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Q&A: Empress Stah From Cult Performer to Producer

Australian cabaret performer, aerial artist and producer Empress Stah has been turning heads and defying gravity in the name of her neo-burlesque style since the 90s. While she may have outgrown the unique space in the world of circus and cabaret that she created for herself, there is no chance of Stah retiring yet - she talks to us about evolving into her role as producer, and juggling her weird and wonderful talents.

Eli Goldstone: You set up Zero Central a couple of years ago – what kind of events does the company produce?

Empress Stah: Zero Central produces shows featuring performers from the worlds of Circus, Cabaret, Drag, Magic, Song and Dance. We use a lot of technology that the performing artists interact with on stage, and these range from Drones to Lasers to Hover Boards to Motion Graphics that are generated in real time using infra-red camera’s and wearable sensors.

We have created a lot of shows in the past two years including ‘The Raunch’ which played the London Wonderground for 6 weeks in 2016 and ‘Santa’s Stocking’ last Christmas, which was our inaugural production for the Lost Rivers Brewing Co, which is the company we are now producing for at the Elephant and Castle.

Eli: How have you found the transition from performer to producer?

Stah: I am still wearing both hats at the moment, it is very hard to let go of being the artist, and I am not sure I will ever fully be one or the other. I have always produced my own shows as I am super organised and good with numbers, so this comes easily to me, but I still have a constant stream of ideas for new shows that I want to perform. It is interesting for me to observe the way life and one’s desires ebb and flow over the years, and how something you used to live for can gradually become less and less appealing while a new path illuminates itself.

The transition has been gradual and traceable. I am now 43 years old and recently married, so the thought of being away from home unless I can take my hubby with me on tour is not very enticing. Also I have been to most big European cities a dozen times so there is no draw there and there is not much satisfaction I can get from creating new shows that I can pack into a budget airline luggage allowance for a one night only gig. So that kind of rules out being a cabaret performer on the circuit, but I nailed that already in the 00’s.

The Raunch was a large-scale show that we created last year and was designed to tour the international Fringe Festival circuit, but despite getting offered really good programming slots from Perth and Adelaide, it was grounded due to financial constraints.  The experience of co-producing and performing in The Raunch can be best described as traumatic, in fact that production threw me so many curve balls that I am writing a talk about it called either ‘The Story of The Story of The Raunch’ or ‘The Curse of The Raunch’, stay tuned for it later in the year.

So here I am programming and producing for Lost Rivers in Elephant and Castle, alongside my husband Graham Sugarlump, who is the production manager, as well as the sound and visual maestro for our shows and events. It’s great to have a new challenge and to have the opportunity to consolidate these skills on such a large scale. I am having fun deciding what to ‘wear to work’ every day and the venue is just a five minute walk from home, in London, that is a blessing in itself.

I do however still have a few gigs coming up including three days at the amazing GOGBOT Festival of art, music and creative technology in Holland 7th – 10th September, and The Best of Burlesque at Underbelly Festival on the 21st & 22nd July

Eli: Your gravity-defying performances take some guts – is there anything you’re secretly afraid of?

Stah: I am really comfortable in the air, so I am never afraid of falling, but don’t ask me to do a back flip because I just can’t get my head around how I won’t land straight on my head. So yeah floor based acrobatics don’t work for me … and don’t ever show me a picture of a spider.

Eli: You’ll be publishing a book about your life in cabaret, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Stah: I want to make a coffee table book that documents the past 20 years of my life and career as an artist working in the worlds of circus and cabaret, touring the world with Torture Garden, starring in the Lost Vagueness field at Glastonbury during its heyday, being a resident artist at the Supper Club, the triumphs, the failures, the lessons learnt the hard way, unseen pictures and unsuccessful funding applications – like the time I submitted a funding application, jointly, to the Arts Council and The Wellcome Trust for £50,000 to hire the parabolic plane from the Russian Space Agency to make a music video in Zero Gravity with Peaches. They said no, so I got her to write a song for my laser butt plug instead.

It’s important for to put all this into a big colourful book so that I can really move onto the next phase of my career, with that neatly packaged besides me.  

I wonder what will be in Volume 2? There is still that mission to go to space…

Eli: How did you get into cabaret and circus performance? What made you want to run away to join the circus?

Stah: I had dropped out of my economics degree and was floating around not doing much when someone invited me to a trapeze class, so I went along and never came back down. I was already performing drag type acts in the local gay club  and was really focused on being a performer by that point, so I just kept going and turned my life experiences into stage shows. The shows started back in 1995, and in ’99 I gave away everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to London … I followed my destiny, took some big risks, and found my calling.

Eli: What’s the most surprising thing about your job?

Stah: How friendly I can be! Not surprising to me but to people who have only ever known the ‘Empress Stah’ stage personality, people are taken aback about how down to earth I am. My desk is currently front of house so I also deal with people that come in off the street to enquire about the venue, and I really like chatting to them. Actually, I have surprised myself as well.

Eli: Tell us a little bit about the new Elephant & Castle venue The Lost Rivers Elephant.

Stah: The new venue is a totally unique space I am really excited for people to come down and start experiencing it. It is authentic, raw and industrial. We have two bars, one is on the new square and park,  so you can enjoy your drink at a table outside or inside as you prefer,  and this is open every day from midday to midnight with a simple but gourmet, freshly cooked, bar menu, while the arena bar out the back is our event space that holds 300 people, has an eight metre high tented roof to accommodate high flying acrobatics, large projections, shows, bands, private events and more. We have some great programing coming up, including the London Premier Screening of ‘Lost in Vagueness’, a ‘Bowie Songs Live’ night with Clifford Slapper + Marcella Pupini + guests and our new monthly ‘Lost Night Market’ which will feature independent fashion stalls and a festival vibe until midnight.

This is all bought to you by Lost Rivers Brewing Co., Zero Central  and our soon to be bar companions Little Creatures from down under.

Photograph Credit: John Paul Bichard ©

Eli: Finally, what do you have planned for the CabarArt season later this year?

Stah: CabarART is my new show concept, and as the name suggests, it is a short performance cabaret format, and I am looking to curate it with acts that would usually fall between the gaps in traditional programing. Taking things that are often considered mutually exclusive, and putting them onstage together. I used to describe my work as the following, so this comes some way as to not describing what it is.

‘Too Pornographic for Circus
Too Colourful for Fetish
Too Entertaining for Live Art
Too Avant Garde for Burlesque’

Whatever it turns out to be, I will be performing in it, and it is the foundation of my new low-cost, international touring show. I am hoping to program CabarART as part of a three week double bill of Circus and Cabaret between the 4th – 20th October at Lost Rivers Elephant.

More info about Empress Stah, Zero Central, and The Lost Rivers Elephant
empressstah.com
zerocentral.london
Lostriverselephant.com