Hari Raj finds out that not all tents are created equal.

A Different Sort Of Pitch

10:40:AM 10/02/2011
Hari Raj

What is the enduring appeal of The Famous Spiegeltent? It has played host to everyone from Miles Davis to Marlene Dietrich, and has travelled to festivals the world over. There is something about its silhouette, mammoth against the skyline, that is ripe with promise for artist and audience alike.

“It’s a dream. It’s like walking into the drug-addled imagination of a muse,” says Scott Edgar of the comedy-musical act Tripod.

“It’s very intimate, the crowd is very close, it’s gorgeous. And it’s very discombobulating. I’ve played in the Spiegeltent all over the world, and you forget which city you’re in. You often get a shock when you walk out the front door.”

Says singer Katie Noonan: “It has an incredibly rich artistic heritage, and it travels the world dedicated to creative arts, so it’s pretty special. I’ve always had fantastic gigs there probably for that reason. The wood is soaked in years of great performances.”

Spiegeltents are the hand-made pavilions used as travelling entertainment venues and bars in the early 20th century. They’re built of wood, mirrors, canvas and leaded glass, topped off with velvet and brocade.

The Famous Spiegeltent was built by two Belgian craftsmen in 1920. The venue has travelled everywhere from Melbourne to Montreal, and was being used as a meeting place and bar by the Edinburgh Book Festival when current Spiegelmaestro David Bates came across it in 1996.

He hired it to produce a season for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which proved successful enough for Bates to keep hiring the venue. In 2001, when its owners put the Spiegeltent up for sale, Bates leapt at the opportunity.

“We’ve got this huge history in Melbourne. It’s been the home of the Spiegeltent for the last decade, and we’re thrilled to be back. It feels like we’re coming home, really,” he says.

Being the Spiegelmaestro means owning and running the venue, and looking after its maintenance and presentation. Bates grew up on a farm in Ararat, but took naturally to the stage. He feels that this has aided his current job.

“There are only eight old Spiegeltents left in the world, and of all the owners, I am the only one who is also a theatre producer. I use it, I don’t just hire it. I kind of evolved into this out of being a performer, so I’m very sympathetic and understanding of the artist’s perspective.”

There’s also the feeling that The Famous Spiegeltent provides the setting for a certain flavour of performance, best summed up by singer and actor Paul Capsis: “The vibe in the Spiegeltent is definitely sexy. It’s those naughty booths about the place that give it the sexiness. I’ve always wondered what people get up to in them.”

Bates agrees, calling the venue a “sort of travelling, intimate supper club”.

“It’s absolutely perfect for burlesque and cabaret-style performances, as well as smaller-scale music. Even some artists who would sell out bigger venues will never be seen in a better environment than the Spiegeltent,” he says.

“It’s greatly loved, and it has a very big reputation. You find there are some people who will play here who aren’t very well known, but people will come and see them because they trust the program and they trust that the experience for the audience as well as the artist will be a very special one.”

The Famous Spiegeltent travels in two 12-metre shipping containers. It is made up of 3000 pieces, which fit together “like a big jigsaw puzzle”. It has a seating capacity of about 350 people, with about 100 more able to squeeze in to standing-only shows.

Bates declines to reveal the cost of the tent, but he says he paid about the cost of a house for it. And what would it take for him to part from it?

“I have a daughter who is now nearly six. She thinks she’s the Spiegelmaestro, so I can’t ever see myself selling it,” says Bates, chuckling.

“I’m creating a dynasty. It’s a very small world of Spiegeltent owners – there are only four of us, and the others own a number of tents and hire them out to other people. I think she’s going to want to continue this kind of life. It’s a life of travelling, but also a life of creating a fantastic stage for other people to perform on.”

» The Famous Spiegeltent @ The Arts Centre Forecourt. February 12-April 24

www.theartscentre.com.au/spiegeltent

Mike McLeish is THE POLEMIC

You might not recognise the name, but you’re definitely familiar with his two most prominent roles. After playing the leads in Shane Warne: The Musical and Keating!, Mike McLeish found himself in an unexpected place, creatively and geographically, poles apart from his former success. His show at the Spiegeltent chronicles that journey.

“After Shane Warne ended, there was just no work around. I was servicing a mortgage and keeping my two kids fed. My wife saw an audition for Dracula’s and initially I scoffed at the idea, but nothing else was happening and funds were starting to dwindle,” he says.

“I’d had a really blessed run at the top of the pile in the Australian theatre community, and then finding myself working at a theatre restaurant was a bit of a shock to the system. My show is an exploration of how that affected me and my perception of myself as an artist, and how my ego dealt with it as well.”

