As the Wales Millennium Centre prepares to launch its dedicated cabaret performance venue, Emma Schofield sat down with the programme’s producer, writer and director Peter Darney, to hear more about what to expect from this new space.
Stepping into the corridor leading to the new cabaret space within the Wales Millennium Centre is like walking into a completely different venue. Blue and purple lowlights guide you towards the bar, which opens out on a relaxed seating space, encircling the new stage which has completely transformed the area once used as a restaurant. It’s two o’clock on a bright January afternoon when I visit, turning into the corridor off the Centre’s foyer area, but it feels disconcertingly like walking into a cabaret club on an evening in Soho. All that’s missing is the audience and, if Peter Darney has anything to do with it, that won’t be for long. Once the space officially opens in mid-February it will host a dazzling variety of drag, burlesque, comedy and gig theatre, bringing together a mix of English and Welsh language work.
“I cannot wait for people to see this”, Darney tells me as we sit down. He’s relaxed, perching cross-legged on a sofa and full of enthusiasm for the venue, clearly proud of what has been created, but there’s no mistaking the effort and dedication that has gone in to making this happen. When I ask about the programme that’s been put together for this launch season, it all gets just a tad more serious. Darney’s belief in the shows he’s commissioning, and his genuine desire to create a space which offers a home to performers from across the world of cabaret, comes through in spades. It’s hardly surprising, he’s already overseen the production of two sell-out adult Christmas cabaret shows in the Wales Millennium Centre, XXXmas Carol in 2021 and The Lion, the B!tch and the Wardrobe in 2022. But as we talk about this opportunity to give cabaret a home within Cardiff, it’s obvious that the potential the space offers means far more to Darney than just sell-out shows. We begin our conversation with a little bit about the backstory of how the cabaret venue came into existence.
Emma Schofield: Do you want to start off by telling me a bit about the new cabaret space and how it came about?
Peter Darney: How did it come about? Well, that’s a good question. So it initially looked quite different; the original vibe was that it was supposed to feel like a Welsh forest. But it was looking a bit dilapidated, I would say that the copper trees had a little bit of a droop to them, which is never good. The green, green grass of home curtains were looking a little bit sort of nicotine stained, and the bamboo chairs were just not comfortable for anyone to sit on. So it was looking a bit sorry for itself. I was on furlough at the time and I came back and they were told me they were completely remodelling the space, which is when I came in. It’s got a really cool, modern comfortable vibe now, which I hope is going to reflect the work we’re looking to bring into the space.
Emma Schofield: So do you see this space as building on the work you’ve been doing here over the past couple of years? I’m thinking that the last few years the Christmas shows you’ve produced have been really well received. Is the cabaret space an opportunity to take that to a new level?
Peter Darney: It’s absolutely building on that in terms of the that style of work. It’s about drawing together eclectic artists from different disciplines, that underpins it, as does the cabaret season that I managed to get on in between the lockdowns. All of that was the research and the practice for this next stage. It was about finding out that there was an audience there, then connecting with that audience, an audience that doesn’t necessarily think that they would see that work at the Wales Millennium Centre. So like, reaching out to them, letting them know that it’s here, and that there’s something that is like, a little bit edgier, a little bit younger, a little bit more diverse, and certainly a little bit naughtier than what you might expect to see here. It’s about letting them know that we’re here and that there’s a platform for that within the Centre. We want to cultivate that and cultivate that scene within Cardiff.
So now that we have this dedicated space that we were always supposed to have. It’s taking all of that, and thinking, how can we build on that? But also, how can we make sure that there’s something for everybody cabaret should be a broad church, there should be something for everybody. You know, so it’s not like there’s never going to be an old school musical theatre night, or a night of light operetta. Not that I’ve programmed either of these things yet, but it’s not that it’s not that they aren’t going to happen. For instance, we’ve got the Judy and Liza show coming up where we’re doing a dementia friendly performance for people living with dementia and their families. That’s work that I’m keen on building on as well. It’s not just about the younger audience, it’s also about cultivating an older audience, but maybe offering them something that is harder to offer them in those big main spaces.
