Everyone can run away with the circus, there’s a place for everyone…
Two weeks ago I met up with the organisers of the Trash Cabaret on a rainy Monday at Café Ganesh in Obs. They were finalising a schedule for their next show this Saturday the 14th of September at The Dragon Room. Trash Cabaret is a collective of performers and musicians who work together to create an exploratory, collaborative circus (with a twist) to “intrigue, astound and amuse”.
The Cabaret began in 2012 as the brainchild of Elise Deguire, a clown and performer from Montreal, Canada, who hoped to create a unique space for artistic collaboration. The idea developed and music became an integral part of the show, with the band (more on this phenomenon later) now being “one of the main attractions”. In essence, the idea was to create “a crazy space, to get artists together to collaborate, to create something that has never been seen in Africa”. It has resulted in international, multi-cultural performance collective, a melting pot allowing people to break boundaries to entertain and delight.
All the participants have other projects and interests too and are prolific contributors to South Africa’s music and performing arts scene. I spoke to the core organising committee: Azana Watrous-Phillips, Cami Scoundrel (Camilla Rose Coutts), Riaan Smit, Samuel Jabour and Ken Bullen-Smith (Star and Fox of Black Orchid Burlesque were away on business at the time). At some point I asked each person to tell me about their favourite thing to do: “I like to use bananas”, “I like to hang upside down in my underwear”, "I like to become my character and forget everything else”, “I like to be a conductor without having studied music”. They all laughed though when Jabour exclaimed in his Quebecouis accent, “Mainly we don’t like very much to sit around a table like this!”
There are strong influences from the circus experience, carnivals and a “gypsy punk” feel - but the influences are organic and shifting, depending on who happens to be joining in. “The show changes completely each time, depending on who’s involved. There’s the core members…but there’s always new faces.” The group is usually around 40 people including the “Trash Band”, dancers of every description, aerial artists, acrobats, contortionists, burlesque girls, clowns, angle grinders and more. Performers come from Zip Zap Circus School, Black Orchid Burlesque, Ikapa Dance Company, Dance for All, Psychedelic Theatre, Clowns Without Borders, trainers from Cirque Du Soleil, UCT drama students and graduates, and often include travelling artists from across the globe.
The same goes for the music. While the central elements are high energy, a strong brass section and the above mentioned gypsy punk aesthetic, a lot of what comes out depends on who’s involved at the time – they’re a band “made for making people move and groove”. The 20-something piece Trash Band incorporates bits and pieces from an extraordinarily eclectic range of sources, with members drawn from Crimson House Blues, The Death Valley Blues Band, EmzantsiBloka, The Rudimentals, The Time Flies, UCT jazz students, The Bone Collectors and more.They’ve also featured collaborators from Mr Cat &The Jackal, Tombstone Pete, The Vodun Haunts and Sixgun Gospel. Some of the collaborators’ influence seeps into the profile of the band, fusing with existing elements and becoming a permanent part of the show – “Joe from the Nomadic Orchestra, he brought us Balkan beats. And Mr Cat & the Jackal, when they showed us their song they taught us something new so… each time someone else’s song comes along we incorporate bits of their influence.” Keep an ear out for the best rendition of Bella Ciao! I’ve ever heard and a whole bunch of punky gypsy Balkan madness from the stage.
So how do the music and the performances get matched up?
The structure is in place to workshop ideas and this often happens, with performers and musicians working together to plan an act, but sometimes there are fully formed acts that a performer will bring to the group, looking for a piece of music to match it with. Other times there’ll be the bones of an idea and people from different areas contribute. It’s also used as a space to break out or experiment with new ideas that don’t fit in elsewhere.
Rehearsals begin a few weeks before the event and the concepts are workshopped, working more intensively for the two weeks prior to the event. But “there’s still always going to be someone the day before who wants to be involved and we can’t say no!”There’s a turnover too, with “whoever’s available and amped to get involved” coming onto the team and people often coming back for subsequent shows. On the night there’s always “some improvisation and chaos” but it all comes together. Inspiration comes through exchange and saying yes to everything, no matter how crazy – “‘I wanna throw watermelons at birds!’ We get a lot of extravagant ideas and like being able to say yes and incorporate them into the show”.
They’re excited about pushing boundaries, both for performers and for the audience. It’s also a release for a lot of artists who have strict choreographies and direction in their other performances. With the Cabaret they get told “here’s a platform – have fun!" But they’re very clear about the underlying professionalism in all the members. “We rely on the fact that everyone’s professional in their own fields. Coming together, even though we have different styles, we still all want to put a good show on.” It’s clear that although they don’t much like having meetings, a huge amount of work goes into making sure the show runs smoothly.
