The five years or so that I’ve spent covering cabaret and other kinds of alternative performance in a sustained way has been a wonderfully stimulating and rewarding experience. A vital part of that has been thinking about why I love these shows.
A lot of it has to do (as I’ve recently written elsewhere) with the conversational, collaborative dynamic between performers and audience. When done well, I think this kind of work activates everyone in the room in a way that other forms generally don’t. It relies on the engagement and agency of all present to yield unpredictable, unrepeatable experiences that reinforce the importance of constructive engagement with others.
This in turn provides an alternative model to the passive way in which we normally consume our culture: pay, watch, go home, repeat. Successful experiences of cabaret’s more collaborative approach stay with audience members when they leave the performance space and can inform their thinking and behaviour in all kinds of subtle ways. These experiences encourage imaginative empathy with the experiences of others and a willingness to risk collaborative undertakings with uncertain outcomes in the hope of yielding beneficial experiences for all involved.*
That, at any rate, is my hunch. And it’s one that’s been uninformed by any serious, sustained reading or research. I’ve picked up little bits of theory and book-learning related to current performance trends and practices here and there but generally I’ve been working on the hoof, watching as much as possible and letting my own ideas percolate in an unstructured way. But a little learning is a dangerous thing. I’ve always had a bit of an academic bent (since graduating in English, I’ve done masters degrees in film history and arts journalism), so have sometimes thought it would be good to subject my hunches to more rigorous thought and analysis to see whether they really hold water or are just, you know, airy-fairy, arty-farty lefty bullshit.
So I am incredibly proud and excited to have been selected for a unique PhD studentship researching links between performance, audiences and social engagement. This fully-funded collaborative doctoral award is jointly run by the drama department at Queen Mary University of London and Duckie, those veteran honktyonk homosexualists.
In recent years, Duckie has been branching out from its mainstay events – basically performance-party club events with a provocative queer edge – to work with younger, older and homeless people, and those dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. This work will be the subject of a major case study as part of the doctorate. It won’t be about uncritically praising them, and Duckie certainly won’t be the sole focus of my research, but its achievements over the past 18 years and plans for the future offer an exceptionally rich resource and an ideal springboard to investigate more deeply those ideas about whether fun nights out can also help make the world a better place.
I’ll be working with Catherine Silverstone and Dominic Johnson at Queen Mary – which has one of the most dynamic and exciting performance research departments in the world – and Simon Casson and Dicky Eton at Duckie. And, in academic terms, I’m seeing the research zigzagging between several live concerns, including the relationship between performance and social engagement (the ‘social turn’), the rise of participatory theatre and performance practices, and ideas around utopianism in queer theory.
It’s very early days and I don’t yet know exactly what form the research or the results will take, but it should be a very exciting journey – and one that will take place in parallel with, not instead of, my ongoing engagement with cabaret performance as it happens week by week (and indeed various other projects, time permitting).
It would, after all, be counterproductive to withdraw to an ivory tower to investigate making a difference in the wider world. I see this PhD as being about connections: connecting performance to social, journalism to academia, rigorous research to mainstream conversations. It’s all about making contact…