics. While performance cabaret emerged from underground late-night drag, music, and comedy scenes created by and for marginalized communities, it now interacts with conventional/mainstream theatrical crafts, showing increased embrace of theatre design and dramaturgy, with artists sometimes crossing over to work in mainstream theatre, performance, and film.

Performance cabaret artists include a sweeping list of actors, writers, comedians, musicians, and more, most with shared roots in queer performance and identity politics developed in the United States in the 1980s and 90s. The queer, embodied political ethos inherited from this period along with hybridization of artistic forms solidify performance cabaret as part of the legacy of American queer performance, embracing concepts of queer failure and utopia as closely intertwined foundations. As queer theorists such as Judith Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz have argued, failure in performance is inherently political as it “dismantles the logics of success” and is “a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline.”1 In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz also discusses queer failure: “I mean to explicate the ways in which these artists thematize failure as being something like the always already status of queers and other minoritarian subjects in the dominant social order within which they toil. Queer failure, as I argue, is more nearly about escape and a certain kind of virtuosity.”2 In this way, many performance cabaret artists harness lifetimes of marginalization towards artistic innovation, creating performance work that not only reflects their unique subjectivities as queer people, but also challenges and subverts the very systems of meaning which oppress them. As Muñoz reiterates: “Queer failure is often deemed or understood as failure because it rejects normative ideas of value.”3

“Trans-genre” artist Justin Vivian Bond (pronouns: “V”) rose to recognition performing as the septuagenarian retired lounge singer “Kiki” in their cabaret act “Kiki and Herb” with Kenny Mellman. Kiki and Herb grew to popularity in drag cabaret circuits in the 1990s first in San Francisco, and then downtown New York City. Their banter and songs meshed drag performance with musical cabaret and solo performance, and were by and for queers, punks, protestors, and other outsiders, often driven by their daily fights during the AIDS crisis and other political events of the time. Between 1993 and 2008, the duo developed a cult following and performed on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall. After their split in 2008, Mx. Bond harnessed the pair’s momentum to launch V’s own individual work in performance as well as film, songwriting, visual art, theatre, and curation.4

As an individual artist, Mx. Bond’s work is united by evolving critical relationships to politics and queer identity, as well as formal training in music, visual art, and writing, and V’s unapologetic individual presence in all work. In an interview in BOMB Magazine, Bond commented, “I’m always where I am when I’m doing cabaret shows,” noting the lack of fictitious character and location in V’s recent cabaret work.5 While performance cabaret artists tend to adopt a spectrum of hyperreal performance personae, this ever-present and transparent relationship to self, place, politic, and audiences is typical of the form.

The multifaceted artist Taylor Mac (pronouns: “judy”), equally well-known for performance, acting, music, playwriting, and performance art, also describes judy’s arrival to performance cabaret through a queer lens. After a childhood spent acting in plays in conservative suburban California, Mac frequently cites judy’s participation in the AIDS Walk of 1986 as a critical turning point that continues to drive judy’s creative work. In an interview with Tim Sanford of Playwrights’ Horizons, Mac said: “The first two things I do when I sit down to write a play are to ask myself what don’t I want the audience to know about me and what I’m ignoring about myself and the world. Then I make the work about those things. And those techniques come as a direct result of being ashamed of my queerness and then discovering, in a moment of mass queer activism [1986 AIDS Walk], I didn’t have to be.”6 According to Mac, much of judy’s work revolves around a practice of queer heterogeneity, as both a political act and artistic practice: “I grew up in a place where you were supposed to be one thing and I was not one thing. I was many things, as was everyone around me. I was trying to express the multifaceted nature of things.”7 And further, “there are people who have hardly any traditional craft at all, but they have a craft in who they are as human beings. That’s what a lot of queer artists have. They spent so much of their life having to craft who they are because the world was telling them to be something they weren’t.”8

Mac discovered and honed in on this point of view early in judy’s career, performing numbers in drag clubs in New York City. “I started going to the clubs every single night. And the amazing thing about the clubs is you don’t have to ask permission to be creative. […] So I started doing that and pretty soon people would pay attention enough that I could do monologue-type numbers and what ended up happening is, I started bringing the theater into the clubs. Then once I started to kind of get a name for myself in that world the theaters started calling, and then I started bringing the clubs into the theater.”9

Mac’s journey from theater to queer clubs and back again invokes a critical engagement with standards of craft that is central to performance cabaret. Mac has said, “I believe wholeheartedly in craft. I believe craft is essentially a commitment to learning the past, living in the present, and dreaming the culture forward. But I believe establishing standards for craft will not create great art but will foster the patriarchy.”10 In Mac’s performance work, as well as that of Mx. Bond and other artists, this point of view can be seen in morphing formal practices, equal engagement with high and low culture (performance theory meets pop culture), and consciously selective reverence for theatrical conventions like Aristotelian narrative and the ‘fourth wall’. Also on form, in the grand tradition of queer failure, Mac states: “I believe authentic failure on stage is one of the great art forms.”11

