Neil McEwan talks to David Bates, manager of The Famous Spiegeltent, about how he first came to work with the interesting venue and the origins of it’s celebrated cabaret show La Clique.
So tell me about your history with The Famous Spiegeltent.
I started playing at The Famous Spiegeltent when it was still part of the book festival with an Australian jazz band called Madame Pat and the Rent Party and later on Madam Pat and her Orchestra. We got a residency there in 1995 and it was that year I started to talk to Scottish & Newcastle who owned the tent about bringing it to Australia. I was able to hire it in 1996 for the Fringe and because of the success of 1996 it’s subsequently returned every year.
In terms of a performance space what do you think makes The Famous Spiegeltent unique?
Its intimacy: The deception of the circle. The circle seems to suck up people, you can get 350 easily in and so for a producer it’s a commercially viable capacity, but yet the intimacy is immediate. It’s the intimacy for the performers as well as for audiences, you’re no more than about nine metres to people and so performers really feel that contact. I think it’s the intimacy of that round space that makes it a very communal experience – more so than a proscenium theatre. With La Clique I’ve seen all the artists many times on different stages and on proscenium stages they’re always less than they are in The Famous Spiegeltent. It’s not only the artists that are different, as an audience member you’re always looking round at the reactions of other people.
You started as a jazz musician. So how did you become involved with the world of cabaret?
La Clique wasn’t born until 2003, so The Famous Spiegeltent and my usage of it had a completely different life for many years. It was a very music based life, we had a very strong base and built a reputation on music because in a sense we were filling a gap in Edinburgh. So The Famous Spiegeltent became a major music space for many years and then on the heels of that we started cabaret. I’ve always personally been a musician that’s played both cabaret and theatre music so I’ve always had a particular love for cabaret. It couldn’t be a more perfect space for a musician or a cabaret artist, no matter how big they might get; how famous they become; how many tickets they sell, they’ll never been seen better than in that kind of size and space. It fits music and cabaret perfectly.
Given that, do you have any internal criteria in choosing the acts for La Clique?
Not really, for a show like La Clique I try to have a certain range of artists and skills represented within that show, but generally it’s instinct. The Famous Spiegeltent had such a big musical life and then it kind of went into this world of circus, which was a complete fluke and a completely unexpected direction to go into. The concept was that it would always be an amalgamation – like a variety show – a contemporary reinvention of a variety show where you have a whole lot of changing artists every year. It was always intended to be a very big moving feast of artists – Young, sexy, fresh, adventurous artists trying out new acts. There are many, many artists in that genre of new circus performer, who have a really fantastic five minutes, but they don’t have a show and this was the context from which La Clique evolved.
With this being La Clique’s 10th anniversary, are you aware of the expectations or are you just concentrating on producing the best possible show?
The one underlying yardstick for this year is that I’ve just tried to make it a cast of people who’ve never been here before. Last year was a mixture of previous performers and some new ones and this year it really is very fresh. With the exception of the Skating Willers, who were with La Clique back in 2006, everyone else is new. Really all we’re doing is what the intention of the show always was, which was a fresh, new context for a whole load of new performers. I think that because of its success it’s in danger of becoming stagnant and just being the same thing, so it’s very much a reinvention this year. We’re even doing something that’s never been done in its ten-year history and that’s have a real band in the show and that’s an exciting departure.
In terms of getting acts for La Clique do you scour Edinburgh and other festival for the best cabaret talent?
Yes I try to do that and also there are recommendations. Cabaret’s kind of a small world, but there’s a big network so a lot of people recommend acts that they feel could be part of the show. We just did a season in Brighton and there are a couple of people in the show that I saw there. You get recommendations from lots of people who tell you “you must see this person” because La Clique has a particular kind of attitude – it’s got more to do with attitude than the skills. It’s a very, very highly skilled bunch of people, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, they’re kind of looking at themselves and having a laugh with the audience as much as anything else. The Famous Spiegeltent itself is the biggest star and then that attitude of the cast, that sort of family craziness is more what it’s about than anything else.
As the Fringe becomes more comedy-centric, how important do you think a venue like The Famous Spiegeltent and shows like La Clique are?
You know that’s been happening in Edinburgh since I started coming to the Fringe seventeen years ago. People get confused around the world and think it’s the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Comedy is just not my kind of thing, it’s less than 50% of what the Fringe is all about and I think that’s a good thing, I think the diversity of theatre is still very good – except that comedy tends to graduate towards those major four venues so they have an enormous amount of power. Comedy is a simple format and it’s cheap and therefore it becomes very powerful and all dominating. There have been times when I’ve been very worried that Edinburgh has become too dominated by comedy and by those four venues. It’s fantastic that Tommy Shepherd and Universal Arts have the Assembly Rooms and I hear that St Stephen’s church is opening as a venue again. The Famous Spiegeltent moving to George Square Gardens brought the epicentre of the Fringe over to the old town and so it was great last year to be part of the move to George Street in the New Town to redress the balance.
Cabaret in Edinburgh used to come packaged with a political element and that seems to be no longer there, do you see that as a progression or something that’s missing?
Cabaret has become the new burlesque, the new variety, the new vaudeville and it’s all become a bit too sanitised. I think the more it pushes the boundaries or the more subversive it is and the more confronting it is the better. I would be a supporter of it not becoming too respectable. It’s a very interesting thing as a phenomenon because I realised that success is much harder to deal with. There are so many expectations and you need to make sure it’s edgy and keeps pushing the boundaries and keeps dealing with new ideas and people’s imaginations. However what you say can apply across the board. Universities have become more conservative. But cabaret as a form…well there are many different forms, there’s New York Cabaret which is very connected to the musical theatre world and that’s all pretty safe, but European cabaret was very much a political device for political comment, the more of that the better. In general I think there’s a big danger of things becoming so much part of the establishment that they become too safe.