“I’m gonna turn this into a 'cabaret where I live,' because I came out of this punk house world where, when there’s no venues and people don’t let you be who you want to be and what you’re doing has no value and you can’t work, you can’t make money off of it, you just do it in your house for whoever will show. And that’s what Faux Pas was. For 3 years it was a monthly cabaret that was run out of an apartment on Mont-Royal Avenue."
- Laura Boo
It was less than a month into the self-isolation, stay-at-home COVID19 pandemic protocols had been in place in most of Canada when I saw the Facebook event invitation to “Passoverboard! A live-Zoom coronabaret of music + drag” hosted, curated, and produced by Peaches LePoz (aka Peaches LePox, aka Jordan Arseneault) and Douch LeDouche (aka Laura Boo). Both artists are hard-working cabaret legends in Montréal, having co-organized many cabarets over the years. When the pandemic protocols were put in place, Jordan had been visiting family near St. John, New Brunswick and that’s where he remained; Laura was in Montréal. The two had been in regular queeny contact throughout the first stay-at-home month and together they hatched a plan to host a Zoom cabaret, featuring performer friends based in Montréal, Beirut and New Brunswick. Held on Saturday April 18, 2020, PassOverboard! was a revelation to me, even though I had already attended many shows on Facebook and Instagram, and a few online Zoom cabarets hosted by queers in various parts of the world.
Because I am interested in what I have been thinking about for many years now as “transmedial drag”—or the method of moving materials, performances, ideas, bodies, feelings from one media, one body, to another—I was paying attention to what worked and what didn’t work in these online live shows. The one performer, one stream method that is easy to do on Facebook and Instagram at this point felt like the most successful experiment in online live performance—one girl with a guitar (or two, if you count the Indigo Girls), one living room, one camera and one audience, with the capacity to comment but not share the screen (the virtual stage platform - focal point and communication zone) with the performer. In terms of the online live cabarets I had attended, I appreciated the effort and intention of what people were going for: keeping connections with friends, collaborators and comrades near and far; keeping art practices moving; raising funds to support our communities and to pay artists whose money gigs had been canceled for the foreseeable future. But I was both Zoomed out and found most of the multi-artist live events I went to pretty strained. It seemed like folks were struggling to make the video conference platform work for something more than a professional meeting or a boozy (or not) hangout with loved ones. And people were extremely freaked out and lonely. I have no desire to criticize any show I’ve seen online. Let’s trust that everyone putting on an online cabaret is doing their best and trying to make things a little nicer for themselves and everyone else.
Around this time I started to call the Zoom/online cabaret, “Cabaret pandémie sans frontières,” although the “Cabaret Sans Frontières” name is already taken by a humanitarian cabaret in France. I’ve added “pandémie” to make it specific to this time. Pandemic Cabaret is a life-saving, thriving measure for trans- feminist and queer (TFQ) performers and audiences: a way of gathering and being able to feel the familiar fucked-up messy glitz of a queer cabaret as a form of collective self-soothing and connection in a pandemic. It’s cabaret as medicine, medical care, mutual aid, harm reduction, and you might even get to cruise. It’s also a form of fantasy cabaret because of the ways that online gathering allows artists and audiences from all over to be in the same show across timezones and without the frequent impossibilities of travel, including racist and xenophobic border and visa barriers and expensive travel and accommodation. While in the past several decades it has become increasingly difficult for cabaret artists to perform beyond their local scenes, the pandemic has strangely made it possible for artists to perform and to share a stage/platform from seemingly anywhere. Cabaret has always been a predominantly translocal phenomenon with each locale having unique characteristics, but the general vibe and method of the satirical variety show format remains fairly constant across locales. So, “Cabaret pandémie sans frontières.” Artists for whom, in non-pandemic times, it would be difficult or impossible to travel to Montréal to be part of a cabaret, can now get in on the Montréal cabaret action, and this gets paid forward around the world. While the Internet itself imposes many barriers, borders and travel funds are no longer obstacles for artists who want to be in the same show in the same way as everyone else, nor to curating your favourite performers from all over the place.