Playwright, musician, and performer Daniel Alexander Jones offers another interesting vantage point to examine performance cabaret. As a playwright and actor, Daniel Alexander Jones works alongside his alter ego Jomama Jones to write and record albums and create full-length live shows. For Jones, Jomama is a fictional tool to reach towards an audience in real time, and turn them towards black queer futures. “She’s a construction with flashes of realness—in her soothing but powerful voice, we hear the girl she once was and the star she always longed to be.”12 Jones has imagined Jomama as a legendary soul singer and vision of black futurity, who supposedly left New York City in the 1980s “when the youth culture lost its heart”13 and rebuilt a new life in Switzerland. Jomama appears in full-length performances including Duat, Black Light, and Radiate, all authored by Jones with music director Bobby Halvorson. They combine original R&B songs with monologues, audience interaction, and brilliant sequin gowns. Jomama’s shows exist somewhere between musical theater, solo performance, and live concept albums—unbeholden to narrative, but richly woven together with a playwright’s keen eye for dramaturgy and shape. Formally, they resemble cabaret as Jomama moves seamlessly between songs, monologues, and banter with the crowd. “This isn’t a traditional musical, or even something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where the songs serve to tell the story. Instead, they merge with the narrative to underscore Jomama’s basic message: Open your heart, love one another, and be positive to make changes.”14

Dynasty Handbag, aka Los Angeles-based performance artist Jibz Cameron, is another artist performing queer failure as what Muñoz calls “a sort of quixotic bag lady dressed in an outfit that appears to be something of an eighties fringe-laden aerobics costume.”15 Dynasty’s performances are off-center mash-ups of comedy, music, dance, and literature, employing broken pop images in deceptively scrappy and brilliantly disorienting shows. In short and full-length performances, Dynasty often responds to or adapts works of classic literature, queering the very foundations of western thought by inserting her unhinged, almost alien persona. Her 2006 show Hell in a Handbag is based on Dante’s Inferno, with each level of hell reimagined as an area of Dynasty’s life that she finds intolerable, the classic story destroyed by the queer quotidian. In 2014’s Soggy Glasses: A Homo’s Odyssey, Dynasty Handbag embarks on a “hero’s journey” (literally inside a giant hero sandwich), guiding the audience through a queer feminist analysis of her own body. Dynasty juggles multiple layers of social critique inside a performance that is almost slapstick in its strange and hysterical physicality and aesthetic. “Soggy Glasses satirizes both Homer’s master narrative and the third-wave feminist suspicion that leads Cameron to critique it. The subtlety of this critique-on-critique is part of what makes her work so funny.”16 Each performance by Dynasty Handbag is a page in the character’s ongoing performance journal, employing not narrative but glimpses into moments of life and ways of thinking interpreted through warped costumes, songs, dances, and monologues.

Brooklyn-based performer Erin Markey is also known for her offbeat, wild comedic full-length shows, which combine a distinct brand of ironic humor, monologue, and music inside autobiographical work.

Notes

  1.  Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.
  2.  José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 173.
  3.  Ibid.
  4.  Joshua Barone, “Kiki and Herb: Kitsch, With a Whisky Chaser,” New York Times, April 15, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/arts/music/kiki-and-herb-kitsch-with-a-whisky-chaser.html.
  5.   Joy Episalla, “Justin Vivian Bond by Joy Episalla,” BOMB Magazine 132 (Summer 2015): http://bombmagazine.org/article/6976612/justin-vivian-bond.
  6. Tim Sanford and Taylor Mac, “Taylor Mac Artist Interview,” Playwrights Horizons, https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/trailers/taylor-mac-artist-interview/.
  7.  Ibid.
  8.  Katherine Cooper, “Taylor Mac by Katherine Cooper,” BOMB Magazine 10 (April 2014): http://bombmagazine.org/article/1000071/taylor-mac.
  9.  Sanford and Mac, “Taylor Mac Artist Interview.”
  10.  Taylor Mac, “I Believe” (speech, From Where I Stand symposium at Under the Radar, The Public Theater, New York, January 2013), http://www.taylormac.org/i-believe/.
  11. Ibid.
  12.  “Jomama Jones * Radiate,” New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/theatre/jomama-jones-radiate.
  13.  Ibid.
  14.  Ed Huyck, “Expatriate R&B Singer Jomama Jones Returns with an Important Message for Her Country,” Minneapolis City Pages, June 20, 2012,  http://digitalissue.citypages.com/article/Theater/1096523/116315/article.htmlhttp://digitalissue.citypages.com/article/Theater/1096523/116315/article.html.
  15. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 174
  16. 16.  Iris Cushing, “A Performance Artist’s Absurd Anatomical Odyssey,” Hyperallergic, October 22, 2014, https://hyperallergic.com/157304/a-performance-artists-absurd-anatomical-odyssey.

Photo by Drew Geraci

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Sara Lyons is a queer feminist director and writer working in theater and performance. Her work been presented at Special Effects/Wild Project, Ensemble Studio Theatre, HERE Arts Center, Fordham University, Culture Project, LaMaMa ETC, and Dixon Place, among other. She is currently a John Wells Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. www.sara-lyons.com

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