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Philadelphia’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret is on a mission: to attract new audiences to performance art — and to Broad Street. In creating a series of original and immersive late-night cabarets at the Wilma Theater, the Bearded Ladies hope to use the spectacle, intimacy and informality inherent to the art form to tackle questions of politics, gender, sexuality and identity. For this great idea, the group won $30,000 in the second year of the Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia; their funding will support a full season of original cabarets in 2013.

Members of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a 2012 Knight Arts Challenge winner, perform “No Regrets: A Piaf Affair.” Photo by Kate Raines

We talked with Bearded Ladies artistic director John Jarboe about his group’s winning idea — and his plans to establish cabaret as a more meaningful, relevant form of performance.

Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia: What made you want to apply for this grant?
John Jarboe: As a fairly young organization without 501c3 status, it was really challenging finding grant opportunities that would help our company take the next step in our development. The Knight Arts Challenge is one of the only grant programs that focuses primarily on the art and the ideas in question. That was really exciting to us, and we feel extremely fortunate to have been awarded a grant.

KACP: Your Knight funding will support a full season of original cabarets in 2013. What can audiences expect when they come to a show?
JJ: Audiences can expect lots of cardboard, an open (yes, that means free) bar with a themed drink, old tunes that sound like new tunes, new tunes that sound like old ones, questions, lots of gender-bending, and to be an integral part of the experience and the show.
KACP: How are you approaching your year of raising funds to match Knight’s grants?
JJ: We are really lucky to have had a bunch of supporters (166 to be exact) help us raise more than half of our match through Kickstarter and private donations. We also received a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund for operational support. Right now we have about $10,000 left to raise, so we are contacting foundations and applying for grants.

KACP: Cabaret tows the line between dance, theater, music and comedy, sometimes making it difficult to categorize. What role can Bearded Ladies play in establishing cabaret as a separate arts genre?
JJ: I think the power and joy of cabaret is in its ability to draw from all the genres of performance.  What makes cabaret particular is the direct audience/performer relationship. Bearded Ladies are actually attempting to expand and explore the form of cabaret through the sensibilities of traditional and devised theater. We want to establish that cabaret, in all its informality, humor and pleasure, can be as serious and meaningful and relevant as the other forms of performance.

KACP: What’s your advice to those thinking about applying to year three of the challenge?
JJ: Be bold. Think big, especially in the application. The how can come later.

Applications for year three of the Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia are now being accepted through Oct. 15. Give us your best idea and make this your year!

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