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The Not Television Festival: Interview With Ben Walters

15 August 2014 | Tom Butler

"Cabaret is alive and it recognises and values you. That's rare these days."

The Not Television Festival is a series of Cabaret acts brought straight from the Edinburgh Fringe to Chelsea Theatre. The festival starts at the end of August so London Calling were lucky enough to grab 5 minutes with creator, founder and festival director Ben Walters.

London Calling: Where did the idea for the festival come from?

Ben Walters: I remember the exact moment I had the idea. It was this time last year, while I was in Edinburgh, watching one of the shows that's now in our line-up: Red Bastard. He challenges the audience to think of things they'd really love to make happen if they gave themselves permission. One of the things I most loved about being a cabaret critic was trying to convince readers of the value of shows where the performers and audience are in it together – not just the one entertaining the other but everyone working together to create something unique and inspirational. It occurred to me that it would be exciting not only to celebrate that work in writing but to gather it together for a weekend where people could experience loads of it first-hand – to take it from the page to the stage. And it happened!

LC: How long has it taken to come to fruition?

BW: Almost exactly a year, from having the idea at Edinburgh 2013 to getting Chelsea Theatre on board, selecting and approaching acts, adding all the extra goodies round the edges and getting it all finalised.

LC: For those not in the know, what should people coming to the festival expect to see?

BW: The work will be an eclectic mix of comedy, cabaret, theatre, music, art and other malarkey. First of all, it will be a great time – everything is either really funny, really moving, really provocative or all of the above. But it's also about learning to love audience participation; that phrase is a total turn-off to loads of people but when done well, it's an exciting invitation to make something together, almost without realising it. It's still fine if you prefer to watch, no one's going to be forced to do anything, but it's all organised so the more you pitch in, the more of a rush you'll get out of it. It's all about having experiences you couldn't hope to have sat in front of the telly.

LC: Are the majority of acts established or new to the scene?

BW: It's quite a mix – someone like Red Bastard is very highly feted on the comedy circuit, for instance, but I'd be surprised if many people will know all the acts. Even the better known names from the cabaret scene will be doing relatively unfamiliar stuff. So Jonny Woo and Lady Rizo are phenomenal, widely celebrated performers but they're going to be doing something brand new for them, participating in a show called White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, in which they'll open an envelope, take out a script they've never set eyes on before and start reading… And Miss Behave is one of the scene's best-known hosts and sideshow artists but she's doing her brilliant lo-fi cardboard gameshow.

LC: You choose a number of acts you’ve seen at the Edinburgh Fringe. What is it about Edinburgh that makes such a special event?

BW: The Edinburgh Fringe is just its own world, a completely unparalleled concentration of acts all in one place, brand new artists testing unfamiliar ground and established names trying new things. There's work from around the world and from across every form of performance – theatre, comedy, dance, music, circus, cabaret – and it all bounces and feeds off everything else to create these fizzing new creative and critical connections. You couldn't ask for a better truffle patch.

LC: Why Chelsea Theatre?

BW: Chelsea Theatre approached me at the end of last year about working on a cabaret show, and the result of that was Come With Me If You Want To Live, which I produce, programme and present. We've done two of them so far and they've been a blast. The theatre have been completely on the same wavelength about celebrating work that thrives on the live connection between performers and audiences, resulting in something unrehearsable and unrepeatable – and they were just as enthusiastic about the idea of this festival along the same lines. Come With Me does it in the form of a cabaret evening, The Not Television Festival will do it in the form of a programmed weekend season. It's the same sensibility, just a different shape.

LC: How have you gone about choosing which acts are taking part in the festival?

BW: It's a mix of gut feeling, balancing act and accountancy. Everything has to come out of that collaborative spirit – it has to be about work that makes eye contact and reaches out a hand to the audience, invites them to converse, collaborate and conspire. Beyond that, it was wanting to get a balance of cabaret, comedy, music and theatre flavours, along with some juicy ambient elements like drawing and contributing to the Anxiety Box, where you can anonymously post things that put you on edge. And then wanting it to add up to a really stimulating and satisfying time for those people who come and experience the whole thing, so requiring a certain rhythm within each day and across the weekend. In that respect, it's been a bit like programming a cabaret night on a bigger scale.

LC: Do you see this is as being an annual festival or would you like it to have a more constant presence on the cabaret scene year round?

BW: Let's see how this one goes before thinking about that!

LC: What drew you to the cabaret scene when you started out as a journalist?

BW: The gig sort of fell in my lap but I very quickly became fascinated and then besotted with cabaret. At its heart, it's a form that requires a certain kind of cooperation between everyone in the room that I think can result in the most electrifying and inspirational performance experiences out there – and might even offer a few pointers on making the world a better place, though we'd need a bit more space to go into that.

LC: Why do you think cabaret has become so popular over the past five years or so?

BW: It's cheap, which helps, but it's more than that. My guess is that a lot of us feel like there are large parts of our life where we have very limited agency – what we think, say, or do doesn't seem to have much effect when it comes to work, say, or money, or politics. Even when it comes to art and culture, the standard model is to turn up, buy your ticket, then be a passive consumer. Cabaret is different. It needs you to be involved, it cares what you do, it might even change for the better because of something you contribute. Even if that only applies literally to a couple of people in each show, I think everyone else in the audience recognises it and gets a buzz they take out of the room. Cabaret is alive and it recognises and values you. That's rare these days.

The Not Television Festival takes place at Chelsea Theatre from the 29th-31st August. For more information and to book tickets please click here

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