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Pussy Power

An oral history of the Charm City Kitty Club’s first 10 years

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow

These Charm City Kitties—(Rear, left to right)Lilia Rissman, Jai Brooks, Cynthia Diaz, Brittney-Elizabeth Williams and (Front) Natalya Brusilovsky—are still Performing.

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow

Catherine Pancake helped launch the Kitty Club.

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow

Rahne Alexander says “Once a Kitty, Always a Kitty.”

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A


Ah, the Charm City Kitty Club: Baltimore’s very own homegrown queer cabaret, convening quarterly at the Creative Alliance to shock and entertain audiences with its anarchic mashup of national-caliber avant-garde performance and local, often first-time, occasionally dubious, talent. Each of the Kitty Club’s 39 shows to date has featured a boundary-stretching blend of highbrow and lowbrow offerings, liberally spiced with libidinous laughter.

The Kitty Club turns 10 this year, a significant achievement for any queer, lefty, political, all-volunteer-run creative collective. The decade since the cabaret’s debut has brought an unprecedented abundance of art-o-tainment options to Baltimore—galleries and performance spaces, theater troupes and happenings of every flavor now pack our weekend calendars. And yet the Kitty Club endures, in part because there’s nothing else like it: a safe, accepting space for gay/trans/whatever-you-got women putting out creative, provocative, political performances. And in part because it’s just so damned much fun.

Charm City Kitties past and present, femme and butch, transgender, polyamorous, queertastic, dykes of every size, shape, and hue—all deserve credit for the entertainment the rest of Baltimore has gleefully, voyeuristically received. I spoke with as many of them as possible, but there are many more Kitties whose voices are not among those here. (I particularly regret that I was unable to connect with Lucky Baltimore, aka Jody Andrade, widely credited with bringing the idea of creating a queer-centric performance series in our town.)

Rahne Alexander, involved from the early days of the cabaret, says she used to try to maintain a list of all the women involved in keeping the Kitty Club going but lost count after reaching 100. “If there are 30 women currently active, then there are at least 100 more out there walking around with this history and connection,” she estimates. “Once a Kitty, always a Kitty.”

The Founding Felines

Kristen Anchor, artist: I had just started working at Creative Alliance, running CAMM [CA Movie Makers]. I was at a show one night and Jody [Andrade] was there. She’d just moved from Minneapolis and approached [Creative Alliance program manager] Megan Hamilton and me and told us about her desire to do a Baltimore version of a lesbian cabaret she’d been part of in Minneapolis, Vulva Riot.

So that was the impetus to get this group together to try to put together a show. We had a meeting in early 2002, with me, Jody, Catherine Pancake, Gretchen Heilman, and Megan McShea. And it all fell together very quickly—planning for the first show was in October 2002. We functioned as a committee where we all had equal voice. . . . We thought that by carefully curating things we could create not just an entertaining show but also an interesting social and cultural scene, which at that time in Bmore was pretty much nonexistent for lesbians.

Catherine Pancake, filmmaker: Kristen called me to get involved because of all the organizing I was doing with the Red Room and 14Karat Cabaret. I was very skeptical if it would work—about whether the gay scene would be able to support an all-female lesbian performance series. But I thought it was a very interesting possibility, the formation of an alternative gay culture, like what was going on elsewhere throughout the 1990s—homocore in the Northwest, gender politics and theater on the East Coast—that had yet to make it to Baltimore.

So we had a meeting—I think it was at an Indian restaurant—and I told them who I thought would be the best gay performers in Baltimore. I said I thought maybe 35 or 40 people would come to a show, based on my experience doing events with the Lesbian Avengers [a direct-action group focused on lesbian issues, known for their flamboyant theatrical protests]. But from there I was heavily involved organizing for the first show.

Liz Downing, musician and artist:

At the beginning, [the Kitty Club] was sorely needed. There wasn’t anything like it. I had never heard of anything that was entirely for women, by women, and I think that’s part of the reason that it was so embraced. I was first involved when Catherine called me, about three months before the first show. She said they were doing this all-women’s performance, could be anything, wide open, but all women dealing with women. Any kind of queer, in the very big sense of queer. Which means they pretty quickly included men that felt they felt the agenda, and trans and bisexual people—any artist that felt they fit into the queer notion. That in itself was really exciting to me, to make that word bigger.

