The Cabaret Festival is one of Melbourne’s major winter arts events and it’s heading our way this June. Since its inaugural year, 2010, it has grown to become the world’s second largest event of its kind. This year  opens with a new artistic director at the helm: Mike McLeish, who is possibly best known to Australian audiences for his portrayal of Paul Keating in  Keating! The Musical, is thrilled to be offering this  dazzling array of artists to the public for the 2016 Cabaret festival.

McLeish’s festival origin story goes like this: “David Read and Neville Sice, who started the festival from the ground up after running the iconic cabaret venue, The Butterfly Club, for a number of years, approached me to join the board of directors a couple of years back. Then late last year they sprung the whole artistic director thing on me. It was very unexpected and not a role I would ever have actively sought out for myself, but after some further discussion with David and Neville and a fair bit of thought on my part, I accepted. It was David and Neville’s faith in my ability to do the job that got me over the line, as well as close friends and family adding their encouragement to the mix.”

mike 1Now that the program has been launched and the festival is just around the corner, McLeish feels quite charged and is eager to be in the midst of it all. “To meet so many of these artists with whom I’ve been corresponding for so long, and obviously to see their shows,” he says. “I thought there’d be at least a little sprinkling of fear and/or trepidation, but there isn’t. I’m really very proud of everything we’ve achieved for this year’s festival; the program, the new festival hub in and around Chapel Off Chapel, the fringe program at The Butterfly Club, our inaugural children’s program, it’s all looking mighty fine. And I cannot wait to immerse myself in what is shaping up to be the best damn Melbourne Cabaret Festival yet. The fact that I had a hand in its development and creation is… weird, to be honest. It still feels weird. But good weird. And that, my friends, is about as eloquent a phrase as you’re going to get from me today.”

As far as what the title Artistic Director actually means in   terms of duties and responsibilities, McLeish responds: “I asked the very same question of David and Neville.”

Given it is still a relatively young and small festival, and there is not a big team of people working year round on it, the team really has to focus their combined efforts while maintaining their own professional and personal lives. McLeish’s most important task as artistic director is the programming of the festival. “We received a record number of submissions for 2016 and, due simply to the scale of the festival, there is no way we can accommodate everyone (give us a few years). So I spent a long, long time piecing together a program that I thought would work. There are just too many factors to try and embrace during such a process, so I allowed myself to defer to my instincts if I felt I needed to. And hey, when it’s your first time doing something – doing anything – you have to trust yourself. I’m also in charge of programming the opening gala this year.”

“Beyond the programming, I’ve tried to take as holistic a view of the festival as possible. As I mentioned before, it’s a very small tribe of us putting this thing on, so we make sure that everyone stays informed about everything, because there’s no telling which of us will have the next good idea. It’s a very healthy kind of artistic dependency. I’d been gunning for a festival hub from my first board meeting, and seeing that come to fruition is very satisfying and a huge step forward for the festival. City Of Stonnington have really come to the party on that front, which bodes well for the future.”

There is no doubt, it has been a huge undertaking for McLeish but rewards abound. “The sheer amount of time it took to put together the program for 2016 left me in a constantly evolving state of shock,” he says. “My poor inbox has never been so assaulted. And in the midst of that, making sure that I didn’t develop programming tunnel vision and lose sight of the bigger picture; the festival as a whole entity that represents the thriving cabaret scene in Melbourne, Australia and beyond. And as we as a festival grow, so does our artistic scope and our desire to make Melbourne Cabaret Festival an essential destination for national and international cabaret acts coming to Australian shores.”

McLeish’s proudest achievement to date is, in fact, this year’s program. “I look through it and feel happy. And quite thrilled.”

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It is really axiomatic that McLeish and the title Artistic Director are now forever synonymous in the history of the Festival. His pedigree is sound – He has performed locally and internationally with renowned musical improvisation troupe Spontaneous Broadway and around Australia with subversive cabaret trio The Beautiful Losers, as well as forming a musical comedy partnership with Rusty Berther (ex Scared Weird Little Guys).  McLeish’s solo cabaret shows, including The World Is Winning and Message To My Girls, have been performed to great acclaim at the Adelaide and Melbourne Cabaret Festivals.

The 2016 Melbourne Cabaret Festival is bursting at the seams and promises something for everyone but the perennial question still surrounding cabaret is “What is cabaret?”

“Stop asking and come and find out,” says McLeish.” These are some of the best, smartest, most inquisitive, daring, boundary-blurring and boundary-breaking artists around. And they gravitate to cabaret because of the freedom that the art form provides them and because they love their audience in a way that many other traditional performers can’t quite understand. Obviously an audience is a crucial part of any live performance. But cabaret is a different playing field; there is no barrier between the audience and the artist, whether that barrier be invisible, assumed, imagined or otherwise. We’re all in this together, people. Join us. Oh, and keep in mind that for the price you’d pay to see one show on a main stage, you could see three brilliantly diverse shows in one night at the cabaret festival and still have change for a beverage.”

June 14 – 26