Interview! Cabaret Performer, Monologist, and Storyteller Katherine Rose Turbes!

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“I strive to be ‘excruciatingly authentic’ as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances.”
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Monologue ideas: Who needs paper when you can use your thigh? (photos courtesy of @katharsis_ravyn_turbes)

If you live in New York City and have not yet heard the name Katherine Rose Turbes, you will. I first met Katherine (preferred pronoun “they”) at a Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders show. Katherine wore pink hair, a black lace dress, and radiated joy. I just had to get to know them. We chatted about how important it is for artists to support one another and their love of cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. As I suspected they would be, Katherine’s answers to my super-specific interview questions were utterly entertaining and inspired. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to… Katherine Rose Turbes!

I personally see you as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional artist, but how do you see yourself? Do you identify as a singer, writer, performance artist, or all three? What came first? Are there any other facets of your artist personality that remain hidden or the general public has yet to see?

I see myself as a performer first and foremost, specifically a cabaret performer. I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always been a performer, but the choice to combine the two happened relatively recently, and I believe I’m far better at both skills when I put them together. As for singing, I’m not a conventionally good singer, but I like my voice and use it more as an acting tool than as something intended to sound pretty. Cabarets are often defined by the inclusion of music and I haven’t gotten to a point where there’s as much music incorporated into pieces I’ve premiered as there will be in future pieces, but that’s coming. I’m working on learning to play ukulele, though learning an instrument is a long and arduous process for me, but I aspire towards including ukulele in my future performances.

For someone reading who has never seen one of your performances, how would you describe them?

There’s this lyric by the band AJJ that goes “I hate whiny fucking songs like this but I can’t afford a therapist- sorry guys, here’s a solo!” and I feel like that really describes my work! Although, unlike the speaker of that song, I love when artists use their work to speak openly about their struggles. There’s this notion of “eloquence” described by the Dalai Lama, but taught to me by Kate Bornstein, that the essence of eloquence is “speaking a truth in a way that eases suffering” and that’s always my intention with my work. As such, I strive to be “excruciatingly authentic” as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances, especially since I know that kind of art helps me!

In one of your Instagram posts right after your Bluestockings performance, you proudly called yourself “one of the hottest hot messes [you’ve] ever been.” I loved that so much. It was a great reminder that perfectionism is NOT the goal here. When you’re writing, or memorizing a monologue, or doing the hundreds of other things necessary to prepare from an upcoming show, what are the different ways you try to stay out of your own head, avoid that self-sabotage impulse many artists have? How do you not only create physical and mental space for yourself but get to a place of (what I’m now calling) full-on, prideful bad-assery?

Oh goodness, okay, well the reason I made that post was because that level of, as you say, “full-on, prideful bad-assery” was a first for me and a long time in the making! One of my many less-than-stellar attributes is that my default is holding myself to nearly impossibly high standards, but luckily I know what helped me in that moment so hopefully I (and perhaps others) can replicate it. Firstly, I vehemently believe in and adhere to the theatre truth of “The Show Must Go On”! I was far from at the top of my game that night and debated not performing since I felt so unprepared, yet I decided that I’d rather risk sucking than not do it. Secondly, although, “comparison is violence” as Taylor Mac says, it helps me to remember how phenomenally imperfect my idols are. They take risks and give themselves permission to make mistakes on stage, and often work their mistakes into their pieces resulting in something far more captivating than if everything had gone precisely as planned. It has specifically helped me to remember a speech Mx.Justin Vivian Bond gave called “How To Take A Flying Leap,” in which they talk about how you mustn’t judge yourself too harshly or think about what you’re doing in the moment. You do what you know you have to do, commit to the moment, and focus on conveying your story to the audience. Remembering that people I admire are capable of that, and that their mistakes endear me even more to them, helps me to be more okay with my own inevitable imperfection.

When I saw you perform your piece back at the “Am I Write Ladies?” event in March, you were a beautiful, fearless lion. You were a force. When you were on that stage at The Footlight were you feeling that sense of fearlessness? If so, how do you tap into it before a performance? If not, how do you push through the fear? People are always telling artists that in order to grow, we need to do things that seem scary, and say yes before we’re ready. Do you believe that’s true?

Oh my goodness, I was shaking like a leaf! I wasn’t afraid in a stage-fright sort of way, but I was incredibly emotional and the stakes were extremely high! I knew that I’d devoutly rehearsed the piece and held myself accountable in making sure I was prepared, so I knew I had it in me to make myself proud and I knew what I was saying was important. For me, that’s enough! I absolutely believe one must take risks in their work, and, although it’s far easier said than done, I think one must be forgiving of one’s self if/when things don’t go as planned.

Whom or what currently influences or inspires you and how have you, directly or indirectly, incorporated those influences into your work?

