Have you seen my Balls?

Amy Danielson

What did you do this past Saturday night? I witnessed a man singing songs about fratricide and animal husbandry, a toy theater act performed by the editor of The Lens, a hip hop dance routine performed by high school students, and a theater major from the University of Minnesota struggle with a British accent as he argued, hazily, that world hunger could be ended if everybody began smoking. Further, none of this began until after Midnight. Welcome to Balls.

In 1991, Balls Cabaret host Leslie Ball lived in New York after graduating from NYU. While there, friends introduced her to a cabaret showcase called No Shame which consisted of transplanted Midwesterners who assembled every month or two to perform for each other. It was an exclusive group, but occasionally they would have an open slot for a guest performer, and Ball had the opportunity to be that guest.

Ball soon wrote to theaters in Minneapolis proposing an idea for her own cabaret, eventually finding a home at the Jungle Theater. At first, the Jungle didn’t take her proposal for a late night cabaret seriouslyñthey simply did not believe anyone would come. But Ball persisted and on August 3, 1991 she began a six-week experiment in cabaret theater.

Six weeks became one year, and Ball realized, “I’ve moved back to Minneapolis.” However, the Jungle decided that they wanted to have their space available for late night shows, and Ball’s phone was soon ringing off the hook with opportunities from other venues. The next Saturday, Jeff Bartlett approached Ball about moving Balls to the Southern Theater. In April of 1993, the cabaret relocated.

Ten years later, Ball still invites performers of all disciplines and ranges of talent to perform at Balls. It is a safe, sober and encouraging environment.

 

The Southern allowed for more performance possibilities. For example, the size of the Jungle would not allow for dance performances. A tap dancer once brought a piece of plywood to the Jungle, and the audience had to get up out of their seats and peer over the railing to observe the dancer.

Over the years, traditions have formed at Balls. This past Saturday, we howled to the moonña tradition observed on every Saturday night closest to the full moon. A past performer at the cabaret, Kay Bowser, began this ritual.

Bowser also began another tradition at Balls: On every anniversary, a toy xylophone is rolled onto the stage for every year that the cabaret has been in existence. This year, to celebrate a decade of performance, there were ten xylophones on stage. Most anniversaries are postponed for a few weeks to allow the out-of-town Fringe Festival performers to showcase their talents. So, this year, the anniversary was scheduled for September 15, As a result, it was a very potent night with emotions running freely from the recent tragedy on the 11th.

Ball used to suffer from debilitating stage fright-so much that she used to pay someone to push her out onto the stage to begin the show. At the beginning of one of the first shows, she nervously threw a fistful of Hershey’s Kisses into the audience. This instantly became a ritual. However, it has changed over the years. Up until about a year ago, the Southern had bleacher-style seats, and when Ball threw the Kisses, all did not make it into the hands of their intended recipients. Mice quickly found the dropped Kisses and swallowed their tin wrappings. This lead to the development of the “Kiss caddy.” Ball would make the audience chant, “There will be no Kiss residue in the house when we leave.” Now, no food or drink is allowed in the Southern at all since they remodeled the theater, but Ball still offers her Kisses in the lobby after the show.

 

During the week, Ball teaches creative expression at an alternative high school. During her first months of the cabaret, she taught a poetry class, and she encouraged her students to enter a poetry contest. One of her students approached her, expressing his disinterest in the contest. He told her there were much cooler things to do, like going to a thing called Balls. He had never been, but he heard of it and thought it might be cool. Ball encouraged him to go. So, the next weekend the young man showed up, and was startled to see his teacher standing before him.

Teaching has weighed hard on Ball’s artistic career. She believed she could continue to play music while teaching, but it has been difficult for her. “Balls is the one thing I knew I couldn’t give up.”

Some performers who started out at Balls have developed enviable careers. Maria Bamford did her first character monologue at Balls. She moved to Los Angeles and has since been on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and has had her own Comedy Central special. Also, popular local comic Ari Hoptman has worked up all of his comedic material at Balls, where he still takes tickets at the door every Saturday. Hoptman is currently doing a show entitled Dial M for Comedy at Bryant Lake Bowl. Ball says that the first time Hoptman performed, he “shook my arm so hard I thought it was going to come out of the socket”.

When asked about funny stories at her cabaret, Ball could only seem to remember naked performers. A female performance artist once came on stage and asked for volunteers from the audience. A group of college boys approached her as she slipped off her kimono. She was stark naked underneath. The boys were instructed to cover her with body paint as she recited a poem. They focused on her shoulder blades. In another performance, an African American man walked onto the stage and announced the title of his piece: “Hot Chocolate.” He then dropped his overalls to reveal his naked body, which his cohorts proceeded to coat with whipped cream.

After every show, the performers and audience members are invited to Pizza Luce to chat about what’s going on around town. Ball believes in speaking freely about politics and social issues, so this weekly pizza party is an excellent opportunity to engage in enlightening conversationñif you are still awake enough to do so.

 

Balls Cabaret plays every Saturday at Midnight at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls. (612) 340-1725.