Late Nite Cabaret: An Odd and Influential History

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Sep. 14, 2010

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Beedle-dee-dee-dee-dee..six ladies?: The Peek-A-Boo Review's burlesque show is one of the many live acts happening after hours at the nomadic Fringe Late Night Cabaret this year

Photo by Chris K

This year, there are two major options for drinking-age revelers after the Fringe and Live Arts Festival—there's the stationary Festival Bar at Spring Garden Street and Delaware Avenue, which has official status and a social, dance-party feel; then there's the renegade Late Nite Cabaret, a nomadic caravan of less-formal performances that makes stops at venues all around the city.

Keeping the two straight can get confusing, especially since they sometimes merge and overlap. This is the first year in a few that the two have been in the same room, although they used to be close—in fact, they used to be one event. The schism that resulted in the Cabaret and Festival Bar marked the splitting of a tradition that has since the early days of the Fringe spawned countless artistic collaborations and makeout sessions, and has had an untold influence on Philly’s theater scene.

Since its first year in 1997, the festival has hosted an after-hours event after the night’s shows have closed. In its first days in a tent pitched in Elfreth’s Alley, it was a place for Fringe performers to shed their costumes, hang out and share semi-formed work with other artists. Then known as the Late Nite Cabaret, it was developed by Deborah Block (also responsible for programming the whole Fringe at the time) as “a place for the artists to get together and potentially collaborate.” It was an intimate, free-wheeling environment where beer was peddled on the sidewalk for donations.

The next year, the Cabaret moved to the now-defunct Helena’s at Second and Chestnut streets, where performers defied technical difficulties and blown circuit breakers to present excerpts of their shows on the tiny stage. Other acts saw artists from diverse disciplines joining forces—almost a Fringe cliche today, but a rarity at the time.

For the next decade, the Cabaret migrated around Old City, continuing the diverse program of comedy, burlesque, drama, dance and alternative music. The atmosphere made for countless romantic liaisons and a smaller but still significant number of theater and dance productions such as Pig Iron's critically acclaimed (and inaccurately named) 2002 show Flop.

Block tapped Flop as a great example of the seeds of a multidisciplinary production being planted over beers at the Cabaret—Directed by Pig Iron co-founder Dan Rothenberg (also the director of Pig Iron's current festival standout Cankerblossom), the show starred Nichole Canuso (whose company this year produced multimedia-dance performance Takes), frequent Pig Iron collaborator Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey and Lee Etzold (who came to Philly with New Paradise Laboratories, of this year's Freedom Club). Flop was nominated for six Barrymores (including Best Play) in 2002, and eventually went all the way to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Many other Cabaret regulars went on to become big players in Philadelphia’s independent-theater scene—Brat Productions’ original artistic director Madi Distefano, for example, and songstress Miss Martha Graham Cracker (the stage name of Pig Iron co-founder Dito van Reigersberg).

But as word got around, the event became too popular to sustain.

The official Cabaret reached its zenith in 2001-2002, according to Scott Johnston and Mike Cristaldi. Both have a long history with the Cabaret—Johnston’s been involved since the beginning and is the current programmer and manager; Cristaldi joined up in 2001 and is now in charge of lighting, sound and stage production. When he started, Cristaldi says there was a full-time staff of four and a budget of about $1,000 a night to pull top Philly talent and major out-of-town acts.

But by 2008, says Nick Stuccio, co-founder of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and current producing director of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, it was time to change direction. As people from Fringe audiences began to outnumber people from Fringe stages, the initial mission of artistic collaboration no longer seemed viable on the larger scale. Block, whose mission it wasin the first place, had left in 2006, and with her depature the Cabaret budget shrank and the focus shifted from theater and performance art to music. Instead of a wide variety of performances, Cristaldi says, it became a place to have a beer and see a band.

“More and more people wanted to be social,” instead of being an audience, says Stuccio. “The majority of the people just wanted to hang out.” He dissolved the official Cabaret in 2008, replacing it with the Festival Bar, which has dance parties, DJs and the goal of being a place to drink, dance and talk. The Cabaret, minus funding and official title, struck out on its own with Johnston and Cristaldi at the helm, beginning the current split-screen situation.

But both parties are optimistic about a reunion in the near future, with a few trial nights of co-existence this year.

On opening night 2010, Stuccio caught Miss Martha Graham Cracker’s set at the Cabaret, then headed over to the Festival Bar, where a giant dance party was attended by about 400 people. The opening-night crowd at the Cabaret was mostly insiders, he confirms, while the Festival Bar attracted more of the general public.

This year, Stuccio figured the Festival Bar’s huge new home at Club Egypt was big enough for dance parties and performances to co-exist without getting in each other’s way. He says he hopes that next year the festival can secure a building large enough to house the Festival Bar and adjacent performance space.

Johnston is also pleased with the reunion. “I am thrilled at the reconnection that we’ve been graciously receiving from the entire Live Arts/Philly Fringe fest, and I don’t see anything prohibiting us from gathering audiences together next year.”

But until and unless the two permanently reunite, you’ve got your choice of post-festival makeout venues.

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1. Satten said... on Sep 15, 2010 at 10:37AM

“I was there last night for the combo LNC/Festival Bar and it was a blast. Some comedy that made my gut hurt from laughing, fun musical acts like Toothless George and his one man band and lots of great craft beer from local breweries. Thanks for giving us something fun to do late night!”

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2. Brian P. Castello said... on Sep 21, 2010 at 08:09PM

“In the early years, or at least the heyday of the Late Night Cabaret, the programmed Fringe/ filtered Fringe/ then later Live Arts would often have ticketed shows in the early evening or weekend afternoons that would justify some of the cost of lighting, sound, tech staff, etc which would make the Late Night Cabaret a little less expensive as a proposition all by itself. There was a place to have show afterparties, performers and audience members meeting each other and a free stage show that included a feature act and/or band or DJ as well as a sample of Andy Worhol sets -- 15 minutes of fame for a Fringe or Live Arts performer -- one scene, one dance, one song -- or even another talent or collaboration. I remember a line backstage of performers hoping to get on to that nights Cabaret talking to Deb Block about performance order. The MC's were real pros at holding the show together and introducing and letting each artist promote their Fringe show or what they were doing next.”

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3. Brian P. Castello said... on Sep 21, 2010 at 08:15PM

“Space and Sponsors --- and extra $5000 to $10,000 could bring this free Fringe tradition back together with the festival where it belongs. It's one of the few things, along with a common guide and a common box office, that made the Fringe a festival instead of 200 competing shows. I though this year's putting the Cabaret back in the Bar added an audience to slow weeknights and allowed a choice on busier weekend nights, just as in the early years. I hope there is the interest (and a little bit of money) to continue reuniting the LNC with its home in the Fringe.”

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