Cabaret’s roots date back to the 1880s when bohemian poets, artists and composers would gather in French saloons to share creative ideas. It developed into a style of alcohol-infused risqué musical performance, notoriously characterised by improvisation, audience interactivity and small, intimate venues. In 2016 performers Tara Dowler and Louise Mapleston infuse cabaret, musical comedy and clowning in their two-woman act ‘Pink Flappy Bits’ that debuted at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) to sold out audiences throughout the season.
How did ‘Pink Flappy Bits’ come to be?
Tara: Lou and I met in a MUST cabaret show in 2014 and bonded over our love of music and theatre. We have diverse performance backgrounds that seemed to complement each other and we had both decided that we wanted to perform in the MICF. We sat down and asked ourselves how we could use each of our entertaining skills to create a piece that would be funny and entertaining, which is how we came to what ‘Pink Flappy Bits’ is at the moment: a musical-comedy feminist cabaret. At first we didn’t intend to carry on after the comedy festival but we had such an amazing response that encouraged us to see what else we would explore together.
Cabaret is a particularly intimate genre of theatre, you’re in a small space and there’s not much dividing you and the audience. Did you find audiences at the MICF receptive or was it difficult to get break the ice and get people feeling comfortable?
Lou: Our subject matter can be challenging to some people, but the feedback we got from a lot of audience members was that they found the show to be a very “approachable form of feminism”. My family actually didn’t want to see the show at first because they felt uncomfortable with the subject matter, and when my Mum eventually decided she wanted to see it she couldn’t get a ticket because there was so much interest!
Tara: We try to create a safe and comfortable environment for people because of the nature of our show. We do present some soft-political ideas but I think it’s done in a fun and accessible way. It was interesting, though, to see some people’s reactions to certain euphemisms and the way we talk about our bodies. I think it’s demonstrative of how even in our ‘free and easy Aussie society’ there are still a lot of hang-ups about bodies and sexuality. It was amusing for us at times to see how people responded to these terms that we thought were pretty innocuous.
Did you find it personally challenging to present these topics in such an intimate space?
Lou: It wasn’t too much of an issue for me because I’d say that I’ve always been an activist. I’m studying social work and part of that is having a core belief in social justice and basically putting challenging ideas into social arenas.
Tara: We had some very talented and experienced cabaret performers come to see our show which was a little bit challenging for me at first, particularly as we’re not strictly a cabaret show – I would probably classify us as more musical comedy. It is quite a unique challenge to be on stage every night not knowing how the audience is going to react, particularly during the audience-interactive moments. However, I feel like Lou and I have cultivated a sense of safety between us and Lou has had quite a lot of experience in improvisation so I feel pretty secure on stage with her.
‘Pink Flappy Bits’ is an interesting title because often when we talk about genitals we like to use language that is as non-descriptive as possible, almost as if we can pretend we’re not talking about our actual physical body parts. What is the story behind the title?
Tara: I came up with the title because I think our culture has a problem with infantilizing body parts, especially when we talk about reproductive organs or “rude areas” I think this can interfere with our development and the way we relate to our bodies…but I also thought it would be a funny joke to wear pink legionnaire hats and have a title that’s a euphemism for the vulva.
What are your other favourite terms for your genitals?
Lou: “Ham Wallet”
Tara: Oh yeah, definitely “Ham Wallet”
Your show has been described as a “feminist, musical-comedy cabaret with all the excitement of a year 8 sex-ed class”. If you could go back to your sex-ed class and impart some wisdom on your 14-year- old self, what would you say?
Lou: I would emphasise that it’s okay to say ‘no’. The anatomical part of sex-ed is obviously important, but I wish there would be more emphasis on consent and knowing that people will still want to be with you if you say ‘no, I don’t feel like this right now’.
Tara: I would impart that whatever is going on with your body is okay and has probably happened to someone else. You don’t need to carry shame about your body and whatever you experience within it.
Female nudity in art is a hot topic for feminism at the moment because it seems that some critics find it contradictory when feminist voices like Lena Dunham in ‘Girls’ and Caitlin Stasey say they don’t want to be objectified or defined by their physical appearance, but at the same time really put an emphasis on the naked female body in their art. Tell us about your decision to wear vulvas on your chests every night and what you think about the naked body in feminist art?
Tara: I think it comes down to not trying to speak for other women. If someone feels empowered by publishing images of their body and saying this is me owning my sexuality or expressing my artistic and creative self, I would be very reluctant to tell them that that is an improper way to express their feminism. I don’t think Lou and I are trail-blazers by any means but I think that continuing to demystify bodies, in our own little way, is really important.
Lou: Tara and I are both very conscious of our privilege in the sense that we’re both white women, neither of us are obese and there’s nothing about our bodies that would be considered particularly abnormal or grotesque. However, we do still challenge perceptions of beauty on a micro-level by showing two very different bodies that have achieved lots of things and are very intelligent – but are not athletic bodies or the size 6 type of bodies we usually see unclothed in art.
You have a song called “White Feminism”, can you tell me what that song is about and how you view your role as white women in the feminist movement?
Lou: Our show is so white feminism. It’s an entry point for people who may not have thought about these topics too deeply in the past and we create a very accessible, non-threatening place to start. We are aware that as two white women, with bodies that are pretty stock standard, we are able to be on stage and present these ideas without receiving as much flack as a person of colour likely would. A lot of people will ask us even before they’ve seen the show if we are trans-friendly or queer-friendly, so we have this song which is very much a tongue-in- cheek way of acknowledging that we are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered women sharing our experiences and we can’t (and won’t try to) speak for anyone else.
Tara: We use the term ‘white feminism’ a lot, which we know has a lot of negative connotations. We’re not trying to show pride in that label but rather to situate ourselves in the discourse of our art form and be upfront about the fact that we are only speaking from own experiences and a place of some privilege. I think it’s important in comedy to be able to say that you are speaking only for yourself and that you are open to whatever criticism may follow that.
Do you think comedy is still a male dominated scene?
Lou: I absolutely think it’s a male dominated scene. However, I think that there’s a difference between the stand-up world and the cabaret world. The stand-up world is 100% male dominated but in our work in cabaret we’ve come across a lot of great, successful women – particularly in the online comedy spaces and communities we choose surround ourselves with.
Are there any women in comedy that you particularly look up to?
Tara: Absolutely! We both really look up to Jude Perl.
Lou: Yeaaaaah! Jude Perl!
Tara: And Laura Davis, another fantastic and intelligent voice we saw at the comedy festival this year…
Lou: And Tessa Waters, a Melbourne based clown. And Liz Skitch!
See ‘Pink Flappy Bits’ Live:
Pink Flappy Bits Fringe Show
Dates: 27th, 28th and 29th of September, 1st and 2nd of October,
Venue: The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Find Tara and Lou online at ‘Pink Flappy Bits’ on Facebook or
@Pinkflappybits on Twitter.