Of all the questions you’ve asked, this is honestly the most intimidating, since there are so many people who inspire me! Here are my Top 5 influences at the moment (in no particular order):

  • Justin Vivian Bond! I admire Mx.Viv profoundly and have seen them perform more than anyone else, so it’s difficult to succinctly quantify their influence. They’re a force of nature and, as some have put it, “a cabaret messiah” so seeing them perform inevitably made me fall head-over-heels in love with the artform of cabaret. Being perpetually astonished by their shows made me realize the breadth of possibilities of what can be done with the cabaret format, and that this is something available to me to work with!
  • Kenny Mellman! Kenny is such an inspiration to me and, thus far, I think his influence is the easiest to spot within the work I’ve premiered. I reference it in the text of the piece itself, but “XO Tour Llif3 (à la “KRT”),” a piece I wrote and premiered last September, was directly inspired by his long-running show called Our Hit Parade. Like Our Hit Parade, my piece completely reinterprets / recontextualizes a pop song, and like Kenny’s version of “Dog Days Are Over” it pays tribute to the dead, by speaking their names so any audience who hears it can know and remember!
  • (It’s also worth noting that one of my biggest influences is the cabaret act/duo Kiki and Herb made up of Mx.Viv and Kenny, thus not only am I inspired by them as artists individually, but their collaboration is equally a source of inspiration!
  • Kate Bornstein! Auntie Kate’s book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens Freaks and Other Outlaws is my absolute favorite book. As someone who struggles with their own mental illness and has had multiple friends kill themselves, Kate’s work is vital. Her mental health advocacy (and work in general) rejects respectability politics and instead provides authentic accounts of her experiences, thus making her advice empathetic, accessible and genuinely helpful. It probably sounds idealistic to say that I hope my work saves lives, but I know Kate Bornstein’s work does, so if I could somehow make something even a smidgeon as helpful as Hello Cruel World, I’d be extremely grateful!
  • Nath Ann Carrera! I’ve always admired Nath Ann’s encyclopedic knowledge of the people they admire and how they work their interests into their performances. Their most recent show that especially inspires me is their cabaret “The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton” in which they explore Dolly’s darker songs. What really resonates with me is the exploration of humor and morbidity, and how certain songs that seem over the top and campy were based on true tragedies in Dolly’s life. Although presenting these songs with deadpan humor, Nath Ann respects Dolly’s absurd sincerity and empathetically explains the contexts and real life parallels. Being able to embrace dark humor while respectfully portraying the stories of real people is something I truly admire and aspire to do in my work!
  • Taylor Mac! Taylor Mac creates in a grandiose scale, yet judy’s work is always
    personal. Mac is ostensibly guided by making sure that history (and by extension, the lives of people they lost) is remembered. Judy has spent multiple shows eulogizing their mentor Mother Flawless Sabrina, as well as other queer historical figures. Two pieces of judy’s that impact me the most are the riff on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” from The Young Ladies Of in which Mac tells the story of judy’s family and dead father. After reflecting on what seemed like an inherited curse of toxic masculinity, Mac leads the audience in singing the chorus of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. As Mac quietly looks out on the audience singing “What’s the use of wondering?” Mac says to judy’s father: “Dear Robert, this is my last letter to you. A singing telegram.” The video of it was removed from Vimeo a year ago but even thinking about it gives me chills. The other most impactful piece Taylor Mac performs is a ukulele song entitled “You can lie down or get up and play”. Both pieces feel cosmic in their ability to call to those who have gone. I had a dream once that described Taylor Mac as a “death witch”- I think that suits judy. I want to be a death witch too!

As for what inspires me, that’s simple: my lived experiences. My pieces are based on real events, albeit oftentimes stylized, and every story I tell about my life and my loved ones actually happened.

What is one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

To me it’s surprising that there are environments in which I’m seen as mysterious, for instance at my day job. I’m a compulsive oversharer—I can’t lie, and I aspire towards openness, particularly in my work as a performer. Yet, at my day job, people are often shocked to hear that I’m a performer, since they think me subdued, quiet, and reserved, which anyone who truly knows me knows I’m the antithesis of!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ll be performing at Dixon Place on May 23rd at 7:30 PM as part of Dust Tea Shoulders’ CAMPFIRE! Queer Storytime! I’d love it if y’all could make it!

Katherine is a cabaret performer, monologist, and storyteller. Their work focuses primarily on personal narratives surrounding mental health, queerness, mourning, and healing from trauma. KRT often performs at Joan Dark’s long-running open mic Get On The Stage at Bluestockings Bookstore. They made their Am I Write, Ladies debut last March performing their piece Spring Cleaning. They’re currently working on an upcoming solo cabaret entitled #Trauma, along with many additional future projects!