Cooking Up Cabaret: An Interview with John Jarboe and Sally Ollove
“We could write a book, but we’re cabaret artists, so we decided the best way to understand the history and the present moment was to explore it through performance.” Sally Ollove, The Bearded Ladies Cabaret
John Jarboe and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret are back with a new treat, The Poison Cookie Project. Artists will perform live in Do You Want A Cookie?, a curated show in this year’s Fringe Festival; individual performers present extended cabaret acts as Late Night Snacks; and audiences can learn more about the long history of cabaret in the Digital Fringe offering, The Poison Cookie Jar.
Jarboe, the founder and artistic director of the Bearded Ladies, is one of FringeArts’s most frequent collaborators, serving as host and curator of our monthly series Get Pegged Cabaret. Together with Sally Ollove, the group’s associate artistic director and dramaturg, the Bearded Ladies will present an international cast of cabaret performers who trace the role of cabaret in community building throughout history and its heightened importance in today’s world. Like a poison cookie, this performance will tempt the audience with outrageous costumes and innovative collaborations, and lead them to consider art’s place in society and what it means to give visibility to sometimes hidden communities.
We asked Jarboe and Ollove about the evolution of this enticing project and about what it’s like to assemble such a diverse cast of performers into one room.
FringeArts: What was the initial inspiration for Do You Want A Cookie? and The Poison Cookie Jar?
John Jarboe: I realized in 2013 that I was a practicing cabaret artist, but I didn’t really know what cabaret was or where it came from. Since much of my work straddles the personal and the political, I also wanted to know what the political roots of the form were. How was it used in relationship to political and social crises? Who are my ancestors? What did they do?
Sally Ollove: Once we began looking for those answers, we realized pretty quickly that resources were scarce. There are a number of great books about specific moments in cabaret history, but very few that look at the form across geography and time, and none that extend into a close look at what’s happening in cabaret today. We could write a book, but we’re cabaret artists, so we decided the best way to understand the history and the present moment was to explore it through performance.
FringeArts: Who have you looked for as performers—what qualities and styles do you think are important to represent?
John Jarboe: We have looked for artists who are politically engaged, historically engaged, and who work in or around the cabaret form. Artists who might self identify as misfits: inhibitors of the liminal spaces among more established art forms. Many of them have had to make their own spaces. This is going to be some radical shit.
FringeArts: It seems that the show is important to you in more than a “I just want to do this show” way. Why is that?
John Jarboe: As performers we need to think carefully and responsibly about what we are putting out into the world. The best way to do that is with others. The more heterogeneous the dialogue, the better. The Bearded Ladies are bringing together a host of international performers who are all asking the questions: What does it mean to be an artist now? How can our work heal, inspire, reflect, challenge our audiences? How can history and our ancestors in the form help us do that?
FringeArts: How has the piece evolved?
John Jarboe: This began as a personal exploration that then started involving all of The Bearded Ladies Company, especially Sally. The project idea has spread and includes more and more people, and more and more complex questions.
Sally Ollove: Our own sense of history has evolved since we started the project. We began during the Obama administration. We were really looking for connections to this often forgotten or hard to find history and discovered many of the artists and movements we were most interested in were underground for a reason: they were in search of a safe space where they could either be themselves (especially for queer artists, women, and artists of color who were often overlooked by mainstream arts) or criticize dominant power structures. We were asking questions about what it meant to make a sometimes deliberately insular community more visible. We were sure of the value cabaret had in raising important social questions and helping audiences work through them.
Then the 2016 election happened. Like many other artists, our certainty about what we were doing came into question. Is cabaret necessary? Is it radical? At the same time, we were finding moments in the history that echoed these questions: sometimes when artists thought they were being edgy or provocative, they were inadvertently reinforcing cultural norms. Like Jewish composers in Weimar Germany who made songs intending to satirize the way the right wing blamed everything on Jewish people. But when your catchy chorus is literally “The Jews are to blame for everything” (Friedrich Hollaender) and some of the people in your audience are middle-class conservatives, what is the message being received? Sometimes cabaret acts as a pressure valve for social tension, but does releasing that tension negate action?
So it was a dark time for us. In the past few months as we’ve begun working with different artists and thinking about the form, we’ve circled back to joy. We believe cabaret brings people together into a community in a way no other form can because of the centrality of the performer/audience relationship. That relationship opens up the audience to relate and be present with each other. We believe that human connections are vital and that cabaret can be a way to foster those connections.
FringeArts: What have you enjoyed the most about doing this project so far? And what are you looking forward to?
John Jarboe: It is a miracle to get artists and audiences in a room. For a project like this, it is a miracle on a huge scale. I’m looking forward to having everyone in the room. I’m looking forward to the first note we sing.
— Alyssa Kerper & Christopher Munden
What: The Poison Cookie Project
When: September 4, 6–9 + 12–16, 2018
Where: 448 North 10th Street
Cost: $10 – $35
Performed by The Bearded Ladies Cabaret
Photos by Plate 3 Photography