The Moisture Festival
Outliers and Oddities
I’m watching Gregor and Kelly, a strongman balancing act at a vaudeville festival, but it looks more like poetry in the form of lifts, spins, and tosses. In spite of the duo’s strength and acrobatic ability, not once is there a distracting “ta da” moment, even when the couple reaches a seemingly impossible position: Grzegorz “Gregor” Ros balancing on his hands in a pushup, without feet touching the ground, holding up Kelly McDonald, who reclines on his back.
McDonald’s strength is downplayed. She seems buoyed and buffeted by a current over which she has little control. Admittedly, this is intentional, McDonald tells me backstage in the green room before the performance, to make it a “softer number, where you’re hiding how much strength you have.” Regardless, her part takes great strength and terrific stamina.
In this piece, choreographed by John Patrick Cartin, the two gymnasts complete the impossible moment, then move to the next, never quite stopping, like a river flowing, bubbling over rocks, and then flowing once more. The liquid movement, along with a powerful undercurrent of sensuality, is somehow fitting, given The Moisture Festival’s name, which evokes naughtiness; seduction in the guise of Seattle’s reputation for rain.
True to the nature of vaudeville, each act at The Moisture Festival is between three and fifteen minutes long, with about nine acts in each two-hour show. Each spring, two hundred acts perform during the four-week festival. The Gregor and Kelly act is somewhat of an outlier—many of the other acts are funny or wacky, though each holds its own particular oddities. Also on the bill is a seemingly inept magician, Alfredo Fettuccini, who has what can only be described as the most perfectly embarrassed laughter I’ve ever heard. The show band, Snake Suspenderz (playing, of course, the song “Mr. Snake”), performs what they call “cartoon jazz” on ukulele, trombone, guitar, tuba, and drums, while the lead singer channels Louis Armstrong. Even the ushers and volunteers are slightly odd, each dressed in a lovingly inaccurate period costume that evokes a different time but remains firmly entrenched in ours.
Given the types of acts—clowns, mimes, jugglers, aerialists, and so on—some might write the festival off as lowbrow. The word “vaudeville” itself calls to mind something outdated and silly, and to be sure, jokes in old vaudeville scripts can be cringe-worthy. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville admits that back in the day, “When vaudeville was bad, it was very, very bad,” but makes an important point: “the audience could sit through fifteen minutes of a second-rate comedy routine, secure in the knowledge that the next act would probably be a good one.” And A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Seattle tells us “a good vaudeville performance is as finely balanced as a Noh presentation, the ultimate in sophisticated theatre.”
A good vaudeville performance is as finely balanced as a Noh presentation, the ultimate in sophisticated theatre.
In fact, historical vaudeville performers were exceptionally current in their time, parodying politics and local events. Today’s vaudeville performers must be equally quick-witted to thrive. But while vaudeville troupes of old could perform the same acts for years, and were expected to do so, modern audiences expect new material with each appearance. As a result, today’s performers must continually innovate.
Many of The Moisture Festival’s performers are perfectly capable of this, having studied their art forms much longer than doctors study medicine. They perform all over the world and appear on TV and grand stages alike. Gregor and Kelly, the gymnasts described earlier, have been performing in the Las Vegas show Le Rêve since 2004 and 2007, respectively, as part of a full-scale production that plays nearly five hundred shows a year in front of audiences of 1,500. Vita Radionova, a contortionist and hula-hoop artist who performed on the Moisture Festival’s burlesque stage this year, recently contorted her way through several episodes of America’s Got Talent. This year’s Moisture Festival program included Bob Malone, keyboardist for John Fogerty, and Patch Adams, inspiration for the film of the same name starring Robin Williams.
What makes vaudeville perfect for audiences in 2015 is that it fulfills a modern demand for rapid-fire bits of entertainment, while providing an in-person experience that can’t be duplicated by a TV or computer screen. Not for lack of trying, says Jennifer Wensrich, the festival’s Director of Smooth Operations. “We tried a live webstream, but it didn’t translate. We all knew it wouldn’t, but the degree to which it didn’t surprised us. So much of the magic of the festival was lost.”
