During last year’s Edinburgh Fringe in August 2013, which I was covering in my capacity as Time Out London’s cabaret editor, I saw a show that pushed a button in me. It was meant to. Red Bastard comes on like some grotesque, cadaverous, confrontational hybrid of rooster, tomato, clown and drama teacher, teasing, probing and pissing off his audience. It’s all by way of activating them – getting them to engage in the present moment, in the business of being an audience member, and more broadly in the business of life. Rather than passively going along with whatever forces nudge us here or there, he demands to know what we actually want to do with our lives. What would make us happy? What kind of world do we want to live in?
When Red Bastard asked these questions, what popped into my head was: I want to get people into shows like this.
I’d been writing about cabaret and alternative performance for a few years, becoming increasingly excited not just by the talent out there but by the suspicion that there was something special about these sorts of shows: shows that as well as being a lot of fun were unmistakably collaborations between performers and audiences – this, in fact, was part of why they were such fun.
These were shows that loved you back; shows that made eye contact and reached out a hand; shows that left space for the unrehearsable, unpredictable and unrepeatable; shows that expected punters not just to pay but to play; shows that suggested how the rest of society could work; shows that were definitely not television.
Of course I believe there’s value in writing articles like this celebrating such work, but nothing compares to experiencing it first hand. So when, in Edinburgh last year, Red Bastard asked what I wanted to do, I thought, I’d like to put on a festival dedicated to shows like this – shows that love you back. And now it’s happened. And it was fun. And it feels good.
The Not Television Festival was three days of wildly varied performances, encounters and conversations held at Chelsea Theatre (which is also a community centre, and where I’ve previously produced one-off cabaret nights called Come With Me If You Want To Live). The timing of the festival was designed to capitalise on Edinburgh, and we were able to nab a few brilliant performers who were in the UK for the Fringe – not least Red Bastard himself. The idea of the festival was that everything that took place, whether based in comedy, theatre, music, cabaret, art or whatever, was conversational and responsive – the artists was leaders of collaborations, some of which were more open than others but all of which were impossible without the active involvement of the audience.
It was essentially a weekend of contact, play and unpredictability – things I think our society could do with more of – spread across the various spaces of the Chelsea, from the outside forecourt, at the bottom of the council estate of which the theatre is a part, to the foyer space just off the main entrance, with a little bar, where we hold Come With Me, to the main black-box theatre space upstairs. Basically, we put shows that seemed they’d benefit from porous boundaries in the foyer and those that seemed to call for some kind of sealing off from the rest of the world in the theatre. Kind of the difference between ‘come on in’ and ‘here we all are’.
Happily, any attempt to summarise the whole experience will fall short, but I’ll try. The formal boundaries were loose, to say the least, but we could say Friday night was rooted in comedy. It was billed as a provocative double bill featuring a divine character and a diabolical one – but both are in fact mischievously ambivalent.
Josh Ladgrove performed Come Heckle Christ, in which he positions himself on a crucifix on stage and, as the title suggests, takes whatever the audience throws at him, and throws something back. The conversation touched on organised religion in general, Islam in particular, daddy issues and Timotei; I found myself enacting the parable of the lone dickhead with the help of an audience-member donkey, while dance critic Donald Hutera lifted Christ’s raiment to avail himself of the sacrament beneath (Mother’s Pride, from the looks of it, from the Co-op down the road). Ladgrove’s balancing act is ingenious, and not only in the literal sense of performing while tethered to an upright cross: the show is irreverent but good-hearted, his wit consistently shrewd, and his decision to reserve the right to slip in and out of character a bit of a lifesaver for everyone.
Red Bastard, who was on afterwards, plays less fast and loose with his persona: there is slippage between the character and the performer, Eric Davis, but it’s more structured and carefully managed, emerging steadily as the show develops and the threatening presence becomes a more protective, even vulnerable figure. The turning point was perhaps the moment when, at Red Bastard’s prompting, an audience member left a very touching voicemail message for someone he missed (an ex, it seemed) and hadn’t seen for more than a year. The subsequent applause was spontaneous and bonding. After the show, I heard one person say “that was the best show I’ve ever seen”; another wiped away tears; and someone left the building without their white high heels.
