A gig in New York

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.

An Interview with MargOH Channing

Last month I performed in New York and I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of MargOH Channing. MargOH is a singer and comedian whose performances mix high camp and cabaret style singing with the seriousness of life itself, issues of identity and representation. We hit it off immediately, sharing a green room, though it must be noted that she finished all the Martini, and I had to help her down the stairs after a bit of a stumble on the second landing. MargOH is an engaging and almost tragic figure who has been very inspirational to me personally. I jumped at the chance to probe her in more detail in light of the recent presidential elections.

1- You come from a fishing community. How did you end up on the New York cabaret circuit?
 Darling my road was long and winding. I came from a very broken family so I had to go out on my own at a very young age. I actually moved to NYC as a child to work at my Aunt’s bar where I was discovered by Russ Meyer and was cast in his film “Common Law Cabin” and the rest is history…I call my cabaret career winding down as I’ve done just about everything, even Liberace!

2- I’ve noted from your work that you like the occasional drink. How does alcohol affect your performance?

 I don’t know how anyone can perform without it? Many years ago Elaine Stritch told me after I had a rough night at the Reno Sweeney. She said MargOH! “Stick to one before the show, one during and afterwards whose counting”. She came on a night when my panties fell off and I tripped and fell on Rex Reed, he was not happy as he picked pubes out of his teeth…well anyway its not like I gave him the clap!

3- Dear God. Trump. Did that actually happen? What’s the mood right now in liberal New York?

 Let me make a martini! People in this country are basically stupid! Reality TV has leaked into our news sources and everything is so sensationalized we can no longer tell the difference between fiction and reality any longer. Plus everyone is very nostalgic instead of looking to the future. The fact is people over 65 and their white kids vote for the old days when certain people knew their place. That is what got Trump elected. When we as a nation realize “Political Correctness” is progess then maybe we can elect visionaries instead of dusty old hacks…was that too harsh? 
4- Your performances and incredibly funny, occasionally tender, and with excellent comic timing. Who are your influences?

 I have so many influences but most of all Judy Garland is my muse, someone to aspire to be as a performer. When I started performing I wanted to be a celebrity, you know be loved, but that’s all wrong! As you get older you realize its about the work and sharing that connection with an audience. Judy did that better than anyone and I try to remember that everytime I walk out on stage, things may not be perfect but if you connect with just one person then it’s all good. I’m also a big fan of Totie Fields, Sandra Bernhard and downtown legend Penny Arcade. 
5- What’s a perfect night, in the eyes of MargOh Channing?

 Honestly, a good old dinner party with friends where someone ends up under the table or you wake up with someone in your bed and can’t remember a thing…Those are the moments I cherish…

6- There’s an underlying hint of personal tragedy in your act. Have times been hard?

 Are you sure that’s not my Chanel #5? In the world of Social Media where everyone shares their good times, I like to mess with everyone and let them see the real me…I never met a happy comedian, have you?

7- When you’re putting a show together, what makes the perfect big opening?

 As an audience member I do not like formula in a show, makes me feel they are taking the easy way out, challenge me please! Actually for the first time in my new show HUNG I open with a song, “You Go To My Head” . I’ve never done that before and do find it fun. In the past I’ve always opened with an overture or entrance song by my back up singers but since they all quit I had to change it up. The one thing I do always do is end with a ballad. Once, my musical director Tracy Stark asked me ‘Why do you always end with a sad song”? I replied, “I am a sad song.” 
8- Do your family miss you, now that you’re a big star in the big city?

 Of course, my sister Rita is always asking me to come back to Bangor to be her receptionist, she is a highly successful Opthalmologist! I never would have thought that was possible since she is cross-eyed but she is a trooper. My mother on the other hand is a bit of a problem so we shipped her off to a retirment home in Wasilla, Alaska. I thought it best Sarah Palin keep an eye on her or vice-versa…They come to shows when they can so we are all good!
9- What influences your writing?

 The underdog is my inspiration for writing. Injustice and inequality drive me to do what I do. I never felt part of the party so I write about that. It’s not always being the belle of the ball, it’s how you trip the one that is in the nicest possible way to let them know they may deserve it but I’m not sure why because you seem wretched. Does that make sense?
10- What advice might you have for any young buck who would like to take up performing?

 My best advice for an upcoming performer is something Burlesque Legend World Famous BOB said to me. “If you aren’t making yourself nervous or frightened every couple of weeks then you aren’t trying hard enough”. It was the best advice i was ever given and it’s so true. Do what you love to do and the audience will come, it may be harder and take much longer than you thought but when it happens you’ll know you stayed true to yourself and its magic. XOXO MargOH! 

Check out MargOH’s website: