I knew that Her Majesty’s Cabaret would offer a glimpse into unfamiliar Maine territory when I read a comment on their Facebook page. It was written after their most recent comedy production:
“I was hoping to go to Her Majesty’s Cabaret, but it was the last home roller derby bout of the season… hope to make it to the next cabaret!!!!!”
Five exclamation points and roller derby says it all. The fans of Bangor’s new cabaret troupe are young, edgy, energetic and filled with enthusiasm.
You often hear concerns about “the graying of Maine” — retirees moving in and young people moving out. Last week I met with three 20-somethings who write and produce Her Majesty’s Cabaret, and they showed me another Maine story.
Zach Robbins is a Bangor native who could be called the face of Her Majesty’s Cabaret. He emceed the first couple of shows and hosts the online promotional video. Zach is a born performer, having first hit the stage at age 5 as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol.” After studying theater at Dalhousie University and in New Zealand, he said he returned to Bangor with experience in stand-up comedy, drama and “cabaret-like performance, where you just turn on the lights and have a show.”
Bangor Daily News readers may recognize the co-creator of Her Majesty’s Cabaret. Emily Burnham is a BDN staff writer and columnist who writes Rockin’ Out about the local music scene, and her blog, Culture Shock, is all about “Arts, entertainment, food, pop culture and other cool stuff from the 207.” Another lifetime Mainer, Emily’s cumulative personal and professional connections to Maine’s arts and music population are legion. What you may not know about Emily is that she loves to write comedy and dialog. She also happens to be married to Zach Robbins.
“Em and I have complementary creative natures,” said Zach. “We make each other laugh.”
With their combined skills and their shared passion for comedy (and each other), Zach and Emily pulled together their first cabaret show in October 2010. They worked on a shoestring budget, but they were supported by numerous downtown businesses. They were also able to gather together a highly motivated and talented collection of local performance artists and musicians.
Last February, a third collaborator joined Zach and Emily’s production team. Brad LaBree, originally from Harmony, Maine, moved back to the area after eight years in Chicago. He accepted a job as house manager for Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, bringing a lot of experience in comedy and improvisation. Since the entertainment world of Bangor is a small one, he soon met Zach and Emily. They hit it off instantly and began working together.
I met with Zach, Emily, and Brad at the Bangor Opera House. It seemed a good idea to be in a large space, because their kinetic energy was dazzling. The three of them moved restlessly around the room for a while throwing out one-liners before settling down in seats. In fact, Zach told me, he and Brad rarely sit when they are working. They walk, pace, improvise and try to make each other laugh while Emily sits with a keyboard, contributing ideas and writing things down.
“Art is hard,” Emily said. “And comedy is really hard.”
“But we all have comedy brain, and if you have comedy brain you have to do it,” Zach added.
“We all grew up on a steady diet of comedy,” said Emily.
They are lifetime fans of Comedy Central, “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python,” and they believe in comedy.
“Laughing at something takes away its power,” Zach said in a moment of seriousness. “And comedy helps people forget stuff for a while. I like to make people happy.”
“So what’s the difference between a cabaret and a variety show?” I wondered.
“Cabaret is sexier,” Zach answered in a smoky voice. It is also, perhaps, grittier and more satirical than a variety show. It is edgy comedy for adults, definitely not for kids.
Her Majesty’s Cabaret is a do-it-yourself entertainment extravaganza, which often ends with a big dance party. Their current production, called “Her Majesty’s Cabaret Sells Out,” has more comedy sketches than previous shows, but they are happy to have each show be different.
“We don’t like rules,” Zach said. Part of what they are cultivating is the continued revitalization of downtown Bangor through arts, culture and a youthful nightlife. “You have to create your own universe.”
Their universe creation seems to be well under way, expanding, and unabashedly young, attracting a vibrant crowd that stays up late, loves to laugh and attends roller derby bouts.
Being curious, I asked this group — under 30 and still here — about the supposed “youth flight” from Maine.
“I was worried about that when I came back,” Brad told me. “But I was amazed at downtown Bangor. There’s definitely something here that people don’t expect — this creative outlet. There are all kinds of happy shiny young people.”
Check out those people at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at the Bangor Opera House, or at 9 p.m. July 5 at Nocturnem Draft Haus. There may be a whole new universe downtown that you’ve never seen before.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.