Pop-up cabaret hopes to instill civic pride

Pop-up cabaret hopes to instill civic pride

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What do opera superstar Stephanie Blythe, international performance artist Justin Vivian Bond and local drag-scene staple Martha Graham Cracker have in common? This September, all three — and many more — will appear as part of Late Night Snacks, a pop-up cabaret venue in South Philly that will offer nightly entertainment from Sept. 7-29.

Late Night Snacks is the brainchild of out performer John Jarboe, a Philly-based actor, director and founder of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a highly regarded gender-bending performance troupe. To make the endeavor a reality, the Beards (as they’re colloquially known) have partnered with an impressive group of backers, including Opera Philadelphia, FringeArts and the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.

The concept grew out of last year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, where Jarboe and the Beards were debuting “Do You Want a Cookie?,” their exploration of cabaret’s queer history.

“’Cookie’ was such a glorious project for us, and we had such a great time collaborating with local and international cabaret artists,” Jarboe told PGN. “Late Night Snacks started as a last-minute addition to ‘Cookie,’ which was the main event.”

After certain performances of ‘Cookie,’ the performers and audience members would stick around, reveling until the wee hours and creating community through art. Jarboe relished the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse array of entertainers.

“We would put artists together in unlikely pairings, and they would do something experimental or new,” he said. “The work was so healing and funny and risky — and sometimes bad.”

Jarboe quickly noticed that these confabs filled a gap in the Fringe ecosystem. “In crazy festival time, when there are so many artists in the city, you want some place to go and chat about what you saw,” he said. “We had created that space.”

It’s an environment Jarboe and the Beards hope to cultivate over the next three years, as Late Night Snacks takes up residence in different “found” venues across the city.

This year’s location, at 1316 S. Percy Street, is a former auto-body shop. The interior will be designed by international theater artist Machine Dazzle and will feature cocktails created by bartenders from Old City institution Sassafras and the late, lamented Tin Angel.

The 2020 Late Night Snacks venue will be in West Philadelphia, with a 2021 venue announced at a later date.

“We’re going to be popping up in different neighborhoods, which is very exciting. The idea is to use the cabaret form to engage the local community of artists and audiences, to bring in other artists who are in town because of the Fringe Festival and to start making local-global connections.”

Performers will be announced mid-August. Jarboe promises an eclectic mix of artists from different disciplines, including opera, musical theater, punk rock, performance art and traditional cabaret.

“Every night is a different program and has at least two artists, and a different host,” Jarboe said. “The idea is that they’re unlikely love affairs. They’re one-night stands between artists you normally wouldn’t see together. And because these artists are an unlikely pairing, the audiences will be as well. We are trying to cross-pollinate the city.”

Jarboe sees this as a natural extension of cabaret’s legacy, he said.

“When the form started in Paris, it was middle-class artists going to rural areas, attracting the locals and mixing them with these bourgeoisie who were leaving the city in search of cheap alcohol,” he said with a laugh. “It was often artists who were dissatisfied working in the high arts who wanted to experiment. They were poets, painters, composers. The very form itself has its roots in interdisciplinary collaboration and in the creation of diverse, heterogeneous spaces.”

Although the project promises international participants, homegrown performers will be given pride of place throughout.

“It’s very important to us that we’re centering the neighborhood,” Jarboe said. “Artists who are local to Philly — and especially those who are local to South Philly — will be featured prominently on the bills. We’re working with local organizations to make sure that we are in conversation with the neighborhood in a healthy way.”

The Beards are also committed to making the experience as inclusive as possible. Tickets will be priced on a sliding scale and no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

“If you want to have a fancy evening and spend a lot of money, you can do that,” Jarboe said. “But if you want to see a show and can only afford a drink, or not even that, you should be able to get in. We are holding tickets at the door to prioritize walk-ups, and we have different prices for different nights that are made in conversation with the artists.”

Ultimately, Jarboe hopes that Late Night Snacks will shine a spotlight on the bounty of the local creative community.

“I want people to leave the space with some value and appreciation for cabaret and for the cabaret community in our city and with a sense of civic pride,” he said. “Because Philly is full of amazing artists.” 

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