Day: June 2, 2016

Live And Direct: Frisky Opens Up About What It Takes To Be A Cabaret Director

Ahead of the opening of the The Black Cat’s latest Wonderground production next week, we speak to Hotel Black Cat’s director Laura “Frisky” Corcoran.

The Black Cat is on the prowl again this summer with another much-anticipated production at the London Wonderground. Rising from the ashes of the epic Boom Boom Club, Black Cat Cabaret has found its own niche in London’s busy variety scene. As well as the twice-weekly dinner show Salon des Artistes at the Café Royal, it has staged large-scale productions at the London Wonderground in 2014 and 2015. This year’s outing is titled Hotel Black Cat and features an array of top-notch burlesque, circus and musical talents including Dusty Limits, Vicky Butterfly, Katharine Arnold, Florian Brooks and Nathan & Isis.

The production is being directed by another name very familiar to fans musical comedy, Laura Corcoran who performs with Matthew Floyd Jones in the acclaimed duo Frisky & Mannish. As well as taking the reins at Hotel Black Cat, Corcoran is also helming another Wonderground show in burlesque extravaganza Between The Sheets and rocking the Udderbelly with Jones in Frisky & Mannish’s Cabariot.

Few cabaret shows have their own directors. With this in mind, we decided to ask her about this rather rare role.


 

How did you transition into this position from your performing background? 

I’ve made shows as long as I can remember – from my brother and I putting together “musical evenings” for our long-suffering parents, to making up dance routines in the playground, to putting on youth drama with full council funding when I was 15.

 

 

That’s an impressive start. What happened after that?

At university, Matthew (Mannish) and I co-founded Musicals of Oxford to produce musical shows while we were there. We always worked together in various combinations – me directing him, him musical-directing me, us performing together – so performing has always gone hand-in-hand with creating and collaborating.

With Frisky & Mannish, of course, we were writing and putting together every single thing about the shows ourselves, so again, the elements were inextricably linked. Once our touring schedule eased up, we were both able to take other opportunities both as performers and creatives.

 

What do you find so attractive about being a director? 

I’ve always been a fan of good structure  – which is not to say I’ve always achieved it! – but trying to shape an evening’s entertainment as a whole has always appealed to me. From selecting the Front Of House playlist, to the pre-show lighting state, through the progression of the performance as a whole – the ups and downs, the lighter moments and the darker moments, and building to whatever conclusion you’re aiming for – be that to satisfy the audience, or deliberately unsettle them – right through to the music playing as they leave the room.

 

Would you say that as a director you have developed a particular style?

I have strong gut feelings about whether things work for me or not, and I can’t really analyse what those things have in common. That might be an easier question for someone to answer with an outside eye!

I wouldn’t be surprised either way – if my gut has particular tastes, then there probably is a style emerging; but similarly, I always heavily collaborate, so there’s always going to be different influences on every project.

 

And how do you decide what path to take the audience down?

There’s no single way to create that journey, so the possibilities are endless. Although endless possibilities terrify me, and I feel like I work much better within difficult confines, strangely enough! This is possibly why the low budgets of cabaret work for me.

 

How is the role of a cabaret director different to, say, that of a theatre director? 

Cabaret performers are extremely self-sufficient and self-motivated, and spend their lives crafting their skills and their act, and performing it in a huge variety of settings. So, for me, every cast member is a creative powerhouse in their own right.

In theatre, of course, actors are incredibly skilled and creative, but they have to adapt in every job to the piece, the team, the demands of the role. Where actors will look to directors/producers for the creative vision, cabaret artists want to collaborate to get the best for their act and the show as a whole. There are a lot more ideas at the table, and when you cast a cabaret show, you know that you want exactly what that particular act brings, not their ability to be something else entirely. So, essentially, I think of it as much much more collaborative.

 

What would you say makes for a good cabaret director? 

The ability to herd cats! But cats you respect enormously, and know will deliver something sensational, no matter what. A degree of laissez-faire is useful, for one’s own sanity, but essentially, put together the right company, and the show makes itself. Then you just have to make sure it flows well, looks incredible and doesn’t overrun.

 

So do you think a director should be credited with for the success (or not) of a production? 

Ultimately, the producer is the boss. And sometimes, the performer is the producer, and then the dynamic is completely different from casting and creating a show with a team. I think it very much depends on the type of show, and that particular company’s dynamic, which, unfortunately, is almost impossible for audiences and critics to know about. So in that respect, I often think directors get undue praise and criticism – but I think you know that going into it, and it’s just another side of the role. All you can do is be the best navigator you can, as really I think that’s the essence of the job. As long as you can keep it as on track as possible, you’ve done your job.

 

As a director, what is your vision for Hotel Black Cat? 

(Black Cat Cabaret producer) David Harris and I have worked closely together on the vision for Hotel Black Cat, He brought the hotel concept to me, and showed me some amazing research materials that got me hooked straight away.

On the concept side,  it’s recalling the hedonism of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, but in our familiar Black Cat Parisienne setting, a place where artists live, work and play, but is at once endlessly creative, and dangerously destructive.