Friday and Sunday ended with standing ovations; Saturday went one better, with the crowd joyously bearing a performer out of the venue on their shoulders. Things started off pretty exuberantly on a day that was full of music, with Ragroof’s Tea Dance out in the open air of World’s End Place on the theatre’s doorstep. It was a bit like a village fete, with stalls, food and drink, music and dancing, of course, and a heady mix of people, including visitors and local residents of various backgrounds (some seeming more the Pimms type, others more Tennent’s Extra). Drawabout took the initiative and got stuck in, inviting a local couple to tell their story – one of four decades of love that began at the Café de Paris – while listeners drew pictures inspired by what they heard.
After the Tea Dance, visitors were lured inside for Mister Meredith’s Knees-Up Round the Organ, a fruity singalong that blended universally familiar music-hall, pop-chart and football-terrace anthems with a delicate smattering of fisting gags. As a show, it’s infectiously enjoyable but also offers an unobtrusive throughline about the centrality of communal singing to all kinds of social contexts. It was the ideal bridge between the day’s outdoor and indoor activity, blurring lines between the theatre’s various spaces and constituencies in unexpected and very welcome ways.
After the knees-up came the first of the weekend’s two performances of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Rooted in Soleimanpour’s inability to travel internationally, it’s an experimental script that delves into the triangular relationship between writer, actor and audience, making the author’s absence an explicit and unignorable aspect of the production. The actor’s role is made strange by the fact that they see and know nothing of the contents of the script until they receive it on stage and start to read. And the audience are required to help and advise the actor in various ways as the performance unfolds. White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been performed internationally many times since it was written in 2010, often by more traditional actors. I thought it would be interesting to see cabaret performers take it on, not least because, unlike your average classically trained thesp, they’re in their element with audience collaboration but are less often obliged to follow a script to the letter.
The results, I thought, were fascinating. Both performers, it should be stated up front, excelled at the part of the show requiring them to deliver an ostrich impression. On Saturday, the reader was Jonny Woo, one of London’s most seminal and celebrated alternative drag performers. Jonny brought an effortless authority and control to the piece, bringing an arch storyteller’s panache to his delivery and frequently going off-piste with thoughtful and witty ad libs, while scrupulously fulfilling his instruction to let the audience know whenever he did so (“That’s not in the script” became something of a catchphrase).
Lady Rizo, the New York-based chanteuse and comedian, and Edinburgh darling, took the part on the following day, and gave it a different flavour: she stayed closer to the script and seemed more emotionally involved, more feeling, more in jeopardy. Yet she was no less fierce. Early on, an audience member was conspicuously sluggish to participate in the required manner, reluctant to sound off when we were all asked to call out a number to establish how many were present, then refusing to put down her phone or close her eyes when asked. Rizo coolly and firmly insisted on her leaving – and quite right too. This might in fact have been the essential moment of the whole weekend. Anyone was welcome to join in the festival – as long as they joined in.
(This also presents a nice illustration of the difference between the porous foyer and the hermetic theatre space. The same audience member had previously declined to engage with Drawabout in the foyer, which was much more easily shrugged off with a smile without diminishing others’ ability to engage.)
The evening shows comprised another rhyming double bill of sorts: musical shows by Tricity Vogue and Tomás Ford, each boasting beautiful and compelling original songwriting, each involving the audience throughout, each (funnily enough) requiring punters to deploy bicycle lights for on-stage effects, but ever so different all the same.
Tricity’s show, Songs for Swinging Ukuleles, marks the flowering of a longstanding interest in man-drag: earlier in the year, she chopped off her very long hair and bought a very nice suit and the rest is history. It’s a charming suite of songs, a slow-burner that eases you in with a couple of saucy call-and-response numbers about swinging of various kinds then starts to soar. It reaches a dreamy new plane with an infectious waltz about joining the circus (enhanced by audience bum-bum-bumming along), goes dark (red bike light excepted) for a bedroom thriller, tugs the heart with a love song of impossible simplicity then sends you out with a foot-stomping anthem backed by volunteer voguers. Throughout, there are opportunities to lend a hand, in gentle yet essential ways: singing along here, using keys and change as percussion there, being dragged on stage to do drag on stage for a couple of brave souls at the end.