Most people have other jobs or commitments though and the Trash Cabaret is a labour of love, based on the chance to explore, collaborate, and go a bit crazy. The organisers do not pay themselves and money earned through ticket sales goes toward running costs, paying the performers and future shows. They also get some sponsorship. In future, the Cabaret will try and pursue arts funding sources. It “would be nice” to make some profit, but they’re more interested in attempting a national or international tour, during which they would involve networks of performers and musicians in those areas.Their main goal is to share the experience with as many people as possible. The tickets are very reasonable for the enormous show that often runs longer than two hours. They’re planning a show in Ocean View too, where the tickets will be around R20 to allow everyone to see the circus.
And what’s so special about the circus? "It’s life. It’s every part of life. You have the entrance, food, stage, make-up, music and so on –whatever you do, you can be part of a circus. That’s why people say, I wanna run away with the circus. Everyone can run away with the circus, there’s a place for everyone.”
In personal interactions I’ve also noticed a strong ethos of sharing and teaching. This is partly because a lot of the performers are also instructors, so it comes naturally to them. They all agree that everyone is extremely talented but in all sorts of different areas. “You’re not better than anyone because you look at the person next to you and they’re better at something than you, everyone has his own talent and something you can learn from”.
This extends beyond those already practising the performative arts. In the most recent show, there was a troupe of break dancers who looked quite young. When I asked about them, the team explained that someone who has been involved in a few shows has a hip hop troupe on the side. The kids happen to live in a shelter in Salt River and this was their first show. I found it interesting that there is a social element to the show without this being explicit. It wasn’t noted as giving an opportunity to underprivileged kids– instead, it fits with the general principle of openness to anyone that extends to providing a space to people who wouldn’t otherwise get it. There’s no priority act, there’s no lead-up, there’s no “support” acts – everyone appears to be on the same level.
They’ve held shows at some of Cape Town’s best-loved venues including The Bijou, Zula Bar and most recently, World of Woodstock, a warehouse in Albert Road. In May, they managed to draw hundreds of notoriously rain-shy Capetonians out to this incredible show, keeping many of us dancing until the early hours of the morning. But you won’t find the big red and white striped tent of the circus of your childhood or a simple stage with some speakers and a strobe light here. They prefer to take over untraditional, industrial spaces like warehouses, abandoned factories or a blacksmith’s workshop. Their first show at The Bijou (an old art-deco cinema now used as a blacksmith’s forge and occasional art gallery) used the space creatively, even hiding performers to surprise and delight the audience.
The strong connection between the performance and the space add a magical touch – it’s impossible not to get excited when aerial artists are playing with fire, shouting and swinging from the rafters above you, all to the frenzied tunes of an inimitable band.The Trash Cabaret is always on the lookout for strange and unusual venues, so get in touch using the contact details below if you have a spot in mind.
At this point, the team get excited and veer off into a conversation filled with exclamations and interruptions, chatting about an idea that had just come to them. This happened a few times and it was hard not to get caught up in ideas about tickling booths, faux-cannibals, and a huge circus truck which turns into a stage with bits that come off/catch on fire/change shape…
And finally, the next show. This is the Trash Cabaret like you haven’t seen it before – although talking to the members, one gets the sense that that’s their goal for every cabaret. Unpredictable, exciting, innovative, and never the same twice.There will be five themed rooms and this time interactivity is their central concept. An important part of this is dressing up: “When you look around, the audience can even look crazier than the performers! So after the show, when there’s a party, they all mix together and interact.”The flyers always stipulate a slightly higher price for a “boring outfit”. It’s not difficult to get me to dress up but it was fantastic to see so many of the audience members joining in. This time the possibilities are endless… Circus Carnival, the intriguingly named “Human Oddities”, "Western Saloon", and "Electro-Swing/Hip-Hop". But anything goes – “the idea is, come as the character of your dreams. So you can leave yourself at the door and come in as a new person, you can be anybody.”
It’s on for one night only on the 14 September at The Dragon Room in Harrington Street, Cape Town. Tickets are available through Quicket. Every few months there’ll be more, including a Halloween themed show in November. Follow Trash Cabaret on Facebook for regular updates and news about all upcoming shows.
Get yourself to the next Trash Cabaret but don’t be surprised if you want to run away with the circus after seeing the show. I know I did.