S7 E10 | CLIP

Acting Out

Solo and with the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, theater artist John Jarboe explores the politics of sexuality and gender in popular culture.

AIRED: July 02, 2021 | 0:12:41

(strings music)

(Bitter Homes and Gardens by The Bearded Ladies)

(Bitter Homes and Gardens by The Bearded Ladies)

- [Narrator] When John Jarboe performs cabaret

it's often loose and spare, frequent ad-libing

and set pieces made from cardboard,

but that laxity isn't for a lack of care.

The opposite.

For Jarboe, performance is a life or death endeavor.

- It's live. It's insistent upon its liveliness.

We're talking directly to you.

And I think more importantly, we're talking

in a language that you can speak in as well.

If we didn't acknowledge the absurdity

of the performance of normal,

that is happening all around us

that doesn't include us,

we might disappear or we might die.

And many of us did.

- [Narrator] John Jarboe is the founder

and artistic director of The Bearded Ladies,

a Philadelphia-based cabaret company

that has been developing original shows

for over a decade. That "we" Jarboe is talking about

is the queer community.

- And the thing that I love about the word queer

is that people don't understand what it means.

I think it means in-between it's, it's anti-binary.

It's, it both refers to sexual and gender complexity.

It is a word that is not, not really politically expedient

in the way that gay and lesbian have come to be.

And it can be a sort of catchall for people that feel

like they don't fit into the strict heteronormative system

of the, the binary of man and woman, and even

even the idea of monogamy and those kind of things.

And cabaret is in a certain respect of

I think it is a queer form and it, it is mercurial

and flexible and has many different identities

because it is a transgressive form.

And because it's not opera or ballet or theater.

It shape shifts for the time, for the geographic region,

for the historical period. It's constantly changing.

- [Narrator] Cabaret typically features

a collection of musical dance

or theatrical acts strung together by a host.

The former originated in Paris in the late 19th century

as artists started gathering

and sharing works in small cafes.

- It started as an interdisciplinary form,

artists performing for artists,

experimenting, doing what they couldn't do

in the more established buildings

and institutions and forums.

And then people started trickling in,

and they were using, the artists, started using the language

of the poor people that were in Montmartre

and the, the the vernacular there

to make fun of the bourgeoisie.

And the bourgeoisie liked it.

And so the bourgeoisie was traveling from Paris

into Montmartre to see, to, to be made fun of basically.

So you get this very liminal form, this form that's existing

between the street and a larger institution,

that's appropriating, that's transgressive,

a little dangerous.

And that intersects two different classes.

- [Narrator] That liminal form for Jarboe is an ideal way

to explore queerness and conventional social roles.

Bearded Ladies shows, for instance, often incorporate drag.

♪ What have you put on your hair? ♪

♪ Tell me what you've done.

♪ What have you done to this hair? ♪

♪ It was just a setting lotion. ♪

♪ I'm sorry. No mommy no.

♪ Just a setting lotion.

♪ I'm sorry. Please, mommy don't. ♪

- I think that there's a, there's a huge problem

with our fight for visibility, especially gay people's fight

for visibility, especially I think gay men.

I think people have been left behind and,

and things are whitewashed.

And I think the trans community, the gender queer

community, bisexual community, have been left behind in lots

of ways that I don't think

- But is it the role of the gay community

to bring them along?

- I think, I think we do better

in our fights for justice and visibility and equality

to look at our fight for equality as, as everyone's fight.

- [Narrator] Even though cabaret is John Jarboe's

tool of choice in that fight,

the intention was never to lead a cabaret company.

Starting out in theater in Philadelphia,

Jarboe didn't even know much about cabaret,

but after a local theater offered a chance

to try out the forum,

the young Jarboe was drawn

to its spontaneity and directness,

as well as its ability to disarm and challenge an audience.

- Cabaret is a weapon. (indistinct) said

that it was a poison cookie and that it, it

it woke up the sluggish mind.

We talk about our work as if it's a poisoned cookie.

We often like what's the, what's the pleasure here?

What's the bite? What's the poison?

- [Narrator] The poison in that poison cookie

cuts both ways. Jarboe wants to create spaces

where both the audience and performers

feel a little dangerous, like something could go wrong

at any point. And the show could unravel a sense of risk,

because the risk creates an opportunity for connection.

- What's your name?

- What? Doug, that's a great name.

And I don't know her name, and I'm not going to ask,

'cause then I'll feel guilty, but she did point you out.

She was like, "Please take him."

and so I'm going to do that, Doug. Stand up.

- But the trick with rigor and cabaret is that you,

you you have to give it life.