Tomás Ford’s Electric Cabaret is also a suite of original songs obviously rooted in a unique formal emotional sensibility, and is also about wanting to connect. Slow-burning and gentle it ain’t, however; it’s more of an industrial-techno love-bombing-cum-hostage-taking. Ambitiously combining video visuals, all manner of electronic musical jiggery-pokery and an audience relationship several steps beyond up close and personal, it gets off to a deliberately awkward start and seems constantly to be teetering on failure (an approach that can prove canny if and when genuine laptop gremlins get to work). Ford’s manner veers between solicitous and belligerent but it’s clear that he just wants some love and security – who doesn’t? – and he’s willing to strip off his shirt and scream around the place if it might help things along. His time crooning topless while sprawled in the lap of the theatre’s artistic director ranks among my favourite moments from the weekend – as do his reclining along the foyer bar to the staff’s horror-delight and, most of all, his being carried from the foyer into the streets on the shoulders of the willing crowd at the euphoric conclusion to his set.
It was the epitome of the collaborative spirit in which the Festival was conceived – a performer who would literally be left hanging without the joyous help of an audience willing not only to pay but to play. The smiles were wide all round, and the chilly dampness of Tomás’s sweat-drenched shirt as we hugged afterwards is a sense memory I’ll carry for a long time.
There were a few ambient elements to the weekend too – things that weren’t timetabled events but just added to the environment. One of those was the Anxiety Box, which Tom Frederic and I created for Come With Me If You Want To Live earlier this year. It’s basically a decorated cardboard box into which people can post anything that might be troubling their mind, by way of the pens and coloured paper stars next to the box. They can also pin their stars to the backdrop on which previous entries have been arranged – a constellation of concerns raised in the hopes of generating a little cardboard catharsis by making plain the fact that we’re all a bit worried and a bit screwed up. The Anxiety Box and its displayed contents are meant to offer a different, anonymised kind of contact – not the kind found in the euphoric communality of a crowd but a kind that avoids eye contact and takes place over an extended time period, a way of being together even as it recognises our aloneness.
Another, more mobile ambient ingredient was Drawabout, the drawing group led by Adam Taffler and collaborators Loose Baker and Catherine Goodwin. As well as roving around the Tea Dance and Knees-Up on Saturday, they were busy on Sunday, serving as a kind of gateway drug to audience engagement for those who might be a bit wary, and also proving effective at knitting the venue’s different constituencies into the festival’s events. They had a knack for combining just the right amount of friendliness, persistence and permission-giving to have dozens of people trying their hand at illustrating all kinds of ideas and people, yielding a bulging sheaf of pictures that doubled as an unofficial (and very partial) illustrative record of the festival.
Sunday began – well, after some Drawabout fun to warm things up – with a visit from the Sunday Assembly, the godless congregation that’s been making waves offering meetings where people can enjoy the social and selfless aspects of church without the divinely-justified stuff. It was a great start to the day, with bits of singalong and testimonials from hosts Neil and Rob, and a stimulating talk from Jenna Adel about her experiences as a ‘stealth Muslim’, “but not in, like, a dodgy way” – more about how Scottish boys’ Orientalist appreciation of Princess Jasmine got her laid. My favourite moments involved just getting people to talk to strangers within the audience. I found myself discussing bereavement with someone I’d never met before and found out how a guy got himself banned from every casino in Sri Lanka.
