Looking for a Stage? Try the Public Theater

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Photo Source: Tammy Shell

As associate director of Joe’s Pub, Alex Knowlton helps bring some of New York City’s foremost or up-and-coming cabaret artists to the 190-seat space. Knowlton oversees the Pub’s annual budget with relation to the operations of the Public Theater, which supports cabaret performers with commissions and artists-in-residence programs. He spends much of his day reviewing scripts and video submissions, and gauging their potential as part of the historic Pub’s particular energy.

How does Joe’s Pub help cabaret artists develop their work?
The Pub and the Public in general kind of ride that knife’s edge of developed and developing work in a tricky but important way. The commission program is something we’re specifically proud of. We’re developing a pipeline for musicians to be able to create new content. They can then, instead of touring one-nights, actually set up shop in a new town and have a show that can be presented under their theater model—not necessarily a music or cabaret model, which come in, hit it, and move on.

What’s an example of a success story?
Bridget Everett is one of the most clear start-to-finish, best-case scenarios. She was here as part of a variety show starting seven years ago; she had her own show with her band, the Tender Moments. She built her headlining presence and then they commissioned her to do “Rock Bottom,” which then played in the Pub as part of our commissioning program. Then the Public Theater caught notice as part of the downtown season, and then presented it back in Joe’s Pub with the organizational support of the theater. This is how the Pub is a funnel into the theater’s programming; we take someone who is talented and creative, and match them up with dream collaborators to create something bigger than they had done before.

What makes a great cabaret act?
We kind of scratch our heads sometimes internally over that same question. It’s so easy to say somebody has that “thing” that connects with people. You have to be so quick onstage, and there’s so much work that goes into being tight with your musicians and tight with your script, what your story is, and who you are onstage. And it’s so hard to bend that when you feel the room bending in a certain direction.

What about performers submitting to the Pub?
If you don’t hear back it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just didn’t feel perfect for whatever reason. I encourage people to not get too bogged down if they don’t hear back. I know it sometimes feels like it goes through a black hole without that personal touch.

What sort of business advice do you give aspiring cabaret performers?
Your peers can be your best bullhorn. The more professional, knowledgeable, creative, and thoughtful people you have in your corner—whether they’re your gung-ho champion yelling from the rooftops or if it’s just a simple, “That show is pretty cool, you should check it out”—[the more] meaningful.

How often is there something going on at the Pub?
We’re open 363 days a year, as often as we can be. It’s what we do; we fill the calendar. We don’t let it go dark because there’s guaranteed somebody ready to use the stage.

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