It’s a Friday night in October, 2016. The venue is a cabaret bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. For days the weather has been unseasonably hot, the sun a constant presence as it bounces back from the warm sidewalks. A Friday night, then, and I’ve never felt gayer. Well, obviously I have. I mean, the times I’ve been doing gay things, you know, the really gay things, but this was more symbolic. Because the gig was at the Duplex in Christopher Street, the gayest road in the world, quite possibly, next door to the Stonewall Inn itself and the gay rights memorial. And right outside the venue, with all of this gayness, was a poster with my face on it. And it’s been there for weeks!
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the sitcom Will and Grace, but it’s the venue where Jack performed his one man show. That’s how gay the place is.
But it also has a rich heritage as a comedy venue and most of the major names in US comedy have at one time performed at the Duplex.￼
I arrived and met up with Mark Wallis and his partner Bart Greenberg. I’d known Mark for a few years when he still lived in Cornwall, and even then he was performing as I Am Cereal Killer, a kind of camp punk spoken word artist with bright red hair and white and red face make up. His partner Bart is a playwright and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New York cabaret and theatre scene. It’s a huge honour to be here headlining at their event, and I’m still not sure how it happened except that Mark is a fan of my work and I have always been a fan of his.
Also there are a couple of actors who Bart has hired to do a rehearsed reading of his new play, and then two very familiar and wonderfully flamboyant characters arrive. First is Margoh Channing, drag queen and cabaret artist with her giant hair, make-up and dress, her new show, Hung, about to be performed in New York, and then Dandy Darkly, the drag clown spoken word storyteller, with his pointed shoulder pads and sequinned one piece cat suit. I feel very plain in comparison.
We are shown upstairs to the green room, which is a fully functioning flat over the venue, and I fantasise about living here, and make small talk, and feel very nervous because I have no idea if there are any audience members yet. I go downstairs and do a mic test on stage with the actors, it all feels so professional and very real. And as always happens in these situations, a camaraderie emerges between the performers as we prepare ourselves in the apartment upstairs with its views down on to the small park where the gay rights statues attract tourists.
Everyone knows Margoh, she’s greeted warmly by the theatre staff. Dandy Darkly has other concerns, because the media has been full of stories about people dressing as clowns and scaring kids, he wonders if this might affect his act or the way that he is perceived. And I’m incredibly nervous, more so than I have been for a long time. I’d spent the days before in my hotel room on the Bowery, making subtle changes to my poems to take out references to English culture that then New Yorkers might not understand. Peter Andre, Top Gear, Richard Madeley.
We are ushered downstairs and given a table at the back of the room. I sit with Dandy and Margoh. The walls of the Duplex are filled with pictures of the famous people who have performed there, such as Bette Midler and Woody Allen. The audience is enthusiastic and warm and I start to relax. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for a better audience for my New York debut, and it felt a real privilege to headline with these acts. I’d seen Dandy before in Edinburgh and I have always been a huge fan, and I’d seen I Am Cereal Killer, but Margoh Channing was a revelation, hilarious and touching, tender, human and very funny. Nancy Stearns sang a fantastic song about being in love with a young gay man, and Bart’s wonderful play was about a gay relationship.
And then it was my turn. It all felt so normal, and once I started it just felt like a normal gig, the kind I’ve done countless times in the past. I think I purposefully downplayed my performance because there was no way I could compete with all of the others, but people were very kind and they laughed in all the right places, so much so that I had to change the set order on stage as I’d meant to do a couple of more serious poems. The audience was enthusiastic and seemed genuinely appreciative. They were up for laughter and a momentum had built up. The gig just flew past and then the show itself was finished.
I chatted afterwards with the audience. They were kind and generous and I sold out of the books that I’d brought with me. Some of them seemed genuinely surprised that my voice off stage also had an English accent, as if it had all been an act. ‘So you really are English’, a lovely lady said to me.
We went back to the green room apartment, where I felt guilty at just sitting on the sofa as the others showered and changed into their civilian clothes. But as I sat there I pondered on how amazing the gig had been. I chatted with Dandy, Mark, Bart and Margoh, feeling most relieved that my humour had translated well to an American audience, and that the crowd were very definitely on my side and intent on enjoying themselves.
But most of all it was the cabaret scene that affected me the most. It demonstrated that spoken word isn’t necessarily bound up with poetry, or that there are any barriers between a poetry gig, a comedy gig, a cabaret gig. Surrounded by actors, drag queens, cabaret acts, drag clowns and singers, I felt, for the first time, as the straight man in my shirt, tie and jacket, yet equally valid and comparable with the others. We were all doing our own thing.
And soon it was all over. We said our good byes and drifted off into the night. I walked with Mark and Bart to the subway and we went off on different lines, they went back to Queens, and myself the short distance to the Bowery, to the hotel where I was unable to sleep in the slightest.
It was only much later afterwards that I realised how amazing the night had been. It was spoken word that had got me there, and for a few brief minutes I’d been right at the epicentre of the international LGBT scene. My next gig after this night was a couple of weeks later, in Torquay, thousands of miles away and with a very different dynamic but equally exciting and with another great audience. Thanks to the marvel of social media, I’ve become friends with a lot of people that night, and personally inspired by them. The world may be getting smaller, but that’s no bad thing, we are all so very similar.