Passoverboard! was a Zoom cabaret that combined spectacularly hilarious, beautiful and touching live hosting and live performance, along with a handful of pre-recorded performances and/or existing performance videos. In addition to the improvised emcee genius of Peaches LePox (Jordan Arseneault) and the hosting and tech wizardry of Douche LeDouche (Laura Boo), this show featured the DJ magic of Sasha Van Bon Bon, whose music, at-home light show and off-the-hook performance at the beginning, during intermissions and for the end-of-show dance party, helped to bring the house down (bring all our houses down!) for dozens of rapt cabaret spectators, from her living room in Montréal.
In the (awesomely long) conversation that follows, I talk with Laura and Jordan about their vast, shared cabaret experience, why Passoverboard! turned out so great, the aesthetics and politics of cabaret ‘in your living room’ (pandemic and pre-pandemic), and the improvisatory technical and performance chops required for both.
To read the full conversation with Laura and Jordan, go here.
For three years in the late 2000s, Laura organized Cabaret Faux Pas in the living room of her big, shared Montréal apartment. Jordan was a central collaborator in the ongoing creation of these shows, and they have continued to make shows together and in other configurations for more than a decade. Queer cabaret has always had a fondness for at-home stages: living room shows—cabaret domestique, or the ‘salon.’ It is where (as adults) we are relatively safe, it’s what we can afford, and our friends already know how to get there. But putting on a full show in a home space has its challenges and requires innovative uses of floor lamps, flashlights and tinfoil for directional lighting, running sound through a TV or VCR to get amplification and other inventions. In a living room show there is no wall (fourth or otherwise) between audience and performer because people are walking all over each other to get to and from ‘the stage’ and, like in most TFQ cabaret scenes, it’s very likely that people in the audience for one show will be on stage the next. Running a living room show means you don’t need to pay a bar guarantee, deal with homophobic or transphobic or fatphobic bar owners or venue tech and bar staff, or other patrons. It also creates a low risk situation for organizers and artists because, as Laura puts it “whatever you had, you would just make it work, and if things went terrifyingly wrong, it wasn’t a very big deal because you never really promised anyone that you knew what you were doing anyway.” Cabaret artists and organizers thrive in things going terrifyingly wrong—either with music or video that won’t play on the house system, artists arriving late and sloshed, a performance that is supposed to be max 5 minutes runs over 20; cabaret is sometimes perfection, but mostly it’s perfect in its rawness, wrongness, the ragged edges, the glitches, and the revealing, revelling and recovery, by the emcee, the other performers and the audience.
In the conversation that follows, Jordan and Laura move fluidly between the pre-pandemic living room cabaret (when we gathered in each other’s living rooms) and the pandemic living room cabaret (when we’re each in our living room—or bedroom, or gazebo, or basement—finding our own light, dressing our own stages, running our own tech, making our own drinks). The Zoom platform for live performance is stage and screen—artists are performing in their living spaces, for audiences in their living spaces; audiences are responding in their living spaces, for performers in their living spaces. Zoom is a corporate venue. No matter what our living spaces/stages look like, when we are watching an online cabaret, we’re watching a corporate, convergent platform that we’re using for our purposes. And as much as we fuck with it as well as we can, there's only so much you can do with the space. The emergence of the Zoom (or Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and so on) cabaret has created a bonus legacy: unlike most of the 5-steps up, or basement stages with narrow bathroom spaces where TFQ cabaret happens around the world, Zoom is wheelchair accessible and that is an important shift from many of the artsy, non-corporate, or "heritage," shabby-chic, low-rent venues that queers can generally afford to book for our shows.
Like in pre-Internet days when DIY shows happened because people stole paper and photocopying and other office supplies from their day jobs to make flyers, posters and zines, in these hyper-Internet days, artists and activists are stealing/using this corporate platform (Zoom), designed for business conference calls—already re-purposed for porn (or did porn invent Zoom too?)—to make cabaret and other live performance events. Artists (like Laura) with day jobs are also using the skills they learn in the online boardroom to create beautifully tech’d performance art. Like in olden times, we’re still squatting and making do. As artists and activists would steal the paper and photocopier toner whose official use was to reproduce administrative or academic documents and turn them into revolutionary materials, in 2020 we take the video-conference platform subscription and make a new world. In our conversation, Jordan explains, “[online] cabaret is a mid-point between DIY porn and office work and this is our oeuvre.” Zoom (and other online streaming platforms) is expanded technological work for cabaret, but not unfamiliar work; we have always made do with whatever spaces we could get our hands on and made it work.
