Article

More Fascinating Joints!
By Kim Surkan
October 23, 2002
Leslie Ball in full flight . . .

More--much more!--on the Twin Cities' rich and strange cabaret scene . . . , with full profiles on Ball's, Red Curtain, Hotbed, and Bedlam, and a little introduction to Flayva, [email protected], Perspiring Genius, and Wild Yam.

Ball's Cabaret
Every Saturday at midnight. Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55454. Admission $5. 612-340-1725

Leslie Ball only meant to try curating a midnight cabaret for six weeks while she was home in Minnesota one summer, having relocated permanently to New York City three years before to pursue a graduate degree at NYU. That was eleven years ago, and she hasn't looked back since.
At the time, Ball pitched her idea to the Jungle Theater (then on Lake Street) as a late-night experiment. The theater's management agreed to let her use the space on Saturday nights for a summer, but warned her that it would probably never catch on. "Everyone said that couldn't possibly work, that no one in Minnesota was up that late, and I was nuts to think that anyone would come out at midnight," she remembers. "And I just thought, that's just not true--I know I'm up at midnight."

Although she had originally planned to return to New York at the end of the summer of 1991, Ball--a native Minnesotan who hails originally from Duluth--was persuaded to stay and continue the cabaret. "It didn't dawn on me until it had been almost a year that hey, I think I've moved back here," she says with a chuckle.
When it became apparent that Ball's was consistently drawing an audience week after week, the Jungle became interested in trying their own late-night programming. Ball was asked if she would consider changing her cabaret from a weekly to a monthly format. "I didn't know what I thought," she says, "so I called up about half a dozen artists and said, 'I want your input.'"
For the next 24 hours, her phone didn't stop ringing. Everybody wanted to offer her a space to continue the cabaret on a weekly basis. Despite offers from Dudley Riggs and the Walker Art Center, Ball leapt at the chance to move to the Southern Theater when she received an invitation from director Jeff Bartlett. The cabaret has been there ever since.

Located on West Bank in close proximity to Theater in the Round, Mixed Blood, Bedlam, and the Cedar-Riverside People's Center, Ball's is unique in its offering of a smattering of late-night performance for only $5. Its convenience to the University makes it a popular venue among college students; Ball's even has a longstanding tradition of showcasing the final projects of University instructor Karla Grotting's tap classes each semester.

After 11 years, Ball's Cabaret has taken on a life of its own, complete with all the idiosyncracies and rituals of a huge, wacky family. The fact that people return week after week speaks volumes about what sort of family it has become.
Each week the inevitable handful of newcomers are initiated into the world of Ball's with the recitation of a short welcome speech that all the regulars have by now memorized. It's both an invitation and a disclaimer; the stage at Ball's is open to artists of any and all disciplines, at any and all levels, and nothing is auditioned or screened in advance. In other words, be prepared for anything.

Some rituals have changed slightly over the years. For example, Ball used to be famous for throwing Hershey's Kisses out into the audience, but had to abandon the practice when the Southern renovated a few years ago. She still brings the chocolates, but leaves them at the ticket counter instead.
The ritual that truly seems to be the glue that holds the Ball's community together, though, is the tradition of heading downtown to Pizza Luce for a slice and soda after the show each week. The practice of eating together and talking about the work began in the very first year, when performers and audience members would walk out of the Jungle into Mandy's, a neighboring diner, for breakfast after the show.
After the move to the Southern, cabaret members began trekking downtown to what continues to be one of the only places to get food after bar close in Minneapolis. Ball insists that going to Pizza Luce is an extension of the cabaret experience itself. "The whole idea of the cabaret is to blur the line between audience and performers," she explains. "We really want everyone to know--you are all artists, you can all be on the stage."

As accessible and unintimidating as Ball makes her midnight cabaret seem, it has steadily turned out some phenomenal work over the years. Many stand-up comics who got their start at Ball's are now working in New York or Los Angeles; Maria Bamford and Nick Swardson are two who have gone on to national fame.

Locally, Ball's consistently provides sneak previews of some of the best original material in the Twin Cities' comedy, theater, dance, and music scenes. "It's a great gift for the audience, because they can pick and choose what they want to be sure to see--or be sure to miss," Ball says,"and it's also great for the artist, to see what flies."

Red Curtain Cabaret
Every Tuesday, 8 p.m. Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, MN 55408. Admission $10. 612-825-8949. www.bryantlakebowl.com

mnartists' own Community Manager,
Colin Rusch, will be performing at the Red Curtain Tuesdays in October!

After many years of doing performance art in various Twin Cities cabaret venues throughout the 1990s, Melissa Birch departed for New York, taking her ever-popular high-femme character Yesterday with her. Her absence was clearly a loss to the cabaret scene, so when Birch returned and began hosting a weekly show at Bryant Lake Bowl in January 2002, scores of people turned out for the homecoming.

Almost a year later, the Red Curtain Cabaret is still going strong. It has really become Yesterday's venue; in her tart lounge singer persona, Birch emcees the show every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. She describes Yesterday as "the face of the Red Curtain," a character who "belongs in a cabaret setting, sitting on a stool with a pianist behind her, just sort of chatting and singing, and entertaining in that way."