It has to be flexible.

And it has to feel like it may fall apart any moment.

I want to feel dangerous,

and I want the audience to feel dangerous.

- That this could go wrong at any minute.

- That this could go wrong at any minute,

and wouldn't it be lovely if it did?

So I have, I've developed systems of preparing

for things that involve, you know, spending a long time,

writing a script for a gig

that I'm doing or for a show and then memorizing the script

or improvising through the script many, many times

so that I open all these windows of possibility.

And then when I see the audience, I use them as my script.

And I often say, I know I've done a good job

if I can describe the whole front row,

if I can describe them in detail and what they were wearing,

what they were thinking, who was true, who was too drunk

who was sleeping a little bit, who was arguing

arguing with their partner.

So if I'm reading the audience like a, like a text

I know that I'm listening.

I know that we're actually having a conversation.

- [Narrator] Sometimes those conversations erupt

from experiences just before taking the stage,

such as one moment in Philadelphia.

- It's not surprising to see drag queens around the city

performing now. We've become much more open as a culture

to that idea. I still have a lot of situations like,

at 30th Street Station, a cop, yelled at me

for changing in the women's restroom.

And I was like, I'm, "I'm in a dress."

That's what I said.

I said, "I'm a lady. What's the problem?"

And that was really scary.

And I had some reenactors that we were performing with

at Eastern State, complain about my leg hair to me.

And they all had muskets. And that was kind of scary.

So, I mean, there are moments that feel dangerous,

and how you deal with those moments.

Or I, with the cop, I, I was pretty thrown.

It was right before the performance and I walked out

on 30th Street Station.

I, I just changed my text.

And I told the story about the cop and the restrooms.

And I said, I would.

I said, I think I said

"I don't know what the problem is.

If there was a restroom in between man

and woman that said fabulous, I would use that."

You know, so I, and then I had everyone blow a kiss

to the cop, and that felt really powerful.

And it felt like I wasn't dismissing him or,

or just making fun of him.

- [Narrator] Since its inception,

The Bearded Ladies has used cabaret

to tackle a range of topics

including genetically modified agriculture,

masculinity during World War II,

and whether it's problematic to celebrate Walt Whitman

in the 21st century.

They've even powered through the pandemic

with the same improvisational energy that fuels their shows,

putting on a 12 hour marathon virtual show

in the fall of 2020,

and touring around Philadelphia in The Beard Mobile,

a mobile performance vehicle for socially distanced shows.

But John Jarboe, doesn't go on stage

looking for clear answers.

If anything, it's a quest for more expansive questions.

♪ And the people in their boxes sit staring ♪

♪ into boxes, and their eyes flash with a ticky tacky. ♪

♪ as they tap on little squares, they buy boxes ♪

♪ for their boxes that come in cardboard boxes ♪

♪ and they throw out all the ticky tacky ♪

♪ and it piles up just the same. ♪

♪ Some are teachers and bloggers, non profit executives. ♪

♪ Some are artists

- [Narrator] As the queer community becomes a larger part

of the cultural mainstream

through shows like RuPaul's Drag Race,

Jarboe wants to continue to push the envelope,

stretching and bending the range of categories

we place on the world.

- I don't always have a problem

with what we're talking about,

but I, I'm concerned with

what we're not talking about,

who we're leaving behind,

and what the images that we have to put forth

into the world to be accepted and visible.

I want to complicate those amyloid images.

As people become more comfortable with drag,

drag queens have to become more uncomfortable.

♪ Breaking news. Truth is over. Buy a new face. ♪

♪ Click the boxes. See your friend die. ♪

♪ She's in boxes. Choose the (indistinct) ♪

♪ Life's so cruel. Tryna think outside the boxes ♪

♪ When you're sitting in boxes

♪ And the world is full of ticky tacky ♪

♪ And nothing feels the same

♪ Little boxes on the bright screen. ♪

♪ Little boxes made of ticky tacky. ♪

♪ Little boxes on the bright screen. ♪

♪ Little boxes all the same.

♪ There's a pink one and a blue one ♪

♪ And a green one and a yellow one. ♪

♪ And they're all made out of ticky tacky. ♪

♪ And they all look just the same. ♪

- For John Jarboe, life really is a cabaret,

surprising and unpredictable and best experienced

with a willingness to go off script, to laugh and to cry.

♪ Little boxes on the bright screen ♪

♪ Little boxes made of ticky tacky. ♪

♪ Little boxes on the bright screen ♪

♪ And nothing feels the same.

- Articulate With Jim Cotter, is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.


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