The Moisture Festival was founded in 2004 and is now the largest and longest running vaudeville/variety/burlesque festival in the world. It’s the brainchild of Ron Bailey, festival Artistic Director and also band leader of The Royal Famille Du Caniveaux (Royal Family of the Gutters). Co-founder Maque DaVis, now festival Secretary, was a member of Cirque de Flambe, and is ex-President for Life of the Fremont Arts Council. Co-founder Tim Furst also co-founded the famed Flying Karamazov Brothers, which played in a Broadway show directed by Robert Woodruff.
This community dreams of spreading similar vaudeville and variety festivals to other locales. It’s a tall order, but it’s been done before. Beginning in the late 1800s, Seattle was more of a leader in music hall, variety, and vaudeville than is generally known. Seattle may have come to the table later than other cities; one of its earliest venues, the Theatre Comique, was just a saloon with a theatre and a terrible reputation (it had twenty boxes where you could watch shows without being seen). But later, two vaudeville circuits (chains of theatres across the United States and Canada) arose from Seattle: the Sullivan-Considine and the Pantages. And yes, Al Jolson, among others, played in Seattle. Even now, Broadway performances are sometimes developed and or tested in Seattle before being taken to New York.
A major difference between old and new vaudeville is one of motivation. Theatre owners used to be notoriously driven by money and power, and used cutthroat means to acquire the best talent. In the early twentieth century, when players arrived by train in Seattle, John Considine would meet with them to convince them to play at his theatre, while Alexander Pantages would simply send a moving van to retrieve those same performers’ trunks and equipment and haul them off to his own theatre, leaving performers little choice but to follow. Pantages threatened to burn a xylophone trio’s treasured instruments if they didn’t play in his theatre. He meant it, and they capitulated.
These days, nobody is burning anybody’s xylophones to make more money. The Moisture Festival is a not-for-profit organization, which would have been unthinkable to Alexander Pantages. In fact, one of The Moisture Festival’s biggest drawbacks—or perhaps its saving grace—is its low budget. The 2015 budget was a scant $400,000. On top of that, one of the most important goals of the organization is to keep ticket prices low ($10 to $30 in 2015) to make performances accessible.
Is it music? Theatre? Dance? Just what is this mash up of outliers and oddities?
Other arts organizations, even those with much higher ticket prices, rely on grant funding to get by. The Moisture Festival has fiercely loyal individual donors, but grants have been difficult to come by. First, granting organizations have a difficult time categorizing The Moisture Festival. Is it music? Theatre? Dance? Just what is this mash up of outliers and oddities? Second, and perhaps more importantly, for all its success, nobody seems to have heard of the festival. Even neighbors of Hales Palladium, the main venue (a beer warehouse supplied by a brewer at a highly reduced rate), are vaguely unsure what The Moisture Festival is. That’s not surprising, given that there’s little to no money for advertising.
Limited funding may make the festival’s existence seem precarious, but the festival’s board has put measures in place to ensure its future. Board member Jennifer Wensrich shares, “We’ve worked hard to build an organization that can survive.” Plus, the festival’s 250 volunteers are a dedicated bunch, some returning over and over each year to keep the festival running.
After all the festival bills are paid each year, performers split the remaining money equally. That means performers are paid either a pittance or nothing at all. They come anyway to interact with each other, to see how other entertainers work their magic, and sometimes to have a transformative performance experience. According to juggler Steven Ragatz, who based his festival act in part on surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting of the School Master (Maître d'École), The Moisture Festival is “organized by performers, for performers. It’s not driven by a producer who’s looking at the bottom line, it’s not driven by the marketing department, not driven by a corporate brand.”
To Artistic Director Ron Bailey, this is The Moisture Festival’s real story: the entertainers want to be there more than they want compensation. “Ask the Chicken Man why he comes to watch the show every night,” instructs Bailey. I never did get to talk to the Chicken Man; I didn’t have to. All the performers told me the same thing: there’s nothing like The Moisture Festival. Late in the festival, watching Lily Verlaine (burlesque and classical ballet dancer) literally bathe in a giant champagne glass, I understand just how true that statement is.