Cabaret

TL Cowan
08.08.2018

Neon “Cabaret” sign with the word “cabaret” in hot pink cursive and a star in neon blue.

Neon “Cabaret” sign with the word “cabaret” in hot pink cursive and a star in neon blue. Used with Permission of The Sign Store.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the cabaret form to trans- feminist and queer cultural, sexual, and political worlds since the early 20th century. The cabaret as we understand and practice it here at the Cabaret Commons is, loosely, a live show made up from a variety of short acts, often featuring different performers in each act, and composed of many different forms, thematics and styles of performance or presentation. Cabaret tends to include satirical material, using 'the strategy of juxtaposing the humorous and the sober' (Laura Gutierrez Performing Mexicanidad Vendidas y Cabareteras on the Transnational Stage 2010: 10) to bring into serious consideration the critical issues of the day. Cabaret is, to paraphrase Ezra Pound on poetry, the news that stages news. Some other defining features of cabaret as we are practicing it here: it tends to showcase the work of brand new, emerging and established artists all on the same stage. This is one aspect of what I have called the “shared stage” method of cabaret—bringing together artists at different points in their careers, introducing each to new audiences based on the regular crowd who shows up to see an old favourite (who am I calling old?!) or the gaggle of friends who have never been to a cabaret, pouring in to see their pal’s first time performing drag, or reading their poetry, or singing folk music, dancing burlesque, showing a video, doing shadow puppets, tap dancing, doing stand-up comedy. You get the picture.

We are building this Cabaret Commons in order to laugh with, and to take seriously, the work of cabaret that happens across locales and platforms. Cabaret is a translocal and transmedial form. In cities and towns around the world (although, importantly, not in every city and town in the world) artists, activists, organizers and even teachers move cabaret methods around and work them from the stage, to the street, to online- and page-based collaborative and collective satirical political variety genres, to the classroom. The transmedial elements of cabaret are also those elements of anticipatory and documentary media that make cabaret what it is: the posters, tickets, the weeks of word-of-mouth flirting & hand-billing promotion for a show, the weeks of word-of-mouth and online social media promotion for the show; and then the photographs, videos, the online and offline gossip, the times we repeat one of the emcee’s jokes, or the affective cringe when we recall a particularly uncomfortable moment of the show, the performer websites and performance do-overs, as well as the left-over anticipatory ephemera, all of these media make cabaret.

Cabaret is also a participatory genre. Cabaret audiences are part of the show and not just as bums in seats—performing what we call the essential audience labours of cheering, wishing well, heckling and dare I say it … holding space for the chemistry of each cabaret to explode or implode when it needs to. Cabaret audiences show off for themselves and each other, play their own parts and, ideally, cheer just as hard for the first-time burlesque dancer who had a few fumbles as they do for the closing flawless drag number or stand-up act. The dual investment of the artists who get on stage even though they may be scared to death or stoned out of their minds, and the audiences who show up, pay what they can, pay attention, and make a party out of it, these investments are how cabaret has sustained, and has been sustained by, trans- feminist and queer scenes for so long. This is the scene we need, even if it is not always the scene we want.

Considering cabaret as a translocal phenomenon allows us to extend our political and aesthetic analyses across the imposed borders of modern/colonial (Mignolo 2011) nationhood, and to push against, and transgress, these borders. The Cabaret Commons apprehends and links the distinct, and yet similarly engaged, trans-feminist and queer cultures in these otherwise very different local contexts. Moreover, all artists thinking of performing outside of their country of citizenship must decide whether they will risk a border banning or detainment if they are discovered to have been working in the country they are visit­ing without a work visa (which are typically impossible to get without institutional sponsorship, a tax number and other forms of documenta­tion and permission). Ironically, while making it easier for performers to circulate documentation of their work transnationally, online social media has made cross-border live performance even more complicated and perilous. It is not dif­ficult to understand why contemporary grassroots cabaret artists tend to stay put even as their work travels via online networks.

Cabaret methods as we practice them here include variety, risk, fabulosity, especially in the face of a flop, glamour, gutter, glitter, refraction, incompletion, sharing fame and resources, explosive literality (Rebecca SchniederThe Explicity Body in Performance1997), experimentation, subtle charm, kindness, bitchiness, amateurism, vulnerability, trust, mutual support, practice, improvization, genius, flare, ritual and urgency, and the importance of making spaces for the networked intimate publics that are grassroots cabaret spaces, in which we can be exposed without being attacked (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun Updating to Remain the Same 2016). Beyond a set or sets of staged performance practices, we understand cabaret as a structure of feeling, a mode of living, and shared justice-oriented, aesthetics-driven and party-centred commitments that grassroots trans- feminist and queer scenes across North America, and beyond.

Many people become acquainted with cabaret through the Bob Fosse 1972 film Cabaret, set in a fictional Kit Kat bar in Berlin in 1931 (the story based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, and Friedrich Hollander’s Tingle Tangle theatre). While the film is important to the history and present of cabaret practice, I want to draw your attention to a special feature of the anniversary edition DVD—Liza Minnelli’s camera test, singing “Life is a Cabaret” in a purple silk gown. The song is just almost three minutes long (an excellent time for a cabaret number!), and midway through, the camera catches sweat marks under Minnelli’s breasts, revealing the hard, and often hidden, work of cabaret. At the Cabaret Commons, we want to consider this sweat. This moment of unconventional intimacy in the pre-life of the film, epitomizes cabaret’s methods: it reveals too much; it forces or allows a proximity to a confusing conflation and proliferation of identities—Is this Liza Minnelli? Or Sally Bowles? Does it remind us of all the Liza drag queens we’ve known and loved? It shows the excess, the vulnerability, the failure and the artifice. Life is a cabaret, old chum, and cabaret is sweaty.

My three minutes are up. It’s time for the next act.

Welcome to the cabaret.


TL Cowan

T.L. Cowan (she/they) is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Arts Culture and Media (UTSC) and the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, as well as a cabaret and video artist. Her creative-research practice moves between page, stage, and screen.