We also wanted to reflect a little of what is going on with artistic hubs at the moment – money booting us out in favour of profit-friendly business, so it’s slightly later in the 20th Century than the classic Black Cat shows of old, and with a flavour of a different breed of society closing in. But really, we wanted to return to what makes the Black Cat Cabaret such a unique, successful and long-standing company: the Parisian bohemian spirit, the crashing together of old world and new, and stunning period costume and detail. There are narrative threads, but rather than “telling a story” they are ways of exploring aspects of love, art and the shift from one era into one another.

 

Finally, is there any London show around now or in the near future that you would love to have a stab at directing?

In my wildest dreams, I’d love to do a large-budget musical! If the director of Aladdin were to, say, eat a dodgy burger at Balans, I just want it on record that I’d be happy to step into the breach…

Hotel Black Cat opens at London Wonderground on 17 June and continues on every Friday until 26 August. More information and tickets can be on the London Wonderground website.

Between The Sheets opens at London Wonderground on 9 June and continues on 30 June, 21 July, 4, 18 and 25 August and 8 September. More information and tickets can be on the London Wonderground website.

Frisky & Mannish’s Cabariot can be seen in the Udderbelly tent on 8 June and 6 July. More information and tickets can be on the Udderbelly website.


A Day and a Night at Coney Island

Many visitors are attracted to the iconic Coney Island amusement district of New York for its open air rollercoasters, games of chance, or sandy beach and hotdogs. For others though, the main attraction lies in a building on the corner of West 12th Street, transformed from it’s prior life as an army recruitment centre to the Circus Sideshow and museum.

Here, the traditions of sideshow shock entertainment are kept alive for a contemporary audience, passed on from performer to performer as each new wannabe must hone their skills from a master who’s gone before. The walls are decorated with giant murals that put a modern twist into the familiar antique banner aesthetic, and their creator Marie Thomas can sometimes be found offering workshops in the art of banner painting.

The not-for-profit organisation behind the Sideshow is Coney Island USA, whose motto, emblazoned on their website, is ‘Defending the honor of popular American culture.’  Set up by Dick Zigun 36 years ago, they also host magic shows upstairs in the museum every Sunday, produce the annual Mermaid Parade, and arrange other events throughout the year, including running a sideshow school. It’s widely suggested that the neo-burlesque movement can trace its roots back to this revival of Coney Island’s sideshow entertainment.

When the last big touring sideshow closed in the 80s, the performers came here and found a home to pass on their generations old skills. Today, the show is headed up by Alejandro Dubois, the Pain-Proof Puerto Rican, who has been part of the sideshow world for the last 15 years. He is fast talking and charming, grossing us out with his block-head routine one moment, enthralling us with his fire act that gracefully juggles flames across his body and out of his mouth the next.

There is a revolving team of artists who regularly work the sideshow. Zoe Ziegfeld shows off the snake tattoo wrapped round her body while wrapping herself further with a real albino python taller than she is. We see extreme upper limb contortion from Leo The Human Gumby (it’s a classic American cartoon character who’s really bendy – I had to ask!), who manages to find not one, not two, but three different ways of fitting his form through a tennis racket in today’s show.

sideshowThe whole show is introduced on the street with tannoy announcements and the regular live appearance of the grinning Mr Strange to perform a ‘roll up roll up’ style bally (short for ballyhoo). The performers refer to their schedule as ‘The Grind’, as they perform from 1-8pm throughout the day with only 10 minute breaks between rolling shows. What they offer is appropriate for family audiences – I notice it’s the big men who seems the most squeamish, the kids revel in it. Alejandro admits this does limit them in terms of how true they can remain to themselves in performance – ‘sometimes I just want to drop an f-bomb, ya know?’ – but when it comes to the evening shows, anything goes.

Tonight, usual Sideshow team member, Miss Coney Island 2015, Betty Bloomerz, is here with another crew. The Demented Dolls Of Sideshow are in town for the final date of their American tour, with a full-length all-female show featuring six darkly colourful performers and an array of skills that evoke reactions from pleasant cringe all the way to fist-in-mouth whaaaaa?!!

The show has been devised by the troupe in a way that blends their individual acts and allows them to co-exist onstage together in all their beautifully unique styles.  Hosted by the sneering, swigging, glass-swallowing Jenn.O.Cide, there is a loose thread of romance that ties the character performance together. Perky chic French contortionist Anaelle Spaghetti and Dutch diva Princess Tweedle Needle compete for the attentions of She-Man, a lothario drag-king creation from Marte Maritdatter – whose alternative human-pincushion character Princess of Scars turns up late for the party and wins Tweedle Needle with their shared royalty, pinning their bodies together in an elegantly literal interpretation of the Masochism Tango.

sideshow2Fibi Eyewalker is a freakish oddity who brings an absurd extremism to the company. Although the boast about there only being six female sword swallowers in the world is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, having both Eyewalker and Betty Bloomerz here tonight is still rather a coup. The pair have a variety of shaped and sized blades between them, including one with a seriously serated edge, which they move in and out of their gullets with characterful panache.

From gullet to gusset: it’s only fair to mention the most eye-watering display in the show is not the blood that decorates freshly pierced faces, but a suspension of a swinging milk pail from Princess Tweedle Needle’s labial piercings.

The Demented Dolls of Sideshow take classic elements of midway performance and spin them into a fresh and fulfilling freaky evening’s entertainment. Here’s hoping their next tour brings them to Britain!