IT’S FIVE MINUTES to midnight, and in the lobby of the Southern Theater, two dozen people crowd around a ziggurat of juice boxes and vegan cake. “Crack cake,” jokes a box office employee. When a ticket buyer admits this is her first visit, a cheer erupts from behind the bar and a striking woman with long feathered hair and a gauzy black skirt steps forward. “Yea!” the woman enthuses, “We love newcomers!” Soon, she’s onstage, cradling a microphone in her hands. “Hello and welcome,” she says, “to the longest-running weekly cabaret in the history of humankind.”
The emcee is Leslie Ball: musician, director, singer, songwriter, actor, host, founder, and den mother of Balls Cabaret—the midnight Saturday series she started on a whim at the Southern 15 years ago this month. A Duluth native, Ball moved to New York in the 1980s with $20 in her pocket and a gig lined up as a cat sitter. She was involved with No Shame, a forum for writers and actors to try out new work, when she returned to Minneapolis for a stint in film. While in town, she decided to try out “this little cabaret idea.” She planned to sublet her apartment for six weeks, host the cabaret, then return to New York. But the response was so strong that she postponed her return…and postponed it again. (“I’m not sure who lives there now,” she says about her New York apartment, “or what happened to my stuff.”)
The premise of Balls is simple: anyone can perform for seven minutes, and all participants must be sober. (“I wanted to show that to be an artist you don’t have to be high on chemicals,” says Ball.) And cabaret can mean anything. Comedian and storyteller Ari Hoptman recalls an act that consisted entirely of performers building a crate onstage. There’s a guy who sings about calculus. And another who brings his rotund cat, Brunswick (named after the bowling ball company), to the cabaret every year on the anniversary of Brunswick’s adoption, and sings to him. There have been actors, songwriters, storytellers, and a guy who juggled torches. (“It was terrifying,” says Hoptman about the act. “We were very afraid.”) Part of the fun of attending Balls is the potential of seeing a star performer emerge, and several have in fact gone on to Hollywood, including Craig Wright (writer, Six Feet Under and Lost), Mo Collins (actor, MadTV), and Jhoni Marchinko (co-executive producer, Will & Grace).
Storyteller Kevin Kling often tries out new material at Balls. “Until something is performed, you don’t know what you have because it’s not living in its form,” he says. “Nothing lives on the page. At Balls, you can find out if something is what you think it is.” That takes guts, of course, or, well, cojones. Ball was going to call her cabaret Café Courageous before settling on the twist of her surname.
While famously supportive, Ball doesn’t direct the action onstage. “In the past, I’d try to encourage star performers, and the result wouldn’t be that good,” she says. “I don’t want to be a curator. It’s not for me to tell [performers] what to do. It belongs to the people who show up each week.”
“There’s this samurai saying about being master and student at the same time,” says Kling. “Leslie is in that fold. She knows so much and she’s still so excited to learn. That’s the key to being a good samurai.” And, it seems, a good host.
Balls is held every Saturday at midnight at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-340-1725. Admission: $5.