For Sophie Walsh-Harrington, who joined our team at the start of 2015, Orb’s Thursday lunchtime cabaret classes represent a natural next step. After completing her Masters degree in theatre, performance and writing, Sophie began to develop her skills as a cabaret artist in Melbourne, Australia. “I got in with the cabaret crowd”, she recalls, “and it seemed like the perfect way to express myself, as a girl with lots of drama that has happened to her. I wanted to find a way to put that into a story, in a funny way – and as I’m a trained singer, I wanted to add music.”
Sophie’s one-woman show, Damsel in Shining Armour, was based around her “desire to be anything but normal and boring: travelling around the world, getting into bad relationships, and finding melodrama wherever I went.” The show went on tour around the UK, and was performed at the Edinburgh and Adelaide fringe festivals.
Last year, Sophie decided to shift her professional focus, and began to study psychology. “One of my great passions is the human mind and human behaviour”, she explains. “I’m interested in people and their stories, and finding out what makes them tick. Orb marries both my worlds: mental health and art. And cabaret is a brilliant genre for people to tell their personal stories, to express everything about themselves, and to be who they want to be.”
For some people, the term “cabaret” might conjure up visions of a smarmy crooner in a toupee and dickie-bow, covering corny ballads in a 1970s variety club. This isn’t the case for Sophie, who sees her work as part of a tradition with roots in political resistance. “In the early Twentieth Century, when war was starting in Berlin and Paris, it was a way for people to get together and take the piss out of the establishment, and to laugh in the midst of something horrible, without being controlled or censored. That was the spirit of cabaret, and it still is. It’s for people who have had dramatic episodes in their lives, and for people who don’t fit into the mainstream. It’s really about celebrating difference.”
With that tradition in mind, Sophie’s mission at Orb is to encourage people to come together and share their stories, and to find ways to weave these stories together into an engaging group performance, hopefully to be performed during this summer’s Feva festival. Music and comedy play major roles, as participants are given the chance to find their voices in surprising and stimulating new ways. “It’s about sharing your story, however you want to tell it. You might want to exaggerate it, you might want to fictionalise it, but there’s always some element of yourself in it, and you’ll only do what you’re comfortable with. It’s not therapy – it’s just very therapeutic.”
So far, the group have talked about what cabaret is, and what it means to different people. They have looked at different examples of cabaret, and they have started to identify some overall themes to explore further. As the year progresses, the sessions will become more structured, as suitable songs are agreed upon, and the writing process begins. “I’m not going to give you lessons”, Sophie maintains. “I’m just going to facilitate what is going to come out of you. So far, the ideas have been really amazing. Even if people think they’re not creative – they are! And even if they think they’ve got nothing to say – they do!”
Cabaret sessions take place every Thursday afternoon at Orb, between 12 and 2pm.