John Jarboe Talks His New Cabaret Celebration, Working With Justin Vivian Bond & Philly Performance Scene Being Reimagined”

Direct from Philadelphia’s ever growing performance arts scene, The Bearded Ladies Cabaret are throwing an international celebration of music and performance for a full twelve hours, aptly titled LATE NIGHT SNACKS: FEAST!  Taking place on October 17th, 2020 from 12PM to 12AM EST. Hosted by John Jarboe alongside luminaries like Justin Vivian Bond & Stephanie Blythe, the content of LATE NIGHT SNACKS: FEAST contains artists and creatives from literally, all over the world. I caught up with Jarboe who told me how he is keeping cabaret coming to Philadelphia, what it is like to curate a show like FEAST, and how her latest show which is like nothing you have ever heard. 

Michael Cook: Performing live is incredibly difficult right now, but The Beards are finding a very unique way of making it happen and bringing your art to the masses while being safe; tell me about what The Bearded Ladies cabaret is doing with Philly Fringe? 

John Jarboe: What the Bearded Ladies Cabaret have been doing for the past couple of years is called Late Night Snack. It’s an international cabaret festival. We really work with different organizations in order to bring not just different artists together, but different demographics of audiences together. It’s opera singers, drag queens, burlesque performers, comedians, and performance artists. Many of these artists are queer and many of whom are working in the spaces between more established forms or more subverting forms. When we thought about Late Night Snack for this year, we decided to take our inspiration from 90’s MTV and to really milk the virtual form for what its worth. While we may not be able to be in the space with you, we can bring you artists from all over the world. Unlike a lot of cabaret and performance that people are seeing online, that is videos in people’s homes. We have curated twelve hours of content, much of what is made for the visual medium, made for film and for watching virtually. Some is interactive, some is direct address, some is music video style. We have commissioned thirty artists to do little bumpers throughout, so I think it will be very watchable, which is always a concern with translating live performance to screen. We worked against that in lots of different ways. 

MC: When did you know that cabaret would be the passion that you would be following? 

J: Well, I was doing some really mediocre Shakespeare and musical theater in Philadelphia (laughs)! I am trained in English literature, music and acting actually. I did not know what cabaret really was, but someone gave me a grant and the media theater gave me the performance opportunity to do a cabaret. I kind of stumbled into it and realized that as a queer performer, the direct address and the direct conversation with an audience, the room for play, improv and spontaneity really fit me much better. I think in particular what I love about cabaret it is becoming increasingly more relevant as people are desperate for experiences that make them feel present. Cabaret as a form is one that is about who is in the room, what people are walking in with and what happened in the news. Unlike stand up comedy-although stand up can fit into a cabaret space-there is a huge range of emotions. Audiences come to see and be seen, have a good drink and it is a space where they are part of the text of the performance. It is a space where we can practice being accountable and live with each other also. When I am sitting on your lap for example-I am not a cell phone right now.

Now what we are trying to figure out with FEAST is how to give people that same feeling of live-ness and presence in their own homes. Part of it is the about the chat function, part of it is the quality of the work, the hosting, and the little boxes that people are purchasing to make their own cabaret space. We guide you through literally making your own cabaret show with different ideas.

MC: You have a great amount of people as part of the event, including the legendary Justin Vivian Bond. What a treat to have one of the trailblazers of cabaret join the production.

JJ: The wonderful thing about this Island of Misfit Toys that is the queer performance cabaret community is that people are generous and people are present. Vivian has performed with the bearded ladies at our space last year, opened our Late Night Snack special and was in an operatic I directed with Stephanie Blythe. I have strong relationships with everyone on the list; that is the work that The Beards have done for the past ten years, we have traveled to all of these cities. Thats why there aren’t cities from all over the world represented, the connections we have are the places we have gone and met these artists .The Beards is unique among cabaret troupes, as we are trying to create platform to resource the form, to resource the artists, to take the form seriously, and to connect people. I learned from what of my mentors, Chris Bartlett at The William Way, that it is more powerful to connect two people than you meeting a new person. If you can introduce two people to one another that is power. Yes, there is Vivian Bond, Martha Graham Cracker and Stephanie Blythe, but there are also artists in Melbourne that might not have the same visibility that another name that tours a lot would. There is a really nice balance in the curation, each city is curated by the host of that city. There is a beautiful balance of giving people who are and have been doing amazing work in their city but not necessarily interested in breaking out of that geographical bubble, giving them an opportunity to be seen.

View this post on Instagram

FEAST Spotlight: Around the World in 60 Minutes (or more or less) Having spent most of the year cooped up in quarantine, the only thing that sounds better than a tour around the globe is a tour guided by Martha Graham Cracker. Let the illustrious @martha_graham_cracker show you all the sights as you galavant with her across this weird little rock we call home. No passport required. Featuring: Blythely Oratonio (@sblythe327) Clayton Lee (@itsclaytonlee) Dorian Wood (@dorianwoodmusic) Justin Elizabeth Sayre (@justinelizabethsayre ) Be Steadwell (@besteadwell) Twoja Stara (@twoja__stara) Betty Grumble (@bettygrumble) Pioneer Winter (@pioneerwinter) Pairs well with: A map? Actually, no. Forget the map. Vodka.  Showtime:  4:00pm EST Watch FEAST on Twitch, THIS SATURDAY, October 17th, streaming from noon to midnight. Link in bio.

A post shared by ❤ Bearded Ladies Cabaret ❤ (@beardedladiescabaret) on

MC: Where do you see the LGBT community in Philadelphia going in terms of how they consume entertainment? 

JJ: Well as far as The Beards are concerned, not only are we doing FEAST, but we also bought a fifteen foot truck that we are converting into a cabaret space. In the Spring, we will be doing a festival on this crazy cabaret truck. One of the things we are learning from being so virtual is the power of accessibility. That is something we have been thinking about a lot, but we really should have accessible virtual portals into live work all the time. It allows people around the word to see your work and it allows people who may not be able to go into a space to have access to the work. I don’t think that is not going to continue, if and when this pandemic ends. I don’t think we are going to shift going right back to live stage. What we are searching for in The Beards are solutions and adaptations that can be carried forward.

In Philly, there is amazing BIPOC leadership and I think that because we are in the middle of a pandemic and an uprising, I am excited by so many of those artists in Philadelphia. There are people imagining and reimagining our futures all the time, especially artists. The Philadelphia queer scene is doing that and I think white queer people get behind that leadership as well. We have had discussions in queer nightlie and I think that has been very powerful. I am looking forward to the scene reflecting the intentions that I am hearing from producers. I am excited about accountability and about the scene reflecting in pay and visibility how rich and diverse it really is. 

MC: How have you stayed creatively fueled during the quarantine and the times that have followed?

JJ: I think curating a twelve hour cabaret festival definitely helps (laughs). I have a great team amd I started working on another project. The Guggenheim Works And Process was generous and gave me a commission to do a piece on my twin. My aunt told me that I had a twin in the womb and that I ate that twin and that is what I am the way that I am. Her name was going to be Rose. I made a music video about that and I am starting to investigate it. Other than that, I am trying to learn piano, take walks and try not to live in the tension between adapting, reacting, processing; that is what artists do. We process and offer metaphor and distraction. Also just pausing and taking time for sure. 

Visit The Bearded Ladies Cabaret at beardedladiescabaret.com for an up-to-date list of FEAST performers and hosts.