It was only going to be a one-time show,” says Jake Ward, founder, co-producer and master of ceremonies for the North Bay Cabaret. “Like many people, I never planned on being here.”
For Ward, “here” is the five-year anniversary of the North Bay Cabaret, which is celebrating half a decade of entertaining Sonoma County audiences by putting on a blowout variety show spectacular on Friday, June 28, at the Cabaret’s longtime home, the Whiskey Tip in Santa Rosa.
Five years ago, Ward was booking punk concerts at venues like the Arlene Francis Center, until he had an epiphany while attending a performance in Oakland.
“I’ve always been explicit that North Bay Cabaret was entirely inspired by another show, Tourettes Without Regrets,” says Ward. “Once I saw my first variety show, I knew this was all I wanted to do.”
The variety show format that Ward fell in love with can include anything and everything within the live-show setting; burlesque dancing, belly dancing, standup comedy, circus sideshows, aerial acrobatics, spoken word, SLAM poetry, and live music.
“When I met Jake, he was blown away by how we were combining these different types of acts,” says Tourettes Without Regrets founder Jamie DeWolf. “How we blurred the boundaries, making no real distinction between high-brow and low-brow.”
Ward pieced together that first North Bay Cabaret lineup with people he knew, including DeWolf, musician Josh Windmiller and a goth comedian named Oliver Graves.
“The things that are inspiring to me about the variety show format are the diversity of art, the diversity of voices,” says Ward. “One moment you’re watching a dancer, the next there’s a hard-hitting poem, the next there’s a comedian. You go on this emotional roller coaster throughout the night.”
After that first successful show, DeWolf took Ward aside and gave him an order; make the North Bay Cabaret a monthly show.
“He told me, ‘If this is ever going to become a scene and develop within the community, you need to do it consistently,” says Ward.
For the first year, it was a month-by-month thing, with ticket sales often covering most, but not all of the costs of paying the performers and crew. Many months, Ward dipped into his own pocket to make the event happen.
Obviously, Ward could not do it alone, and the North Bay Cabaret has become a labor of love for many people, including co-producer and technician Susy Dugan, who’s worked with Ward on events going back to 2012.
“He’s always had really unique and interesting taste,” says Dugan of Ward. “Whatever he was doing I wanted to support it.”
Over the years, Dugan and Ward have grown to advise and counsel each other in various projects, sharing concepts and developing new ideas. Other locals who’ve helped the North Bay Cabaret along the years include Tina Adair, Bella Dukessa, Amber Kernohan, Dusty Oertel, Mouse, Shelley Smith, Calamity, Wilder, Sonya Warry, Afina Flint, Dante Carlozzi, Barrie Sterling, Tyler McCourtney, Justin Walters and Alex Shapiro.
Eventually, community interest sustained the show, and for three years, the North Bay Cabaret kept up as a monthly event that adopted a new theme each time and took risks with artists creating acts specifically for that show.
“We started down the road of pun-based themes,” says Ward. “For me, the name came first, then the theme that that implied.”
Themes included “Furbruary” with animal-inspired acts, and “Shocktober” which aimed to include shock value in the performances.
With artists embracing the challenge of creating an act to fit each theme, North Bay Cabaret became a catalyst for new art in the area.
”It starts to feel like this is not only an entertaining spectacle of different stuff, you’re getting these pockets of your local culture that you may not interact with day-to-day,” says Ward. “It becomes a community-builder.”
“Jake has made a place that encourages people to express themselves, and let their true selves out,” says Dugan. “It’s very supportive of the performers, it’s a safe environment and everyone looks out for each other. It allows people to feel a sense of belonging who would otherwise be on the outskirts of social norms and find people like them who aren’t afraid of being a little strange.”
That sentiment is echoed by several of the performers involved in the North Bay Cabaret, like longtime bellydancer Pauline Persichilli.
“What I love about it, is that it’s a platform of free space,” says Persichilli. “There’s not really any rules, no judgment, just time to express yourself. And there’s been some crazy acts.”
From turkey-stuffing dance routines for a Thanksgiving show, to Jabba the Hutt stripteases for a Stars Wars-themed cabaret, the stage at the Whisky Tip has seen some of the North Bay’s wildest side.
“It’s fun to do a diverse show like this, that’s very inclusive of all different types of people,” says Whisky Tip owner Joshua Porter. “North Bay Cabaret crowds are our best crowds.”
In October of 2017, the North Bay wildfires changed everything. Not only did the cabaret briefly suspend operations, mainly due to the fact that performances take place in the outdoor area of the Whiskey Tip, they took the time to re-examine the monthly format and ultimately decided to experiment with crafting fewer, but bigger shows each year. In addition, North Bay Cabaret has started exploring new venues and performance options, recently taking the stage at the Santa Rosa OutThere Exposition in April.
“That was cool for us, to have the hometown saying, ‘you’re part of what’s going on and we’ll put you on stage,’” says Ward. The North Bay Cabaret also recently collaborated with Lagunitas Brewing Company to supply the talent for the breweries’ first Pride event in June. This week’s anniversary show promises to be one of the Cabaret’s biggest showcases ever.
“I think the beautiful thing about creating variety shows is that you have different artists and performers in the same room who don’t run into each other in their artistic tracks,” says DeWolf. “When they combine, new partnerships happen, people start creating new acts, and what you’re going to see at the five-year anniversary show is all those talents converging. The lineup is insane.”
Performers at the upcoming show include San Francisco songwriter Rachel Lark, who sings about controversial subjects with the voice of an angel, Oakland burlesque performer Jet Noir, Sonoma County improv troupe the Natural Disasters-formerly known as the Gentlemen Bastards, sideshow acts from Afina Flint and standup from Graves, who’s dark one-liner brand of comedy landed him on television competition series “America’s Got Talent” last year and has made him a viral sensation across the internet.
“When I booked him (five years ago), I thought he was unique and weird and somewhat unsettling, and I thought that was fantastic,” says Ward of Graves, whose tenure in the local scene largely began with North Bay Cabaret.
“This show has the experience, the punch of being in the moment with everyone watching it live,” says Graves. “The audiences are the ones that have made this event. It wouldn’t have gone on for five years if was struggling, the audience that keeps coming to these things keeps it going. That’s who I do it for.”
For the anniversary show, Graves is giving the audience something new, taking his disjointed one-line jokes and incorporating it into a full story, “but it’s going to be the way I would do it,” he adds.
“I think that reaching five years is a testament to there being a desire in the community for something to go see,” says Ward. “When we put on a show, we’re not in competition with other events in the area; we’re in competition with Netflix. The North Bay Cabaret is advocating for live entertainment and the audiences that come out are the impetus to make live entertainment sustainable.”
The North Bay Cabaret 5-Year Anniversary Show happens on Friday, June 28, at Whiskey Tip, 1910 Sebastopol Rd, Santa Rosa. 7pm. $20. 707.843.5535.