McLeish has previously performed at the Spiegeltent, but this will be his first solo show.

“It’s a little intimidating, but the excitement far overrides any fear I’ve got about it.”

Jane Badler is THE DRAMA QUEEN

Whether it’s her stage work or her most recognisable role, that of the reptilian alien Diana from the television series V, Jane Badler’s performances are seasoned with a pinch of glam and a dash of camp. But has she ever wanted to play the good guy?

“No,” she answers, without hesitation. “I actually don’t. I know a lot of actors feel like they’re typecast, but I’m happily typecast.”

Badler will be performing songs from her first two albums in a way she describes as “theatricalised”, incorporating her natural inclination towards cabaret into a performance made for the decadent confines of the Spiegeltent.

“My show is all about sex and desire and giving in to desire, where desire takes us – it’s very sensual. But it’s also funny.”

Her new album, Tears Again, will be launched in June. But for the moment Badler is excited about her Spiegeltent show and its coterie of guest stars.

“I’m going to have the amazing Paul Capsis and Gary Pinto and Paul Grabowsky, and I think it’s going to be a pretty great night.”

Scott Edgar is UNIVERSALLY APPEALING

After a goodly number of interviews, the consensus was that the Spiegeltent’s surrounds suit sexy, sultry sorts of shows. Which means there was only one question to ask Scott Edgar – is the world ready for a sexy, sultry Tripod?

“Definitely,” Edgar says, chuckling. “But I think the world would have to pay a bit more on the door for that. Still, the Spiegeltent has that cabaret sort of cachet to it, you definitely have the room to go to places you might not get to go in normal comedy.”

Fresh from touring their latest show, Tripod Versus the Dragon, the Tripod boys will concentrate on their trademark musical tomfoolery at the Spiegeltent. Edgar also has a separate show with his band, Scott Edgar and the Universe, which isn’t a Scott Pilgrim reference.

“Well, the universe has been going for billions of years, but the Universe has been around for about four. We’re used to playing in skanky pubs in the north end of Melbourne, so to walk into a beautiful place like the Spiegeltent is always a delight,” he says.

“It’s a forum to run out my songs that aren’t comedy songs. Which is not to say it’s all po-faced and maudlin; it’s kind of a swinging sort of pop.”

Katie Noonan is NO STRANGER TO CHANGE

Instead of trying to reconcile the various shards of a songwriting psyche within the confines of a single album, why not pursue a plethora of side projects? That’s certainly the approach taken by Katie Noonan, who has played at The Famous Spiegeltent first with her brother in the band George and now with her backing band, the Captains.

“It’s kind of like coming home. I haven’t done my own music with my own band at the Spiegeltent in a couple of years, so I’m really looking forward to it, and you get to see lots of other good acts before and after you,” she says.

Noonan will be performing songs from her latest album, Emperor’s Box, in what she says is the last national tour – there have been four thus far – dedicated to the project. Some of the songs have evolved during this extended series of performances, and Noonan is keen to share their “new flavours” with the audience.

Next up is a new album with her band Elixir, which she plans to record in April and release in June, but Noonan acknowledges that such plans are constantly evolving.

“My muse has just led me back to that trio, a very intimate, quiet band, inspired by the writing of the Australian poet Tom Shapcott. He’s a Queensland-born writer whose work I deeply admire.”

Paul Capsis is SINGING SONGS OF TRIBUTE

Paul Capsis loves performing in the Spiegeltent, but while he’s happy to describe the venue as sexy, talking about his own show uncovers a modesty incongruous with his flamboyant stage persona. Well, at least for a little while.

“I don’t know if I would describe my show as sexy. I hope it is. Rockin’ and soulful is how I’d prefer to describe it – my body, that is, and my work. Sultry, salty, that might be more accurate,” he says.

Capsis’s show will take audiences on a tour of his musical influences, from Lou Reed to Billie Holiday with some left-field, modern choices to keep things fresh. And what is it about these artists that he identifies with?

“I identify with the sadness, the hope, the despair and the loneliness. I think all the songs I will sing are important to me, otherwise I wouldn’t sing them. Trying to think of the ones that stand out, it’s hard to pick one or two,” he says.

“Janis Joplin’s Move Over is a new favourite for me. I always love to sing Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, and Garbage’s Number One Crush is another; likewise Nina Simone’s Feeling Good.

“I’ll be doing a lot of songs from my latest album, Make Me a King, some oldies and other favourites thrown in.”


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