Image: Suits / Elephant Publicity
What do you think of when you think of cabaret? Do images of scantily-clad women with feather boas and bustiers prancing through clouds of cigarette smoke in dimly-lit dives spring to mind? Those are just some of the stereotypes – and they’re as outdated as the notion that women aren’t equal to men.
A new show is turning those old notions of cabaret completely on their head. Suits blurs the lines between music, comedy and performance art in one glorious, full-frontal “fabulous mess.” Unapologetically feminist, the show rebels against male-gaze vampy sexuality by showing women can be badass no matter what they’re wearing – or how frank their commentary is.
Jessie Cassin, star of the show, recently took time to chat with Villainesse about cabaret, feminism, and what she wished her friends and family knew about what she does. This is what she had to say.
Villainesse: What can you tell us about Suits? How did the idea come about?
Jessie Cassin: I’d seen a lot of cabaret shows in Auckland over the years and so many of them had this preservationist attitude towards cabaret, where you would go and watch a babe dressed in a corset with a feather boa singing songs about diamonds. I was just really disenchanted with seeing the same female stereotype and so that got me thinking about what I’d like to see shaken up in cabaret.
Also, in the theatre world, it’s usually the norm to see a female leading lady backed by predominantly male musicians. I’m not saying the gender gap is intentional, more just pointing out that it exists, so that motivated me to create an all-female ensemble. In terms of the stories and song choices, I was newly single and had a lot of sex stories, confessions, feminist rants I’d written about in my diary and so I just thought why not combine all of these things into one fabulous mess! I didn’t think it was plausible until I starting watching alt-cabaret performers like Lady Rizo, Meow Meow, and Mx Justin Vivian Bond, they helped me understand the kind of new direction I wanted to go in.
Villainesse: I understand the cast will be wearing suits because of a goal of the ‘sexiness’ of the genre to come through in the words and music and not by using purely the female form. Could you elaborate on this?
Jessie Cassin: Yea, I mean, women [wearing] suits [are] still sexy, but that’s not why we choose to wear suits in the show. We wear suits as a rebellion against the idea that in cabaret, women must sexualise their outfits to be considered ‘cabaret’ performers. I love watching a confident, beautiful woman stride around in lingerie, but that look is not restricted to or synonymous with cabaret as a genre.
Villainesse: What do you think about women in cabaret? Are stereotypes sometimes a problem to deal with in terms of attracting new audiences?
Jessie Cassin: That’s a good question! On an international scale, there are the women like Mx Justin Vivian Bond who have really challenged female stereotypes. They have spaces like Joe’s Pub and Our Hit Parade that attract a real mixed audience. It’s a great environment to perform in on a regular basis because they can really hone in on their craft. In terms of attracting an audience, the fact that they’re challenging stereotypes is celebrated and they often have a cult following, so attracting an audience when it goes to theatre isn’t a problem.
In Auckland, there’s not really a space like Joe’s Pub where a female cabaret performer like me can talk about masturbating and whatever else on a regular basis, so when I do a show, it goes straight to the theatre. Cabaret is quite different to a play or musical in that it needs a regular venue and crowd to thrive and grow in. So no, I don’t think stereotypes are the reason it’s hard to attract new audiences, I mean shows like That Bloody Woman, The Offensive Nipple Show and Flaps were all received very well. I think the challenge at the moment is finding space where a filthy little cabaret show like mine can perform with regularity so that it doesn’t seem like such a random concept when it hits theatre crowds for the first time.
Villainesse: What do you see as the role of cabaret in 2016? Does it fill a particular niche?
Jessie Cassin: I think its role to allow the audience to let their guard down and party. I think of cabaret as being like the friend who always hangs out till last call, who sometimes says shit that embarrasses you but you still love no matter what. I don’t set out to have a message other than for you to have fun and walk out feeling a little bit better about yourself. I don’t want people to have any shame, you know? If it’s too much for anybody, great, I’d rather people walk out and be like “What the fuck was that?” or “Oh my God, I fucking loved that” than to walk out and say “Oh, that was nice.” I would rather have a tiny little audience of thrill seekers who want to see that shit again than a hundred of, “Oh, that was nice.” I hope cabaret fills that niche. You’re welcome, Auckland.
Villainesse: What are some things about being involved with cabaret that you wish your friends and family knew?
Jessie Cassin: Well for starters it’s a guarantee that family will do one of two things. They will laugh, or they will say they’re not related to me and wonder what childhood trauma led to the situation that is me. I think I would just like to say that I’m not up there acting like a giant sex crazed chronic masturbator for the hell of it, and that I do it all in the name of feminism. So Nana, you’ve been warned, you’ve created a monster!
Villainesse: What is it you love most about cabaret?
Jessie Cassin: You can get away with almost anything and you can drink on the job and if you’re single all you have to do is sing a power ballad and after the show you can just take your pick really.
Villainesse: Is cabaret empowering? If so, in what ways?
Jessie Cassin: Hells yes. Sometimes if someone heckles something weird, you get what I call a “worst nightmare” feeling in your gut and that’s not so cool, but usually the wine and adrenaline kicks in and you can turn it around like a boss. Also, playing to a group of people who just love to hear what you’ve got to say and laugh at your jokes is very addictive!
Villainesse: What is feminism to you?
Jessie Cassin: Feminism is a belief in the equality of the sexes and an awareness that one’s biological gender should not have them bound to a specific set of rules. These rules have served no other function than to keep society and the patriarchy running in a way it has always been running. But the feminism we need today must consider the effects of race and class on gender oppression.
Villainesse: Anything else you’d like to say?
Jessie Cassin: Thank you Cabaret festival and The Basement for putting us out there!