Music Feature

The Bearded Ladies Revolution: Cabaret With Social Consciousness

by Sasha C. Mendez
What do the Civil War, Edith Piaf, & James Bond have in common? Drag cabaret, ladies and gentleman. Be excited. Photos by Kate Raines.
Edith 3

'The Arts', the undisputed lifeline of Philadelphia, a city whose populous is saturated with some of the most creative minds, artistic hands, and receptive communities. In fact, thirty-five of the city's creative thinkers are recipients of varying awards from the Knight's Foundation.

 Amongst the impressive collection of winners is a small organization with a huge mustache-y presence: The Bearded Ladies Revolution, “an experimental cabaret troupe devoted to exploiting all the possibilities of intimate, homemade theater through beautiful songs, tricked-out costume changes, drag, and virtuosic prop construction. With wit and sparkle they tackle the politics of popular culture, sex, gender, and artistic invention”. Watch the video to get a feel of their extensive levels of awesome and impressive prop talent

 Members of The Bearded Ladies include: John Jarboe, Kristen Bailey, Heath Allen, Daniel Kazemi, Liz Filios and Mary Tuomanen. I met up with John Jarboe, artistic director, actor, and chief beard to get some insight into the revolution that is The Bearded Ladies. As I made way up the steps of their West Philly home-studio and took in the guiding trail of metallic sprayed-on hearts, I couldn't help but think “these are people who know how to party”. I was not disappointed, upon my welcome I walked by cardboard metallic gold missiles/gender lazers (props for the Beards are for Shaving: A 007 Cabaret at the Wilma Theater), AKA the ultimate party favor. 

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We sat in a kitchen bathed in light, I took in the iconic Bearded ladies' heart pinned to John's shirt, and our interview began:

215 Mag: How would you describe cabaret, and what you do with it? 

John Jarboe: "Cabaret in a way is the poetry of theater. It's short, it's dense, it's about pleasure and sound. Cabaret leaves you with images and questions in the brain. We're creating narratives that challenge."

215 Mag: I know that The Bearded Ladies Revolution is a collaborative production, can you describe the process of artistic direction?

 John Jarboe: "The role of the artistic director is to make final decisions, create context, structure discussions, rehearsals, articulate experiments that are done. But we really work as a team on every aspect of our production. We have very deliberate scripts, we are a writing team, our scripts are written on Google Docs. We'll sit as a group, listen to music and compose. We'll rehearse for hours, have dinner together and talk about ideas. We have a great team: local artists, theater artists, musicians, costume designers all at different age ranges. Mary T, is a local Philly actress who has played in Hamlet at the Wilma. Jess Hurley is an actress and earning a  PhD at University of Pennsylvania. Heath Allen is an amazing pianist and composer. I facilitate experiments to create spaces for everyone to be themselves, loud, generative. We're not afraid to be stupid and fall on our faces." 

 215 Mag: Describe your audience:

John Jarboe: "Our audience is different from the usual theater crowd who usually pre-sale, we thrive on walk-ups. Our audience is diverse with young people, because we create a different atmosphere, affordable costs, and unlimited drinks, and audience engagement. Our shows aren't for the economic status that has all the money, but for everyone who wants to experience what matters most to them."

215 Mag: The Bearded Ladies is known for creating narratives on gender/sexuality, politics, and popular culture, what do you want the audience to take away?   

John Jarboe: "Each show is different, Each offers a different set of questions. A lot of of narratives are about pleasure, the late night appeal appeal, the drinks, get people into a vulnerable place so that they can engage in theater. The Civil War cabaret explores the political movements of the north, abolitionists. We explore the legacy of the Civil War, how it has not ended in music, political divisions, or history and time. James Bond is about gender, there is a gender lazer. 'Pussy Galore', is set to opera. We explore how people perform their gender in and out of drag and have even include Judith Butler in text."

215 Mag: Do you incorporate Philly social and cultural dynamics into your productions?

John Jarboe: "We're very engaged with Philadelphia. We're always really aware of where we are even in our Civil War Cabaret. We know that we're an all white cast doing a Civil War Cabaret. In the middle of our show we sing 'Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia', a big Philly song; we've used Occupy metaphors while doing it. The Wilma Theater is set as the plantation. In 'No Regrets: A Piaf Affair', the Wilma represents the French slutty friend."    

215 Mag: So,why the beards, are they a source of empowerment? 

John Jarboe: "The Beards are like layers to a story. We use beards to the point of where you have no idea of what is standing in front of you".

215 Mag: What does Philly mean to you?

John Jarboe: "What I appreciate most is that Philly is such a generous community-and wants and needs good arts and artists. Philly audiences are always game! They're smart audiences that strive to be intellectually engaged. This is an exciting city and ready for this!   

215 Mag: Describe The Bearded Ladies Revolution in one sentence:

 John Jarboe: "The Bearded Ladies Revolution is simultaneously conducting experiments in the forms of cabaret and theater to engage everyone with space, gender, sexual identity, politics in our community."  

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Feel free to donate to the Bearded Ladies Revolution's KickStart mission, $1 = $2! 

Also, it'll do your soul good to check out one of their cabaret shows throughout the city. Satisfy your inner activist with the unlimited drinks, gender bending, and all around good time. Besides, there is no greater homage one can pay to James Bond than singing along to an opera-styled version of 'Pussy Galore'.  

Follow me @SashaSphynx

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