Two years into the pandemic, I’ve grown nostalgic for the experiments of the first several weeks and even the first several months. Of all the cabarets and other live shows I’ve seen since mid-March 2020, PassOverboard! was the most thrilling for two reasons:
1) Because it combined fabulous live and pre-recorded performance before the full DIY music video aesthetic for drag and other cabaret performance caught on, with the norm nudging towards fully pre-recorded shows, and
2) Because the audience too, was live, indeed, lively.
Anyone who has spent time in TFQ cabaret knows that the show only works when the audience is picking up what the artists are putting down. Even when a performance is a bit or a lot of a flop, it is the audience’s job (along with the emcee) to keep the energy up, to laugh, gasp, hoot, cheer, applaud, stomp, yell, lift up each performer, each performance. In the Zoom cabaret this is difficult because each performer is miles or oceans away from their audience members, who are miles away from each other. As the stay-at-home and work-from-home orders dragged us through the weeks and then the months, and now the years of pandemic life, I think many of us felt the demand to perform presence decrease. That is, while it’s always just been good protocol to mute ourselves when we’re not talking in a video call, due to screen fatigue, brain blur, busy, messy houses and challenging home responsibilities and, let’s face it, vanity, it also became cool to turn off video and to multi-task while also participating in work meetings and classrooms.
This also changed in the context of lively audiences in Zoom performances—the office work and live show cultures shared the same shift. When video-off became the norm at work and school, all of a sudden online live performance audiences no longer felt the responsibility to respond by unmuting or turning video on to react, cheer, clap and so on after each performance, or even via the chat function. And with cameras off, no one can see the other audience members; all we see are names (or little profile pictures) in squares. I do it too. Why do your hair or change your shirt, when you can do neither, leave your video off, make dinner while you watch the cabaret? Yes, I know: ennui, depression, care work and everything else. Believe me I know. But bear with me. I, along with other cabaret scholars and critics, have written about how cabaret is the art of seeing and being seen; it is an audience’s artform. Zoom cabaret has become the art of seeing and not being seen. But in Passoverboard!, “video off” was not trending yet, people had just discovered Zoom backgrounds and people weren’t yet cutting back on the amount they were drinking during an evening spent on Zoom. So, the audience was lively. And it was a blast.
In the early pandemic era of PassOverboard! We were still emerging into the reality of another impact of COVID-19: Global Zoom Fear Of Missing Out, (or GLOZOFOMO for short). GLOZOFOMO is real. It is FOMO scaled up to beyond what anyone can manage. We have learned to be careful with ourselves and what we think we can do and should see. Just like traveling across multiple time zones to see a one-day show became normal but extremely bad, GLOZOFOMO is bad for us. It will make us crazy in a bad way. Let’s not let live events happening all over the world make us crazy. For those of us who are already mad, you know what to do: know your limits, chickadees.
Finally, the real life and death consequences of COVID-19, a centuries-long pandemic of state-ordered and state-sanctioned racist and anti-revolutionary violence, massive global economic, resource and health injustice and ongoing wars and occupations, are vastly more important than online cabaret. But ... live performance has always also been a way for us to come together to reinforce our commitments to each other, to check in on each other, as a laboratory in which to experiment how to best express to each other what is happening in the current moment, and how it dredges up the past and makes us feel about the future. Cabaret is news that stages news (ripping-off Ezra Pound). Cabarets continue to function, as they always have, as ways for artists to make a small amount of money, and for cabaret worlds to support our communities through fundraising and the important DIY economic traditions of Pay What You Can, Sliding Scale, no-one-turned-away-for-lack-of-ability-to-pay. While online cabaret—cabaret pandémie sans frontières—is not the shared stage experience that has sustained trans- feminist and queer worlds in many cities and towns around the world for many generations, its structure and aesthetic remain chaotically, reassuringly familiar.
To read the full conversation with Laura and Jordan, continue here.
This Introduction and my conversation with Laura and Jordan are part of a larger project about pandemic trans- feminist and queer cabaret, The Only Way to the Show is Through the Home. Visit Cabaret Commons Exhibition Place March 27, 2022 for our first exhibit in this series, Fancy Fridays.
To read another piece about COVID cabaret, here's my "Holding for Applause: On Queer Cabaret in Pandemic times on Avidly.
T.L. Cowan (she/they) is an Associate 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.