'Balls Cabaret' celebrates 20 years


​What started as a six-week run at the Jungle Theater's old space has turned into a 20-year journey for Balls Cabaret, the weekly variety show at the Southern Theater.

In 1990, Leslie Ball was living New York, attending NYU, and regularly participating in a monthly variety show called No Shame. The event took place in the Tribeca neighborhood where there were a lot of transplanted Midwesterners who had found each other in Manhattan.

"I kept thinking, as I was there, how much talent there is in Minneapolis, and how fun it was to see stuff thrown together, playing off of each other," she says.


While on Christmas break, she came home to Minneapolis. One day she was walking down Lake Street when she saw a building that was under construction. It was the Jungle Theater. She visited with Bain Boehlke and George Sutton, and when she went back to New York she "connected the dots," and realized she could do her cabaret idea in the space. She wrote the theater a letter. 
They told her that it just wouldn't work; people don't come out at midnight. But she thought they would come if she offered them something to come out to. "There wasn't a lot of late-night offerings in 1991," she says.


When she graduated from NYU with an MFA, she came home to Minneapolis for the summer and decided to try out the cabaret idea. 

She opened Balls for a six-week run. At the end of that time, the Jungle and people in the community asked if she could keep it going. So she extended her sublet in New York. It wasn't until a year later that she made the realization, "I think I've moved back to Minneapolis." 
From there Balls Cabaret took a life of its own. After about a year and a half, the Jungle wanted to try late-night events themselves, and asked Ball if she could move her show to once a month. She was wary of the idea because she felt part of the reason that it worked was that it was a regular, weekly thing. She asked half a dozen performers what they thought, and word spread like wildfire that cabaret might need a new space. Her phone started ringing off hook, with theaters begging her to bring the night to their space.

The next week Jeff Bartlett, who was artistic director of the Southern at the time, asked her to take Balls to the theater. 

Each week, for the past 20 years, Ball will ask the audience if there is anyone that is new to the event. "That every week a hand goes up is kind of miraculous," she says. "I find that moving." 

 "I would say that every week there is something that I hear, see, or witness that makes me very grateful," she says. "Sometimes, there's something very offensive, because we don't screen or censor. Sometimes, I have to swallow my tongue because I hear things that infuriate me."

Balls Cabaret is a sober space, which is part of its draw. Also, it's very much a community for people with its welcoming, open space. There are both audience members and performers who have been coming for the whole 20 years. "It's a generational thing," Ball says. "Parents that brought their teenage children, those kids now come." The first night that Balls opened, there was a performer, Ken Bradley, whose partner Colleen Kraus had a baby soon after the performance. The child, now 20, often comes back for anniversary parties.

Parents perform with their children, brothers perform with their sisters, and so on. Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan brought their child once and did a dance with him when was a baby boy. 

"A lot of love has happened here," Ball says. Including for herself, who met her partner Ochen Kaylan one day when he walked into the theater. She asked him to be her tech director, and they eventually became friends and started dating. They've been together for 12 years. 

Some performers have gone on to Hollywood or New York to have excellent careers, including Nick Swardson, who performed at Balls as a teen, and who has recently acted in several Adam Sandler Movies.

"What's really thrilling," Ball says, "is that people use Balls as a workshop, and then go on to perform in fringe festivals around the world."

Admission has never changed at the event, and is always $5. Anyone who can't afford a ticket gets in free. In recent times teens that are in recovery also don't have to pay. 
For many years, Balls Cabaret hasn't had to pay rent to the Southern, which is still true even after the recent reorganization with the theater. Though the space is pretty much operating as a rental venue right now, Ball says that it's still fulfilling it's mission because Balls is the heart of the artistic spirit of the Southern, in that the theater is still "underwriting truly creative, marginal rule-breaking work as long as its supporting Balls Cabaret. It's such a wonderful space for what we do." 

Some of the artists slated for Saturday include regulars Brian Sostek, Megan McClellan, Pablo, and Ari Hoptman, who for years has also helped out with the box office. Younger artists include Paris Kelvalkis and Kelly Glader, as well as performance artist Rob Weekend. There will also be surprise guest artists as well, of course.
Ball says she still sometimes gets crabby on Saturday nights because it's so late, but as soon as she's there, she realizes that it's all worth it. "I'm not someone who would ever come up with a 20-year plan," she says. "I'm so grateful that life just led me to see what can happen over 20 years."