So I started developing a piece for the first show, which had a belly dancer, a poet, me, a few other women. I put together a few songs and stories, having to do with lost girlfriends and spaceships coming down and having sex with the water and stories from my childhood that were kind of weird involving Peeping Toms who watched women through the windows of my family’s motel. I was just putting it together trying to entertain myself as much as the audience. And so we had the first show in the old Creative Alliance space on Conkling Street, the one that used to be an auto-parts store.

Catherine Pancake: The first show was astonishingly successful, way beyond our expectations—we had over 200 people show up, standing room only. So given a response like that it was natural to just keep going, and we decided on a quarterly cabaret. . . . There was a core Baltimore audience, but people soon were traveling from D.C. and Delaware to attend shows too. Each show continued to attract more people, and sold out, and big lines, etc. Because we had created a space that had never existed in Baltimore before, lesbian-centric and sex-positive.

There was just this great tone from the very beginning that, We are in a safe space and we are all feminists. We all know the women’s studies PC drill, so let’s just tear it apart. Have fun. Laugh at how sexually uptight and nerdy lesbians are about everything. People would get offended or angry, like the older dykes who just out and out hated performers Dynasty Handbag or Beth Smulyan [now Glenn Marla, who bills him/herself as “the fattest person you know”], but there was always something for everyone; that would be followed by some strummy guitar music to kind of ground them back in their cultural roots.

Kristen Anchor: We knew that in putting up a wide variety of performers we would, inevitably, upset some subset of the audience. But we saw an opportunity to create a place where women could meet in a more cultural and intellectual space—not that there’s anything wrong with bars, we all were going out to bars all the time too!—and maybe push some boundaries while doing it. An opportunity also to give brand new local performers a venue, so that it was as much a stage for trying things out as for putting on an established, practiced performance. It was a wild mix, pairing up local artists, often getting up before an audience for the first time, with established touring artists who would be booked for the show. We aimed for a wide diversity of arts too, so it wouldn’t be all poetry or all music or all dance. Highbrow and lowbrow mashed up on the same stage on the same night, and hopefully starting some kind of momentum for further creativity.

Liz Downing: One of the exciting early ideas was not to censor or to judge. You’d need to come in with an open mind—I’ve heard a woman say after one show, “Now I’ve gotta go to therapy!”—but the early Kitty Club shows were so freeing up for people. The old Rockajets [a butch combo headed by John Waters’ film star Edith Massey] come in, the very early role-playing people come in, sitting side by side with the new fresh baby dykes who have never known repression and come out as soon as they have an inkling they’re gay. Sitting next to 60-year-old women who maybe never came all the way out. You don’t need to be comfortable all the time. Being uncomfortable, it’s good for your psyche. And if you can’t shock people at least sometimes, then maybe you’re not doing your job as a queer.

Interlezzo

Rahne Alexander, writer and Maryland Film Fest organizer: My first Kitty Club performance was in October 2003, a combination of music and very impromptu comedy—basically, I was going to play a couple songs and then see what else happened. I was nervous about getting up on stage in what had been thus far a dedicated lesbian space because I am trans. So I was prepared for tension, but instead was amazed at how welcoming and engaged the audience was. I had older lesbian couples coming up and talking to me after, and in the past I had not had the experience that lesbian feminist communities were welcoming to trans people.

So to me one of the great things that Kitty Club has done is provide a venue for this dialogue, and break down some of the fears and anxieties that have kept the communities separated.

Jai Brooks, activist and freelance professional organizer:

It’s the unwritten part of the mission, that we are very loosely curated. We have a vision and we make sure there’s diversity onstage, different races and differently-abled folks, but once folks are on the stage we don’t try to control what they’re going to do. We’re like, “What’s going to happen? We don’t really know but we’ll see when we get there.” We call it the “what-the-fuck factor” and it’s part of the fun. How it comes about there’s someone having sex with a watermelon, or humping a toilet; having the audience paint on their naked obese body; bike masturbation; whatever! Occasionally, it doesn’t work out so well, when the what-the-fuck factor becomes, “What the fuck was that?” but the majority of people are willing to hang. There’s such a feeling of goodwill coming from the audience. They are there to be entertained, and we always feel pretty confident that we are going to have something pleasing to everyone at some point in the evening.

Catherine Pancake: To me, one important barrier Kitty Club breaks down is the inhibition about drawing pleasure from looking at women, which comes from the early days of feminism and the fight against objectification. So that became you can’t look at all, and in particular there are older women who still don’t know if it’s really OK to look, to stare, even when someone’s performance is all about being looked at in a sex-positive way. Kitty Club says, Yes, yes you can look—lasciviously—you can scream and catcall. You can throw your underwear on the stage.