Anyone who frequented Ball's or Patrick's regularly over the last decade will remember cabaret sketches featuring Yesterday. It was a time when Birch was experimenting with the gender confusion resulting from a woman doing high-femme as drag. But after 15 years of performing the character, Birch says Yesterday has evolved quite a bit. "In the early days, [I was doing] a sort of darker, edgy performance art, and that went hand in hand with a lot of the gender contradiction," she says. "But as time went on, Yesterday kind of just became her own person, and she lost a lot of that early conflict, I think."
Birch's onstage partner is pianist Stevie Pomije, who accompanies all of Yesterday's torch songs with classic lounge flair. Unlike many of her drag queen counterparts, Birch really sings rather than lip-synching her numbers. She's committed to incorporating live music as a means of creating the feel of a lounge atmosphere. "I've been training vocally throughout the country since I was in college. I'm a snob that way," she says. "I think that vocal training is important--it's craft, drawing from that tradition of people who came before you."

Birch now creates themes for each cabaret; a single group of performers appears each Tuesday for a calendar month under a common theme. The August show, for example, she dubbed "The Whorehouse"; it featured a lineup of all women. "Some performers riffed on the theme, and others didn't really use it in a conscious way," Birch says. "Themes are definitely the wave of the future. I think it's a good way to go."

The Red Curtain audience is hard to pigeonhole, but that keeps things interesting. Like the performers themselves, audience members seem to represent a wide range of interests and values. "It's funny when I walk through the audience at the Red Curtain," Birch says. "Often I just wonder to myself -- how did these people come here? This straight couple in their sixties, just sitting there. I don't know how they've even heard of it, but ultimately it doesn't matter."

Upcoming Red Curtain shows:
"The Men's Show." Tuesdays in October. 8 p.m. $10. Featuring Miss Richfield 1981, alt-folk-funk strummer Alex Goldfarb, classical ivory tickler Paul Kovacovic, sweet acoustic duo The Brothers Frantzich, poet Jeremy Norton, and dancer Colin Rusch.
"Chanteuse Show." Tuesdays in November. 8 p.m. $10. A lineup entirely comprised of torch and saloon singers, accompanied by Stevie Pomije.

Hotbed (formerly Vulva Riot)
1st Saturday of the month, Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN. 55408, 7 p.m. Admission $0-7 sliding fee scale.

The October 2002 performance of the nation's longest-running monthly cabaret by and for womyn and transpeople is a milestone in several ways. Not only is it the Vulva Riot cabaret's tenth anniversary under the direction of producer/curator Eleanor Savage, but it is a sendoff for Savage as well. She is passing the torch to Sam Grosby, who will continue the cabaret under a new name.

Grosby has been actively performing and volunteering with the cabaret for seven years, and has watched its transformation over that period of time from a novelty to a dependable venue that consistently fills the house at Intermedia Arts on Lyndale Avenue. Sensing that Savage was interested in relinquishing the cabaret so she could have more time to pursue her own art, Grosby asked her to consider her as a replacement.

The decision to change the name from "Vulva Riot" to "Hotbed" was actually made at Savage's request, because she had copyrighted the Vulva Riot name and wishes to retain control of it. "I think a lot of people think that there's something bad going down with the name change," Grosby says, "but that's not true at all. Eleanor wanted to hang on to the name for future productions."

Although the cabaret's mission statement says its aim is to create "a welcoming and respectful environment that challenges oppression while fostering creative expression for dyke, bisexual, transgender and transsexual womyn and our allies," there is a lingering misperception that the venue is hostile to transgender people. Grosby hopes that the name change will help ease that tension.

Savage is a tough act to follow, Grosby says, and she doesn't plan to make any major changes to the venue in the first year. Having said that, she is quick to add that she would like to see a wider range of people in the community get involved with the cabaret. To that end, she plans to start a mentorship program for new curators, and has already enlisted the help of community curators Juliana Pegues and Sarah Harris.

"I think people are kind of daunted if they've never curated before. I think that if we could have some experienced curators helping, that might help get some new voices," she says. "Not that I don't love the same old voices--I do-- but I want to see everybody."

Upcoming Hotbed shows:
November -- curated by Sarah Gordon
December -- curated by Quiana Perkins
January -- curated by Aaron and Tyler in support of T-Men
February -- curated by Lupe Castillo
March -- curated by Wild Women Writers Word Artistry
April -- curated by Sarah Harris
May -- curated by the Minneapolis Avengers.

Bedlam Studio's "Romp" Cabaret
514-1/2 Cedar Ave., Mpls. 612-341-1038.

Irregularly scheduled late-night cabaret on West Bank. Call for details. Bedlam is a politically conscious artist and theater collective, and is also hosting the annual Bare Bones 9th Annual Outdoor Halloween Puppet Extravaganza. Open puppet making workshops are scheduled at Bedlam Tuesdays and Fridays from 7 p.m.-10 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m.- 5 p.m. until October 31. If you are interested in getting involved, call the Bare Bones hotline at 612-724-4979 or just show up.

Flayva Cabaret
Bimonthly cabaret featuring gay people of color. Pillsbury House Theater, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls. $10. 612-377-0808. Curated by Aundaray Guess of Guess Who Productions. [email protected]

Friday Nights @ Amazon Bookstore
1st and 4th Fridays of each month. Curated by Sarah Harris. Amazon Bookstore Coop, 4432 Chicago Ave. S., Mpls. 7 p.m., free. 612-821-9630. Free cabaret featuring writers, storytellers, and musicians -- anything that the space will allow.

Perspiring Genius
A new open mic for all shapes and styles of narrative and spoken word. Hosted by Amy Salloway. Every 2nd and 4th Wed. of the month, 7 p.m. at Dunn Brothers Loring Park, 329 15th St. W., Mpls. No cover; donations accepted. 612-871-9070.

Wild Yam Cabaret
Curated by Eve Blackwell. CSPS Hall, 383 Michigan St., St. Paul. $6-$7. 651-293-9072.

MN Artists