Solo and with the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, theater artist John Jarboe explores the politics of sexuality and gender in popular culture.
John Jarboe is an acclaimed performer, director, and writer, best known as the producing artistic director of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret.
Jarboe was born in 1986 in Warren, MI, and studied theater at the University of Michigan. After moving to Philadelphia in 2009, Jarboe was acting in a production of Wizard of Oz when the head of nearby Media Theatre requested a cabaret performance. Soon Jarboe was presenting full-length cabaret shows as The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a company formed in a West Philadelphia apartment in 2010.
The Bearded Ladies have curated and presented cabaret artists from around the world. In 2018, Jarboe concluded a multi-year investigation into cabaret history with Do You Want a Cookie?, an international look at the artform through the ages. The company has also worked with numerous major cultural institutions, producing an Andy Warhol opera with Opera Philadelphia, performances at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and an annual Bastille Day celebration with historic prison Eastern State Penitentiary standing in for the French jail.
When John Jarboe performs cabaret it’s often loose and spare, frequent ad-libbing and set pieces made from cardboard. But that laxity isn’t for a lack of care. The opposite. For Jarboe, performance is a life or death endeavor.
John Jarboe: It’s live. It’s insistent upon its liveliness. We’re talking directly to you. And I think more importantly, we’re talking in a language that you can speak in as well. If we didn’t acknowledge the absurdity of the performance of normal that is happening all around us that doesn’t include us, we might disappear or we might die. And many of us did.
John Jarboe is the founder and Artistic Director of The Bearded Ladies, a Philadelphia-based cabaret company that has been developing original shows for over a decade. That “we” Jarboe is talking about is the queer community.
Jarboe: And the thing that I love about the word ‘queer’ is that people don’t understand what it means. I think it means in-between, it’s, it’s anti-binary. It’s, it both refers to sexual and gender complexity. It is a word that is not, not really politically expedient in the way that ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ have come to be. And it can be a sort of catchall for people that feel like they don’t fit into the strict heteronormative system of the binary of man and woman, and even the idea of monogamy and those kind of things. And cabaret is in a certain respect, I think it is a queer form and it, it is mercurial and flexible and has many different identities because it is a transgressive form. And because it’s not opera or ballet or theater. It shape shifts for the time, for the geographic region, for the historical period. It’s constantly changing.
Cabaret typically features a collection of musical dance or theatrical acts strung together by a host. The form originated in Paris in the late 19th century as artists started gathering and sharing works in small cafes.
Jarboe: It started as an interdisciplinary form, artists performing for artists, experimenting, doing what they couldn’t do in the more established buildings and institutions and forms. And then people started trickling in, and they were using, the artists started using the language of the poor people that were in Montmartre and the vernacular there to make fun of the bourgeoisie. And the bourgeoisie liked it. And so the bourgeoisie was traveling from Paris into Montmartre to see, to be made fun of basically. So you get this very liminal form, this form that’s existing between the street and a larger institution, that’s appropriating, that’s transgressive, a little dangerous. And that intersects two different classes.
That liminal form for Jarboe is an ideal way to explore queerness and conventional social roles. Bearded Ladies shows, for instance, often incorporate drag.
Jarboe: I think that there’s a, there’s a huge problem with our fight for visibility, especially gay people’s fight for visibility, especially I think gay men. I think people have been left behind and, and things are whitewashed. And I think the trans community, the genderqueer community, bisexual community, have been left behind in lots of ways that I don’t think–
AJC: But is it the role of the gay community to bring them along?
Jarboe: I think, I think we do better in our fights for justice and visibility and equality to look at our fight for equality as, as everyone’s fight.
Even though cabaret is John Jarboe’s tool of choice in that fight, the intention was never to lead a cabaret company. Starting out in theater in Philadelphia, Jarboe didn’t even know much about cabaret, but after a local theater offered a chance to try out the forum, the young Jarboe was drawn to its spontaneity and directness, as well as its ability to disarm and challenge an audience.
Jarboe: Cabaret is a weapon. Friedrich Hollaender said that it was a poison cookie and that it, it it woke up the sluggish mind. We talk about our work as if it’s a poisoned cookie. We often like what’s the, what’s the pleasure here? What’s the bite? What’s the poison?
The poison in that poison cookie cuts both ways. Jarboe wants to create spaces where both the audience and performers feel a little dangerous, like something could go wrong at any point, and the show could unravel. A sense of risk, because the risk creates an opportunity for connection.
Jarboe: But the trick with rigor and cabaret is that you, you have to give it life. It has to be flexible. And it has to feel like it may fall apart any moment. I want to feel dangerous, and I want the audience to feel dangerous.
AJC: That this could go wrong at any minute.
Jarboe: That this could go wrong at any minute, and wouldn’t it be lovely if it did? So I have, I’ve developed systems of preparing for things that involve, you know, spending a long time, writing a script for a gig that I’m doing or for a show, and then memorizing the script or improvising through the script many, many times so that I open all these windows of possibility. And then when I see the audience, I use them as my script. And I often say, I know I’ve done a good job if I can describe the whole front row, if I can describe them in detail and what they were wearing, what they were thinking, who was too drunk, who was sleeping a little bit, who was arguing with their partner. So if I’m reading the audience like a, like a text, I know that I’m listening. I know that we’re actually having a conversation.
Sometimes those conversations erupt from experiences just before taking the stage, such as one moment in Philadelphia.
Jarboe: It’s not surprising to see drag queens around the city performing now. We’ve become much more open as a culture to that idea. I still have a lot of situations like, at 30th Street Station, a cop, yelled at me for changing in the women’s restroom. And I was like, I’m, “I’m in a dress.” That’s what I said. I said, “I’m a lady. What’s the problem?” And that was really scary. And I had some reenactors that we were performing with at Eastern State, complain about my leg hair to me. And they all had muskets. And that was kind of scary. So, I mean, there are moments that feel dangerous, and how you deal with those moments. Or I, with the cop, I, I was pretty thrown. It was right before the performance and I walked out on 30th Street Station. I, I just changed my text. And I told the story about the cop and the restrooms. And I said, I would. I said, I think I said “I don’t know what the problem is. If there was a restroom in between man and woman that said fabulous, I would use that.” You know, so I, and then I had everyone blow a kiss to the cop, and that felt really powerful. And it felt like I wasn’t dismissing him or, or just making fun of him.
Since its inception, The Bearded Ladies has used cabaret to tackle a range of topics including genetically modified agriculture, masculinity during World War II, and whether it’s problematic to celebrate Walt Whitman in the 21st century. They’ve even powered through the pandemic with the same improvisational energy that fuels their shows, putting on a 12 hour marathon virtual show in the fall of 2020, and touring around Philadelphia in The Beard Mobile, a mobile performance vehicle for socially distanced shows. But John Jarboe, doesn’t go on stage looking for clear answers. If anything, it’s a quest for more expansive questions.
As the queer community becomes a larger part of the cultural mainstream through shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jarboe wants to continue to push the envelope, stretching and bending the range of categories we place on the world.
Jarboe: I don’t always have a problem with what we’re talking about, but I, I’m concerned with what we’re not talking about, who we’re leaving behind, and what the images that we have to put forth into the world to be accepted and visible. I want to complicate those images. As people become more comfortable with drag, drag queens have to become more uncomfortable.
For John Jarboe, life really is a cabaret, surprising and unpredictable and best experienced with a willingness to go off script, to laugh and to cry.