Liz Downing: I performed at several of the early shows. At first, they were all about the performers, with an MC introducing the acts. I saw a need for something that joined the acts together. Something that made it a little more than, “and now here comes so and so”—I wanted to get involved in hosting because I thought I could weave a story line in between the acts. . . . One of the performances we did around this time was me giving a vaginal exam to a giant diagram of a vagina. So I had my purple glove on and I was palpating the labia and lifting the clitoral hood, and Megan McShea had decided she would help me with my prop if she could wear a gorilla costume. So all you could see were her gorilla feet and gorilla hands while she was holding this giant vagina, and it just seemed. . . right. Where else but the Kitty Club? Nobody seemed to get upset about that one. I think it was because I had a nice way with the vagina.

Rahne Alexander: For me, one of the minor miracles about Kitty Club has been its ability to simply go on regardless. It’s truly phenomenal that what began as just a single show grew into a 10-years-so-far successful all-volunteer entity. It’s so rare that a collectively run, queer left political group doesn’t eventually just implode. But Kitty Club has been somehow able to ride out the personalities and relationships and breakups and conflicts. . . . Maybe it’s that we are serving a lot of creative outlets, and so we’re able to push energy that way instead of conflict.

Jai Brooks: Before the Kitty Club started, Lucky and [Lucky’s partner] Clyde asked me to be in the first show and perform some comedic poetry. But I was like, I want to see what this is about first—and then after seeing the first show I was like, Oh I am so into this. So then I performed in the second show and have been involved ever since then, sometimes peripherally, mostly heavily. I’m the only one of the original Kitties that’s still active. Everyone else—Catherine, Kristen, Jody—have moved on as their lives went forward. And that’s cool—it takes so much time and energy to keep the show vital, and so you constantly need new blood to feed that. At the same time, people just stay too—many of the current Kitties have been active for four to six years.

The Next 10 Years

Lilia Rissman, Johns Hopkins graduate student: The Kitty Club’s strength is the community that has been built through and around it. For any particular show, things rest on a handful of individuals who are making things happen. And it can be stressful for those people. I’ve been that person or in that small set of people for particular shows. But then we have this large network of people who can be called upon to help out.

Natalya Brusilovksy, community organizer: We call upon each other for a lot of things. Not just like, “We need puppets for the next show. Does anyone know anyone who makes puppets?” but also “Hey guys, I need a roommate,” or, “I’m looking for a job.” Our giant network is super supportive in many aspects, whether or not they’re there for the actual show. . . . It’s so great how we are here for each other, not just in putting on shows but in putting on our lives.

Jai Brooks: There is definitely a core group planning and organizing shows and in general making things happen, and then the outer circle that doesn’t come to all the meetings but can be called upon in larger and smaller ways to manage a detail as needed. Like Susannah is our bake sale queen; she never comes to meetings but she can be counted on to run that aspect. And Maria, who just comes in to do merch and has been doing it forever. Sometimes she can and sometimes she can’t, and that’s OK—there’s no feelings about that. We will call you and if you can you can, and if you can’t then maybe next time. However, whenever, whatever.

That said, we do think about the future, the next 10 years. Some of the older Kitties have said outright, “Y’all aren’t as edgy as you used to be.” And, honestly, the current Kitties aren’t as edgy as the founding felines—we have many fewer full-time artists, and the energy has changed.

Brittney-Elizabeth Williams, actress and apartment leasing agent: I have only been here for two shows but I already feel that we should be doing more edgy material. Especially after January’s nipple controversy. The promotional postcards for the “Hot and Bothered” show had a nipple and there was all this endless conversation about whether we should show a nipple. I’m like, “It’s a nipple. We have those.” But ultimately the group decided to remove it and the postcards went out nipple-less. I get that we decide things collectively but I wonder if that might also be part of what takes the edge off.

Cynthia Diaz, registered nurse: Last year we had a volunteer appreciation party at the Golden West Café, and just an amazing number of people showed up: people who had volunteered recently, who hadn’t volunteered for five years or eight years, people who had never volunteered but always wanted to—they all came. This was my first realization of what the Kitty Club does for the community in this city. Even if they only had a peripheral connection a long time ago, people really wanted to reconnect. Whether it was to hook up or talk about politics or discuss their school district, people just really wanted to be together with other Kitties and Kitty-like people.

Jai Brooks: We are entirely volunteer-run and we always have open arms. Everyone’s welcome. Just showing up and participating is what makes you a Kitty. There’s no beating in or anything—you do a Kitty thing, then you’re a Kitty. Forever and ever, amen. There’s no getting out.

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