Next week sees the Second Anniversary of The Freakeasy Showcase, now a staple of the Edinburgh alternative scene. We talked to founder and host Ross Hepburn about the origins of The Freakeasy, what we can expect from the show, and drunk acts wearing capes.
Tell us about Freakeasy.
The Freakeasy is Edinburgh’s premier alternative variety showcase. We specialise in putting on shows for anyone who wants to perform and is a little bit weird and wonderful. We do not discriminate in what we’re looking for in terms of acts, as we believe there should be a platform for people that can do what they want to do. The amount of people we have booked that have pretty much told us, “we don’t get a lot of gigs as people think we’re too weird,” and we give them a chance. And if you come to a Freakeasy you’re going to have watched something that you would never have been a fan of before in your life, but after tonight you’re going to walk away going, “I’m going to have to check out more of that. That was really cool. That was amazing.” We try and cater for everybody to see something that they would never ordinarily see. That’s what the Freakeasy is about, and as a friend of mine said, “You’d be disappointed if it wasn’t bonkers!”
How did Freakeasy come about? Was there a realisation that there weren’t enough out there that you wanted to see?
I had the idea of doing it two or three years back. When I wrote my first solo stand-up show Beetlejuiced I was getting booked a lot for it as it was a big hit; but I wasn’t getting booked in comedy clubs or for weekend slots. It’s not typically stand-up, it’s a whole different thing altogether. So, I was getting booked for cabaret nights, showcases and variety shows. And I had the realisation that every audience at these shows was very responsive and would take to anything. Not in an uncritical way, just that they were open enough to say, “Show us what you’ve got. This sounds like fun.” But the problem was that all these variety nights were for people that would pay money to see these shows, and these were serious performers and stuff like that. And I thought that there were people who were in the same class as me – kind of semi-professional, but who weren’t getting the chance to do the work that they wanted to do. So I thought, “What if I started a variety night that catered to people who were at my level, that wanted to perform for the sake of performing?” I was clear that I wasn’t going to do a comedy night. I wasn’t going to do an open-mic night. I’m not going to do a poetry night. I’m not going to do a music night. I’m going to have all those nights all in one as a complete package.
How did you going about putting the first one together?
It was a tough one. It was at that point where I was at Banshee’s [Labyrinth] at the time as my regular haunt. It was where I put on all of my shows, and I told them I wanted to put on a night that would be different from everything else: a variety night. They asked what kind of acts and I said, “literally everything! It’s going to be called The Freakeasy. Here’s what I’m looking for.” I put it up online on all the Fringe performers forums and Scottish comedy forums advertising that, “if you want to perform just for the sake of doing it or if you feel like you have something to say, get in contact because I would love to have you on The Freakeasy.” I knew we wanted to have each act to be different from the last. So I thought that if we had two poets, two comedians, a musician etc, that would be enough to showcase all of this talent and let everyone see something different from the last. I knew that I had to do something ten times better than what most comedians who were at my level were doing – when you’re putting on a show, you’re not putting it on just for you, but for the performers. There were so many comedians putting on a night and were just putting up a Facebook event page and sharing it, and that was all they did to promote it. It’s not enough, is it? I got my friend Colin to design a poster and flyer. I took them all over town. I made the Facebook event page, but I shared it every single time somebody would talk to me to make sure that it got out there. I kept churning away, putting it out there, and figured that eventually people are going to want to listen to what you’re doing, and they will be there for it. Eventually the night came, on the 11th of February 2016 and we were full. It was then we realised that this could work, and we had something here.
Did you find it a galvanising experience for your own writing, being around other great performers?
It’s an odd one for me. I use my hosting as a means of just doing whatever I want on stage. I’ll throw in an occasional joke or one-liner every now and then; or have banter with the audience. And that’s great. What has mainly strengthened me in terms of doing The Freakeasy is my confidence in marketing. Now I know a million and one ways of getting something out there. Also, you find confidence in yourself through putting on something like this. I’m singing again now. I never wanted to be a singer, but because I’m now running a cabaret night, I’m up for trying something different things, just to see where we can put it next. We served cake at the Christmas Freakeasy last year. Two years ago at Christmas time I formed a Pogues tribute band just for that one show, because I thought it would be funny to see us dressed as The Pogues doing Christmas songs. We did “Fairytale of New York”. When you do stuff like that you realise you don’t have to stick to the standard formula of how to do a night. We could do anything we wanted. Let’s live by the ethos of The Freakeasy and just go wild and crazy and bonkers.