Then came something that we just sort of cobbled together and it was lovely. I’d asked Michael Roulston to come and play some music on Sunday afternoon. He’s probably the London cabaret scene’s foremost musician, writing songs with the likes of Dusty Limits and Sarah-Louise Young and accompanying too many fine performers to name. Our idea was to have Michael improvise at the piano, inspired by words and pictures audience members could doodle on a nearby sheet of paper. In the event, this idea really took flight when we teamed Michael up with Drawabout and their expertise at nudging people into creative drawing, sometimes despite themselves. Before long we had performers, theatre employees, audience members and kids like Mohamed and Ali serving up visual fuel for his melodic meanderings. Fun!
Following Lady Rizo’s take on White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the final part of the Festival programme was Miss Behave’s Game Show. Where to start with this one? It’s an absurdist lo-fi contest hosted by a gold-clad ringmistress and a bearded cutie in short shorts (Harriet, aka Harry Clayton-Wright). The audience are divided into two teams by mobile phone (iPhone vs others) and compete in daft rounds based on things like customer-service announcements, selfie-taking and shouting loudly. And it’s just a delight, a fusion of so many of the things I love about alternative cabaret performance: more fun than a bucket of frogs, super clever but totally accessible, satirically savvy in an understated way, and all about unleashing the initiative, creativity and collaboration of everyone in the room. Plus I’m just in love with its cardboard aesthetic. Sweets and a cell phone were smashed with a mallet, huge numbers of points were begged for and obliterated, Lady Rizo did a headstand in another punter’s lap, I got to down a pint (faster than the other guy), and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the whole audience rise to their feet as spontaneously as they did at the end.
Then there were drinks and talking and laughing and eventually Thai food down the road with the survivors: three Jews, three vegetarians and a ballerina.
It was a brilliant end to the Festival, then, and Lady Rizo’s Game Show headstand was part of that. She’d been a brilliant participant in the whole day’s events: as well as leading White Rabbit Red Rabbit, she was in the congregation for the Sunday Assembly and did a terrific drawing for Michael to interpret musically too. It was this sense of festive openness that I cherished most about the weekend. I’ve been talking mostly about the performances but I could – perhaps should – have spent as much time talking about the audiences. About Matthew, whose deep, beautiful voice and polite persistence made him such a star of Come Heckle Christ. About Victor, who played a bear and downed a pint and stayed all weekend. About Barbara, who played a rabbit and stayed all weekend too, having seen the festival listed in an events email and convinced her husband to shoulder three days of babysitting, and brought a wonderfully thoughtful engagement to proceedings.
I think the trick of the whole thing – and the reason it didn’t matter that we were dozens rather than hundreds – was that after a while you couldn’t tell performers from audience from theatre employees; or you could but it didn’t matter. Anyone might pop up on stage or lend a hand off it. You couldn’t tell where the aesthetic became the social or where the social became the political.
Late afternoon on Saturday was probably the point at which things were most mixed up, with local residents of all kinds and Tea Dance fans mixing with those who’d come for Mister Meredith’s fabulously camp Knees-Up, or Jonny’s experiment or Tricity’s ukulele love or Tomás’s stronger flavour, and of course those who habitually use the theatre’s community facilities of a weekend afternoon. To me, this unusual and unpredictable mix was exciting. To others, it might have been more alarming. Anecdotally, I heard about a posh woman who moved seats so she didn’t have to remain next to a woman with a mental illness. And a reviewer of Saturday’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit found the combination of tea dance, knees-up, mixed ages and social types to be a kind of “chaos [that] does not exactly fill you with confidence for the show you have come to see”.
This writer’s disdain for communal expression and social mixing and that audience member’s reluctance to share a seat with someone who was not disruptive but was different are, in their way, political statements. They speak to a politics that is suspicious of contact, suspicious of play, suspicious of the unpredictable, a politics that implicitly approves their opposites – atomisation, regimentation, conformity. It’s a politics that has, for the most part, made television such an alienating and dispiriting medium of mass culture, and it’s not a politics I share.
When, up in Edinburgh, Red Bastard nudged me into imagining a festival, I had no idea what it might look like, but I knew contact, play and unpredictability would be at its heart. A year later, on the other side of the first Not Television Festival, I’m more convinced of it than ever. I hope we’ll get to do another one, and that you might consider coming.