To make a co-op performance space, mix one part vaudeville, one part burlesque, plenty of elbow grease, and a few sharp knives.
I first met Carmel Clavin in downtown Staunton at the By & By Café on Beverley Street. When I arrived, there was a man playing fiddle for people passing by on the sidewalk. Clavin showed up soon after with her fiery red hair piled on top of her head in a Frida Kahlo braid, complete with the adornment of large golden flowers. It occurred to me then that Clavin truly had her finger on the pulse of this small town, as she knew almost everyone in the coffee shop, from the baristas to the patrons — even the fiddler outside. The artistic oddities that take place between Beverley and Frederick Street seem to be what Clavin likes best about this locale. It’s no wonder that this Cleveland native has spent the last eight years of her life basking in the eccentric charm of Staunton.
To say Clavin is a character would not only be an understatement, but a vast underestimate of her power. She is a woman of many tricks, both literally and figuratively. Clavin is an actress, singer, firebreather, belly dancer, and vaudeville aficionado. And now, she can add venue manager to that list with her newly founded co-op performance space called The Kettle. It could be considered the lovechild of Clavin’s previous venture, the Shenandoah Fringe Festival, and her sideshow troupe, Spectacle & Mirth. Clavin has always been drawn to the sheer variety of vaudeville and burlesque, and the festival served as a vehicle for such performers to showcase their talents. Held this past April, the ShenFringe debut was an overwhelming success featuring dozens of sold-out events at improvised spaces throughout downtown Staunton. Not wanting to lose that momentum, she decided to pursue a more permanent venue where future efforts could be headquartered.
It all started with an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds needed to jumpstart the project. Crowdfunding was a natural choice given the venue’s co-op structure, a model that Clavin has also used when advising other small business ventures in her day job at the Staunton Creative Community Fund. Tucked away above the Staunton Antiques Center, The Kettle shares the second story of the building with the The Artisans Loft gallery. These modest accommodations provide everything that an up-and-coming performance group needs: lighting and sound equipment, a stage with a curtain backdrop, storage space for props, and comfortable seating for about 50 people.
Inspired by the fact that great tea is made by combining different ingredients together into one delicious blend, the venue’s name reflects the notion that this is very much a group effort. In her words, “It’s meant to be a transformative space, like a kettle, because it’s better than what you put into it, which is a delicious and fulfilling brew.” That ethos translates into diversity and representation amongst the performers who take its stage. Clavin explained, “I’m trying to make it more known and obvious that The Kettle and Spectacle & Mirth and ShenFringe are places where it’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake, it’s diversity for the sake of reality.” She added, “It’s about actually representing what we have. I’m still learning what that is and striving for that, as well as for disability and for people of the trans community and of the gay community. It’s meant to be inclusive, everything is meant to be inclusive.”
Above all, Clavin wants The Kettle to feature acts that emphasize raw performance over art. “I think that entertainment is more important than art because entertainment by necessity is about interaction, communication, discussion, and dialogue. Art is about proclamation. I like to interact and I like to have a back and forth.” This symbiotic relationship between performer and patron is what gives The Kettle such an intimate, exciting atmosphere. One might easily imagine Clavin as an old-timey carnival barker, managing the perfect assortment of sideshow acts, lifting up the curtain to beckon you inside. However, her distinctive style is much more methodical and nuanced. “What I like to do is stuff that’s not frivolous,” she explained. “There’s a beauty in frivolity, but I think that the entertainment that calls to me—and that I like to create—is something that has more of a left hook to it. That’s what I strive to have inside of the work that I do instead of just a review, which is a show that is based on a parade of things that are unrelated. It’s just a style choice.”
The Kettle had its grand opening on September 23 with Secrets & Lies, a Spectacle & Mirth review bursting with sideshow acts, many involving sharp knives. Miss Opal dazzled with her romantic sword-swallowing, managing to survive the performance with bubble-gum pink pin curls intact. Perhaps the starkest departure from the typical conventions of burlesque was the strip tease number performed by world-renowned jester Paulo Garbanzo. Channeling the spirit of Flash Gordon, he proceeded to literally throw off articles of clothing in order to save the planet, leaving nothing but a small red thong and pasties. After intermission, Clavin delivered on her promise of group participation as she hosted the party game “Three Truths and a Lie.” Four audience representatives took turns telling the scandalous tales of real-life American spy, Betty Pack. The rest then had to vote, by applause of course, on which secret mission was most likely the lie. Another WWII send-up went to the show’s love ballad between the Soviet Union and the U.S. as personified by Madame Onça and Joy Rayman, set to the tune of “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” sung by Clavin herself with cello accompaniment by Master Eleanor Graham. The night ended not with a whimper, but with a bang, as Clavin took the stage one final time to surrender herself as human dartboard for Garbanzo’s knife-throwing routine.
After this first taste, patrons are eagerly awaiting to see what will be served up next at The Kettle. Clavin herself has big dreams for the small space, including a rooftop garden and solar panels to make it a more self-sustaining entity. What’s sure for now is that this new addition to Staunton’s theater scene is brimming with synergetic potential.
Interview by Natalie Beyer
Issue 44 • October 2016 • Staunton