Emma Schofield: I guess it’s a scene that Cardiff has, but it’s not really had a home before. So, in a way, it’s almost like you’re giving that a home and saying, “yes, it’s here and it’s open to everyone who wants to come to this space and find it”. Is that kind of fair?
Peter Darney: Yeah, I think that’s fair. It sort of is work that happens on an ad-hoc basis through the city, but we don’t have a venue this size anywhere else in Cardiff. We have theatre spaces that are a little smaller and some of those you can take a drink into, but we don’t have that kind of relaxed cabaret, where you can order a drink, laugh and have an amazing night. I’m not knocking anything that already exists, but what we’re looking to do here is make something that brings everything together and focuses on the art. Although the prosecco’s good too!
In many ways, it’s a less formal approach to theatre. We’ll have an app for ordering drink and you’ll have your own chair and a table for your drink. There’s just something about that vibe that’s different to the formality of being in a row of seats.
Emma Schofield: I suppose it’s about being able to relate to the people that you’ve come up with to share the experience as well.
Peter Darney: Yes. It’s about just being able to catch their eye and just, like, share that laugh or that knowing look, or that look of scandal and to watch them responding and enjoying it as well. You can’t do that sat in a line.
Emma Schofield: It’s more interactive. You mentioned the dementia friendly show; I think there are two of those coming up. I’ll be honest, when I heard you were opening the cabaret space that isn’t the first thing I expected to see on the schedule, but actually, why not? Because it fits with this idea of making it accessible and open to everyone.
Peter Darney: Yeah, so the two shows that we’ve chosen, one of them very much deals with dementia. They’re both shows that take in musical icons; music is such a great trigger of memory and you can enjoy it without the need to understand everything. You can just enjoy the experience and the sensory element to it. In this environment, there’s more space around you and if you need to leave, and then you want to come back in again, it’s easier to do that than it is in a main house theatre.
We’ve been able to create a calmer space and I just think it’s when we think about diversity, it’s really important that we think about diversity of age. My grandmother had dementia and it was very hard to take her anywhere. I think the idea that we can create a safe space where everyone understands, and everyone’s going to accept, and no one’s gonna have a problem with it. This is an opportunity for everyone involved to get an afternoon out and that was part of the feedback we had from the first dementia friendly performance we did actually, the carers said they used to love going to the theatre, but hadn’t been since the diagnosis. They found it really amazing to be able to sit and do something they used to love to do together again, and know that they were safe.
Emma Schofield: It comes back to that idea of connections as well, doesn’t it? I was thinking about it because you’ve got a really eclectic programme planned for this year. How did you approach that in terms of thinking about the balance of new and emerging writers and performers?
Peter Darney: There’s a lot more to come! Part of it is about feeling the vibe and dynamic of the season, but if it wasn’t something that happened organically, then I would give myself targets to make sure it did. My hope is that those audiences will also cross-pollinate. So, you know, somebody that maybe takes a chance on the Judy and Liza show might go, actually, do you know what, I could go and see Grandmother’s Closet. I’d be interested in that, to see how someone who comes to Comedy Translates goes, “I’d love to see a Welsh speaking bilingual drag trio”, and then they will come to see Cŵm Rag. The idea is that you build the programme with the audience and once you get them in you, you get them hooked. But people want different things, so it needs to be a menu of broad spices.
Emma Schofield: I guess it’s something that’s going to evolve, so the next programme could look quite different from this one.
Peter Darney: Exactly, it’s about what work, what’s available and what we’re able to cultivate as well as a national performing arts centre. We need to think how can we offer opportunities to cabaret artists and how we can cultivate a local scene to support and enrich that and avoid a talent drain to London. It’s about creating opportunities.
Emma Schofield: That’s a big problem, isn’t it? Within Welsh theatre, we’re increasingly seeing that talent drain and it’s an ongoing problem for smaller theatres, as well as the larger ones, when things move to London, or somewhere where people feel they can get recognised.
