2014 Cabaret Convention

2014 Cabaret Convention poster

A very interesting, fun and well organised day. Read about it here.

Cabaret Convention 2014

The 2104 Cabaret Convention took place at The Proud Archivist, the attractive combined gallery, bar, restaurant, cafe and events space in Haggerston on Saturday October 11th. As well as market stalls and opportunities to network, there were debates, discussions, classes, workshops and an evening cabaret.

It was a great day, and I was quite frustrated that along with quite a few others, I had been at the mercy of delayed replacement busses and missed some of the earlier events. I am reliably informed, however, that in addition to the Burlexercise session, there had been a rather philosophical exploration on the nature of, and why people perform certain cabaret acts, such as pain cabaret (where artists might staple themselves), nudity and others, and how they might push themselves further artistically.

The next session, for which I was present, was a serious and candid discussion on the business end of cabaret. The panel consisted of cabaret producers Catia Ciarico, Tim McArthur, designer and critic Paul Vale, and singer Gary Williams, with journalist Ben Walters hosting.

The subject of artists’ pay was the first to be looked at, and in answer to an audience member’s query on pay levels and whether there is a cabaret artists’ union or collective of some sort to protect our interests, Catia explained there were different levels of pay according to where the act is performed, in what context and the relative experience of the performer. She feels it is up to the artist to assess where they are in the scheme of things and ask for the appropriate pay level.

Tim explained there is no union for cabaret performers and that even Actors Equity’s attitude has changed a lot over the years, with independent theatres creating their own contracts. Personally, he pays a combination of guaranteed fee and percentage of ticket sales on his shows.

Gary had felt when he first joined the industry that being a member of Equity was vital, but “..over time I noticed that no-one asked about my membership, even when working in TV and the West End.”

There were many considerations as to why he might want to take a job, whether it be paid well or not: “..I might want to collaborate with certain people, develop a relationship with a venue, an so on.” His main caveat would be that, while he might be perfectly content to work for little or no fee on a particular job, other people should not be getting rich on it.

Paul Vale, whilst stressing he has had little contact with that side of the industry, pointed out that the national minimum wage was soon to become imposed even on fringe theatre productions. Paul: “Performers need to decide for themselves what they want to do, but that there should be an open book system used in low paid jobs.”

Tim said it would not be possible to pay the minimum wage on all fringe productions.  For example, the new theatre in Twickenham, which had engaged West End actors in a recent production of Sweeney Todd, had not paid the performers, and his own production of Into the Woods had a cast of 17, which would have been impossible to stage had he been obliged to pay even the minimum wage. He fears the imposition will spell the death of fringe theatre.

Ben pointed out that the very form of cabaret, which has historically been somewhat under the radar “.. gives artists the opportunity to create unique work according to their own sensibilities. People do it as a form of expression, with making money not being a main consideration. Part of the appeal is that people set their own rules. However, this should not be the case in swankier enterprises where others are making big profits”.

Ben also raised the situation of cabaret producers. Dusty Limits spoke from the audience saying that things are easier now than they were some years ago when there were fewer venues, and that now he is able to earn his living from cabaret.  Catia agreed, pointing out that comedy venues such as Jongleurs are starting to engage cabaret acts and the 600 seater Wonderground is booking mainstream cabaret. There is more of a circuit available now.

Ben stressed the importance of artists taking responsibility for their own freelance status and that a paternalistic view of unions should be avoided.

He then raised the final topic, that of working for corporate events.  Gary said he did a lot, as they are well paid, making it possible to take other unpaid work which he might want to do. However, the recession had virtually killed the corporate circuit, though there are signs of improvement, and he now works more on cruise ships.

Helpfully, he gave some tips if an artist wants to pursue this avenue:

• Ask yourself- is what you do of interest to the corporate world?
• Get an agent who books such acts
• Remember, the audience may well be drunk, so keep your set strong, short and with high impact
• Try to ensure you are scheduled at a good time and the acts before and after you are appropriate

The session that followed later was led by Dusty Limits and producer Oliver Jack, and was in many respects a continuation of the same areas of discussion, with people clustered into small groups and electing a spokesperson to represent their group to the convention as a whole.

All in all, there appears to be quite an interesting debate between those who perform for love and have a driving passion to do so, and those who feel as a matter of principle they must be paid and will not do so under a certain amount.

Dusty reiterated an earlier point he had made, that all performers should produce their own shows in order to appreciate the mechanics of that, and understand that producers may well end up being paid less than the artists themselves.

Also, in answer to an audience member’s request for advice on how to gain some power in negotiations with venues, both Dusty and Oliver stressed the sense of power creating your own show can bring – creating the rules on your own terms, and how much better an artist can feel, even if very little money is made.

After all this food for thought, there was a screening of the film Cabaret Soup by John Bland of One Eyed Monster Films, and opportunities to perform, including a great choral session run by award-winning choir-master Birgitta Kenyon, where we created a couple of works from scratch.  I have to say, it was terrific fun and we sounded wonderful!

And, of course, no convention like this would be complete without a cabaret at the end with attendies able to show their work, should they wish.  A great way to finish a fascinating and very well organised day, with space to air issues affecting our community, get to know one another, learn something, and have a lot of fun whilst doing it.

My sincere congratulations to Paul L Martin for both his vision to establish, and his expert execution of what I expect is to turn into a much anticipated annual event.

Fiona-Jane Weston

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About Fiona Jane Weston

I am Fiona-Jane Weston and as well as being a performer myself (see website), I write reviews of and features on shows, mainly on the London cabaret and theatre scene. I have worked in theatre for many years, but decided to embark on a new direction in cabaret in 2009, when I produced 20th Century Woman: The Compact Cabaret. Not wanting to neglect my love of spoken word, particularly drama and verse, I made the conscious decision to include these elements in the programme, as well as wonderful songs, to tell the story of women's changing status and preoccupations throughout the 20th Century and up to now. I was invited to audition for the renowned Cabaret Conference at Yale, run by the late legendary Erv Raible, and that was thrilled to be one of only 26 accepted that year, where I was taught by the masters of the genre. Amanda McBroom (composer of the Bette Middler hit "The Rose" and the poignant "Errol Flynn"), Laurel Massé, original member of Manhattan Transfer, Sally Mayes, Tony Award nominees Sharon McNight and Tovah Feldshuh, and New York cabaret veteran Julie Wilson were all on the faculty. We were also treated to the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, Hubert Tex Arnold and the now late Paul Trueblood. With the benefit of their insightful teaching and great encouragement, I took my show to The Duplex in New York, where I was delighted with the response. Since then, I have produced Loving London: The Capital Cabaret, using the same format of songs, poetry and drama, in various London venues, including Leicester Square Theatre and The Crazy Coqs. 2014, the centenary of World War 1, saw the launch of Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret to a sellout house at St. James Theatre, London, garnering great notices, including from The Times and Musical Theatre Review. I have since been touring the show to Belgium and throughout the UK. I hope these reviews and interviews entertain and educate at the same time, and if please do leave comments in the box. It's great to engage in a conversation about the Arts. Fiona-Jane Weston
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