And two years later, it’s your anniversary show.
It’s amazing that it’s been two years already!
What can we expect from the show?
You’re going to expect the best of the best. We usually have a six act structure, but because it’s the anniversary we’ve got eight. It used to be eight acts when it started but we reduced it to six. We thought we’d push it back up to eight for the big show. We’ve got respected poet and musician and all-round storyteller Lloyd Robinson. We’ve got two comedians from Glasgow, both called Chris. Chris Lynott, who’s the face of the Toronto comedy scene; and he’s a Scottish comedian based in London so that kind of CV was enough to get him on the bill. We’ve got Christopher John Stephen. He’s a friend of mine. He runs Ginger Ale comedy through in Glasgow. Really good guy. We’ve also got magic comedy from Graham Stewart. This will be his third time performing at The Freakeasy, and I just love him. In my head I have a list of quintessential acts that make The Freakeasy, and he’s one of them. He’s just got that down to a tee. We’ve got an act Danov Valravn. We’re his favourite show to perform at. He comes on and just gets to do whatever he wants. He’s a beautiful singer as well so he’s going to be singing. We’ve got a drag act who we’ve had on before who steals the show every time. She’s going to do some wonderful crazy stuff. And also, we’re finishing the night with burlesque. We’ve got a wonderful woman called Debay De Lux who’s going to be performing for us. We’ve had burlesque on before and it always goes down really well. So we thought we’d close the show with someone who’s like the Scottish equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. There will be red velvet cake again and shortbread, as Colin, our graphic designer has taken up making shortbread. What you can expect from the two-year anniversary is what you can expect from every Freakeasy so far. It’s nuts, it’s far out. It’s a hell of a thing to put on, and I love it.
So what’s been the most bonkers, out there act you’ve ever had on?
It was the Hallowe’en show two years ago. We booked this act called Alexander Staniforth who is a nice guy. He’s insane, but he’s a nice guy. We booked him for the Hallowe’en show and Hallowe’en is my favourite time to put on [shows]. So, he was fifteen minutes late and we were wondering where he was as the show was about to start. Luckily, he was on second, but our first act had to do a few more songs. Alex does this show called Stand-Up Horror where he goes up on stage and makes up a horror story on the spot with the help of the audience. Kind of improv comedy. So we’re going, “where the hell is he?” and as soon as I say that we just hear this boot. Alex has kicked down the door. He comes in wearing a cape. He’s carrying two pints. He downs the first one and goes, “right, I’m ready,” and then gets up on stage and goes, “Goodbye Edinburgh!” and he just starts doing the show. I looked at my sound tech and went, “He’s completely drunk!” and Graham said, “Well, for that kind of show, you would have to be.” So, I would have to point at that as the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. You’re just wondering what the hell is going on here. But, other weird acts: we’ve had someone come on stage and do aerobics while do a narration for the pictures on the wall behind him. We had a poet on stage ranting about how much he hates Robert Pattinson. We’ve had two magicians who were so grumpy they told us that they hated the gig but would like to come back. But we aim for getting the weird and the wonderful.
Are there any dream acts you’d love to get on the bill?
Oh, I’ve got a list. Paul Currie being one. Sam Simmons, I would love to have on the bill as it would be amazing to have that weird comedy back on the bill. I would love to have proper big-name singer-songwriter musicians as well. We love music at The Freakeasy and any big-name musician would be great to have. I tried to persuade Keith David from The Thing and They Live because he tours with a pianist and sings songs by Nat King Cole. In my head I would love to have that as well. I would like proper big magicians, proper big storytellers. Most of all I would love to have more plays on as well. We had a play on years ago. We’re literally off-limits [sic] with anybody who wants to perform. We’re happy with anything you want to do. But off the top of my head, Sam Simmons, Paul Currie would just be great. Any big-name alternative comedian that wants to do it, they’ve got it. Same for any musician who has a good sound. I’ve got an ongoing list of people who would go down really well. I used to go round other shows and if there was something I liked I would go up to them and say, “That was really good. I’m Ross Hepburn and I run The Freakeasy Showcase and I would love to have you on the bill,” That’s how I met Isla [MacLean] and Heli [Kostadinova] from Bitch Night. I saw them perform last year and asked them to perform at my night. I’ve done that with musicians and magicians and other people. In my head I’ve got my dream acts that I’d kill to have on though, and hopefully years down the line we’ll get them.
The Freakeasy Showcase is on Thu 22 Feb 2018 @Banshee Labyrinth, Edinburgh: 20:00