Peter Darney: I mean, in London, there are a few places that I can think of that are very much dedicated cabaret venues where you would go to see a cabaret show. In Cardiff, until now, we haven’t had that. I mean, I lived in London for years and it was great, I had a really fabulous time. And lots of cabaret artists, local cabaret artists, might well move to London and do that and have a great time. But it’s also about saying, if you want to pop home for a weekend and do a gig in in your country, we’ve got a platform for you to do that here as well. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice between London and Wales.
Emma Schofield: Movement as a positive then. You’re going to raise eyebrows with some of this programme, but I can sense that you already know that. I’m thinking in part of shows such as Blood, Glorious Blood! which you’ve programmed for March.
Peter Darney: Oh, I haven’t even started! It’s interesting that you’ve selected that one, I didn’t think you’d pick that show as an eyebrow raiser.
Emma Schofield: Well, it shouldn’t be, but I think it’s just because it’s not happening. I mean, when did you last go and see a show, in Wales, which was entirely dedicated to the topic of periods and menstrual bleeding?
Peter Darney: I saw one in a cabaret at Edinburgh, but no, you’re absolutely right. It’s not an easy topic, but as, as a cis man going into that show, it was an eye opener. After my initial “ooh”, I just found it really interesting and I educated myself and actually, I think every man in Cardiff should buy a ticket to that show, and come and educate himself about women’s lived experience, about period shame. None of these things are okay, in 2023, we have to educate ourselves, we have to do better. So I think that show is gonna be a great space for women who want to reflect on those issues and a chance to facilitate that discussion, and hopefully normalise the taboo.
It shouldn’t be a taboo, it’s a natural bodily function, and yet that’s the misogyny of society; it’s been used as a tool to shame women. So you know, I’m really proud to bring things like that into the Centre and to try and facilitate a conversation. We’re also hoping to start a group for women living with menopause or perimenopause to connect and form community and just share their lived experience through artistic workshops. That’s something that we’ve got in the pipeline for later in the year, but it was sort of triggered by someone I had a meeting with who said she was perimenopausal and her head was all over the place but she didn’t know who to talk to about it. Then we were like, let’s make a group, let’s do workshops! Everyone can connect and share similar lived experiences. It’s part of making the cabaret programme accessible.
Emma Schofield: I think that’s so important and we absolutely do need to be having those conversations. It’s the same with the menopause, it sometimes still feels as if it’s shrouded in mystery. Talking about accessibility, you’re doing discounted tickets for under 30s, that interested me as a lot of ticket offers often cut off at 21 or 25…
Peter Darney: Exactly and we sort of thought under 30 would give as many people as possible that extra help to come and see shows. I feel like that’s a bracket that does get overlooked a bit, because up until around 25 people are often doing something – they’re studying or they’re travelling, and then there’s that awful tough bit between 25 and 30, where a lot of people are trying to find their feet and suddenly you also can’t get cheap tickets to go and enjoy a show.
Emma Schofield: The other thing I was going to ask you about, in terms of where this programme goes next, is the Welsh side of it. You’ve got a mixture of Welsh Language and English language shows coming up; how’s that balance going to play out?
Peter Darney: Yes, so although I’m not a Welsh speaker. The Welsh language is really important to me. I would hope that there will always be Welsh language work in our seasons, as it’s really important, as is bilingual work. Comedy Translates is coming up and I’m really excited about that. Everyone has their headphones and the whole idea is that the comedians and the translators try and stitch each other up, and that’s where the jokes come from. It’s about the playfulness and humour that comes from messing each other’s parts up through the translation. It can be a celebration of both our languages and that’s really very exciting.
Emma Schofield: In terms of you and your work, then, what’s next for you? I mean, you had quite a busy year last year. Your film, G Flat, starring Richard Wilson and Aled Ap Steffan, was shown at the Iris Festival last autumn…
Peter Darney: Yeah, that was an amazing moment seeing the film there. It was a pretty busy year and this one is shaping up to be the same too. There are some pretty cool things coming up that I can’t talk about quite yet, but watch this space!
The Wales Millennium Centre launches its new cabaret space this month, with a dedicated programme of shows. Details, and tickets, are available here.