In an interview with Natasha Sutton-Williams, Invisible Cabaret cofounders and performers Rosalind Peters and Rochelle Thomas bear all in their mental health focussed cabaret at VAULT Festival in London.
Invisible Cabaret are a burlesque and cabaret troupe that perform vaudeville-style variety shows devoted to raising mental health awareness. Through the mediums of burlesque, comedy, dance and original song they aim to break down stigma. Their mission is to make the invisible visible, and spark new, open discussions around what mental health means to each individual audience member.
“The art forms of burlesque and cabaret are uniquely placed to explore the way we humans experience our minds and ‘dysfunctionalities’. It might seem like an odd mix, but we think that’s what makes it work,” says Peters.
Thomas agrees, adding, “Cabaret art forms are warm, welcoming, naughty, playful, and of course, historically stigmatised. As such, they allow us to broach difficult subjects using diverse, self-aware means, boldly treading where the straight-laced research paper and the well-meaning infomercial dare not go. Our ultimate hope is to help liberate ourselves and others from the shame that is attached to mental health issues.”
Peters has been dealing with an invisible disability for the last decade. During this time, the seeds of Invisible Cabaret were planted.
“I have had chronic pelvic pain (specifically vulvodynia) for ten years, and developed full-body pain (suspected fibromyalgia) five years ago. My experience got me thinking about the concept of marrying burlesque and invisible struggles while watching a wheelchair burlesque dancer on YouTube and wondering, ‘Could somebody with my invisible limitations do something like that?’ Rochelle and I started talking. The theme of invisible disability was narrowed down to mental health as it was something we both had first hand experience of and voila, Invisible Cabaret was born.”
Thomas and Peters both stress that mental health should not be glamorised or romanticised. This is the main challenge they face as cabaret-based mental health advocates. Discussing mental health in a performance environment is a formidable task, especially when they are utilising glitter, sequins and jazz hands. Their mission statement states that, ‘We do not intend to stick sequins on self-defeat, rhinestone anxiety, or embellish existential despair. What we do believe in is using the tools of performance, comedy and entertainment to open up the discussion of what mental health means to each individual in the audience’.
They work hard to ensure that every piece is well researched. Their collaborative rehearsals allow for multiple eyes to review a piece before completion, and spot anything questionable before it lands in front of the public. Not only are Invisible Cabaret navigating mental health issues in their work, they also have to manage the complex issues surrounding the presentation of naked female bodies on stage.
“Within the burlesque community – especially in the neo-burlesque movement – there’s a move towards understanding the art form as women reclaiming their own bodies and sexuality,” says Thomas.
Peter adds that, “When you see naked female bodies on our stage, it’s nearly always making a point about vulnerability, whether emotional or physical. In some ways, this needs to be even more carefully curated as it’s important our performers feel – and are – absolutely safe in every respect to allow them to be that vulnerable. It helps that the project is entirely female-led; we don’t make our work for the male gaze at any point, including the sexy stuff.”
In their latest show Let’s Get Visible, Invisible Cabaret utilise burlesque, tap dance and spoken word to dissect the stigma surrounding mental health. Some numbers illustrate the wider public discussions, while others include personal stories of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, intrusive thoughts, and the importance of seeking medical help. “There are also a lot of boobs. Occupational hazard,” says Peters. The theme that is interwoven throughout is just how much performance everyday life can require.
With all these delicate subjects at play, it is integral for Thomas and Peters to take their performers’ psychological states seriously during rehearsals and performance, and make the show accessible for their performers’ various needs.
“As you can imagine, making art with people with mental health issues about their mental health issues can get quite Meta,” says Peters. “We have a number that explores Borderline Personal Disorder and Complex PTSD. Whilst it is a piece that uses clowning and humour, it is still emotionally expensive for the performer who devised it. Sometimes we won’t know until the day just how draining she may find it. We try to take our lead from the performers and pick up on subtle cues to know when not to push for more and when to back off altogether, maybe even calling a rain check. We try to do a lot of listening. “
Fundamentally, they have to be flexible. They move rehearsals according to their performers needs, and postpone rehearsals if the work is going to make performers feel too raw, or if they are experiencing unrelated anxiety.
Thomas and Peters are passionate about their work, but are ultimately more concerned about the wellbeing of each performer. Thomas states that,
“We’ve developed a ‘tap out system’ which is always in play. It’s like an emotional Oyster card system. Whenever someone feels close to overwhelming feelings, anxiety, or any other flare up of a mental health symptom, we simply get up and take a break. No explanation or pleasantries required. After a few minutes, someone will go check on them, but only for the sake of welfare and kindness. We do not consider anyone ‘owes’ us anything emotionally or otherwise. No one is obliged to share what they are going through. This can be a really helpful strategy when we’re talking about difficult or triggering subjects, which we do a fair amount.”
With the theatre sector only just beginning to recognise the effects of mental health upon its artists, Thomas and Peters have been working towards a methodology on how to support theatre-maker’s mental well-being,
“The venues and makers who listen to how those with first-hand experience want to be talked about and represented, which stigmas and misconceptions they want to correct, are onto a good thing. Listening to those with first-hand experience, and taking them seriously, is always the best place to start,” says Peters.
Thomas agrees, adding, “People need to be able to make mistakes in how they discuss complex issues such as mental health because openness and vulnerability are essential qualities in meaningful conversation. Unless these mistakes constitute harmful behaviour or malicious ignorance, we need to fear them less. Striving for excellence is one thing, but perfectionism just makes people poorly and afraid.”
One thing is for certain: Invisible Cabaret will continue to break down mental health misconceptions, one sequined step at a time.