For almost three years now, artists and adventurous audiences have been enjoying a little-known secret in the basement of Arts Court. The .ism(e) Performance Cabaret, now a staple of the local arts scene, provides a much needed platform for Ottawa artists to present new work and try out new forms of creative expression. And just like any other three-year-old creature, The .ism(e) Cabaret is growing and changing in all sorts of interesting ways. The curators of this unique variety show need little introduction: Scott Florence is Artistic Director of local clown and Shakespeare company A Company of Fools, and the lovely Annie Lefebvre is frequently seen on stage, most recently in the Chamber Theatre production of Mechanicsville Monologues at the Carleton Tavern. So, what is an .ism(e), you ask? (Cult)ure contacted cabaret curators Scott and Annie to pose that question, but also to find out about their big anniversary show on December 17 and their plans for the Cabaret in the new year.
(Cult)ure: What is .ism(e) and how did it begin?
Scott: Annie, Christie Watson (who has since moved away from Ottawa) and I all took part in a workshop with One Yellow Rabbit when they were in town with their show The Dream Machine. We were all lamenting that there "There wasn't a place for new, different, unusual, in process work."wasn't a place for new, different, unusual, in process work, and we took a blood oath (not our blood - we sacrificed a baby) that we would make a space for new and slightly used works. In December 2007 we threw the first of what became the .ism(e) cabarets. I can't recall the name of the first event - something long and ridiculous - and it was a grand success. So we decided to keep it going, doing one every six to 10 weeks. Which meant we had to come up with a name... I think it was by the third cabaret that we'd settled on .ism(e): Performance Cabaret.
Choosing a name is hard; we wanted it to be the same in both English and French, and to not give too strong an identity to the kind of work you might see -- so the dot ism(e) is for the second half of a movement: dada-ism, real-ism, German expression-ism -- and the (e) makes it bilingual, oui oui.
I have always hated the name. But you try and get three people to agree on a name. Eventually you settle on the one that everyone hates the least. I had the grand honour of announcing the name on stage for the first time -- let me tell you, it went over like a lead balloon. But we stuck with it -- for now.
Annie: The significance is that .ism(e) can be everything and nothing. I too hated the name, but as Scott said, when it's a collective endeavour, one needs to make compromises. I had picked out a good Latin name. We also considered 'Three Dogs in Pants.' But the name of our first cabaret, before we settled on .ism(e): Performance Cabaret was Party Party Fun Fun Ha Ha Coocoo Time Cabaret.
What kind of performances does one see at .ism(e)?
Scott: Our two curatorial guidelines have been: if you call it performance, we'll program it; and we wanted to ensure that at every cabaret there was something good, something bad and something that made you go: huh? We also try to have a varied spectrum at each show - programming a little music, dance, spoken word, theatre, movement, craziness, sanity, scripted material, non-scripted. We've had film, clown, puppets, shadow work, movement pieces, pieces that work with light only, dance, spoken word, poetry and slam (for those who like to make a distinction), stand up, improv, social acupuncture-ish work (thanks to Mammalian Diving Reflex for coining the phrase) and pieces that defy description. Our work is straight, queer, bent, bi, trans, English, French, gibberish. Some of the work is really polished and solid. Some is work in progress by polished performers. Some of the work is unpolished by emerging artists. Some of the work is truly bad -- which can be interesting in its own way.
Annie: We've had geniuses on stage and we've had monstrous pieces of shit. Every piece that has graced the stage has surprised us in a way, or moved us. I do not believe that many performances have left people indifferent. Thanks to the cross-disciplinary nature of these events we've had a glimpse of the artistic scope of this city, and other cities as well; we've had performers from Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and even a piece sent in from the Czech Republic. Theatre people have witnessed great slam poetry, musicians were exposed to dancers, weirdos were introduced to squares...
Tell me about using Club SAW as your venue.
"Every piece that has graced the stage has surprised us in a way, or moved us."
Scott: Club SAW is a great room because it is so beautifully intimate, it's in the back of SAW Gallery, so you get to walk through really cool and ever-changing art to get to our event, and the people who run the place are super accommodating and really supportive. It's a dream for a small, dirty event like ours. The space is a really small, dirty space; there's no real backstage, no dressing area for the acts, the lights are spotty, there's a huge Metallica word-mark tacked into the back wall -- and so in terms of sex appeal, you need to put in a bit more work to make the room sing; and even then you never have backstage space or a place for the multiple performers to change.
Annie: The staff at the Club have been great. On the tech side, we have had the good fortune of having Michael Caffrey who has been masterfully handling all the buttons and lights and he has rolled with any last minute changes the performers have run to him in a panic for. He's stuck around and he believes in what we're doing.
How does The .ism(e) Cabaret function as a part of the local arts scene?
Scott: I think it provides people with a place to try out material in front of an audience, to get their freak on, to experiment in new directions, and encourages emerging artists to develop their work and their craft. We've had lots of feedback from people that they really appreciate the opportunity to present new work, to grow as performers, and that it is a great networking opportunity.
Annie: We've seen artistic collaboration between disciplines emerge from the cabarets, and we feel the community is being well served.
Both of you put a lot of volunteer work into curating and running these cabarets; why is this important to you and what do you get out of it individually, as artists?
Annie Lefebvre on stage.
Scott: I think it is important to have a space where performing artists can play, experiment, try new stuff, keep their creative juices flowing, branch out, grow. It has expanded both my personal vocabulary of performative genres, and my perception of what works and what doesn't. I have a very strong sense of what I consider artistic excellence, and I'm not gonna lie, it's been really painful for me to watch some of the acts we've programmed. It's also been mind-expanding to focus in on the seeds of what is attempting to be expressed and ignore how it may or may not be succeeding -- it is perhaps succeeding in a way I hadn't considered "excellent" previously.
Annie: I just like to dress up.
What have you got planned for your third anniversary show? What can people expect to see on December 17?
Scott: We are gonna sex up the cabaret a bit for our third anniversary. Annie will be hosting in character in her inimitable way, and Nick Di Gaetano will be our house musician for the evening. We've got some star talent lined up: Alix Sideris will be doing a clown piece (which is an expansion for her, she is well known as a mask artist, and now she's wearing the smallest mask you can!), Jessica Ruano will be reading some of her new poems, and I'll be doing something strange and unusual...
"We are gonna sex up the cabaret a bit for our third anniversary."We're also going to be saying GOODBYE .ism(e): Cabaret. After three years, Annie and I are going to morph the cabaret into something a little different. In the spring we will be relaunching the cabaret with a new look and a new feel -- following up on some of what we are doing at our three-year anniversary. We'll be having a house band and celebrity hosts for the evenings. We'll be doing less cabarets every year -- from every six to 10 weeks to once a season -- and we plan to start paying the talent that appears on the stage. There will still be some "open stage" access, but we will be seeking out artists more to appear on the stage.
Annie: This is us going out with a bang; it's a wake we're having. We're going to give people a taste of what's to come in the new and improved cabaret -- perhaps we will even announce its new name! The anniversary show has always been our biggest event of the year and we won't dissappoint. There will be strangeness and sex; we have an international act, a performer who's been living in the Czech Republic. Scott's piece is gonna be awesome. I'm gonna be awesome.
The Third Anniversary .ism(e): Performance Cabaret is December 17, 8:30pm at Club SAW, 2 Daly Ave. For more information, please visit their website or Facebook group.
Tags: a company of fools
, annie lefebvre
, arts court
, can con
, nick di gaetano
, performance art
, scott florence
, snuffleupagus and the all wookie band