Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret at The Great Star in December. (photo: Patric Carver)
Words by SarahJayn Kemp
The Great Star Theater is the last of a dying breed of uniquely San Franciscan venues.
“There used to be twenty-six theaters in Chinatown. Twenty-six! Now, we’re the only one left,” says Paul Nathan, proprietor of The Great Star. Explaining that The Great Star was built in 1925 as a Chinese opera house, Nathan’s voice intensifies to add: “It’s a special place. A magical place. It’s the last one of its kind…You can feel the past in this place when you walk in the door.”
Perhaps even more amazing than the storied past of The Great Star is that it continues to exist at all. When Nathan took over as the proprietor, he had some large challenges. “We run solely off ticket sales. We don’t have grants. We pay the bills because people come to the shows,” says Nathan.
However, even with commercial success, The Great Star finds itself in a precarious limbo. The Great Star is in an area that is currently zoned specifically for restaurants. When he took over as proprietor, Nathan managed to obtain federal protection as a theater and form a non-profit to support The Great Star as a place for artists and the community. However, this has not managed to make The Great Star immune from possible ousting. “Every show could be our last. I just got an eviction notice today,” Nathan laments. “You know, when you lose one of 26, no one notices. Two out of 26? Still, nothing. But we’ve lost 25. We’re the last man standing.” He and The Great Star are waiting to see what moves the landlord will make next before further involving the community in keeping The Great Star open. In the meantime, he says joining the email list, staying informed, and coming to the show is the best way people can support The Great Star.
I had the opportunity to interview Kat Robichaud, one of the artists who frequents the stage at The Great Star. Robichaud is currently preparing for Grimm, an original cabaret show that will debut later this month at The Great Star.
The Bay Bridged: Hi, thank you for taking the time to talk to me. As a fellow Southerner, I am wondering how you like life in the Bay Area.
Kat Robichaud: Oh, I love it. I absolutely love it. You’re from Florida, right? I think we can both agree we don’t miss the humidity too much! I love the community here. I can completely and utterly be myself and do what I really love.
TBB: You’ve had a pretty dynamic career so far. Can you tell me a little about your path?
KR: I spent eight years in North Carolina cutting my chops on the rock stage, learning to sing and be an entertainer before going on The Voice. I think performing on The Voice helped me — the national and international notoriety. Then I moved here, and I was so moved by the drag shows. I went to a ton of drag shows when I first got here. It’s different here than it was in North Carolina. It’s an art form. It’s less of a pageant. It’s theatrics; it’s art. I grew up watching musicals, and I saw that theatrics in drag.
TBB: You saw a real difference between the drag culture here and in North Carolina?
KR: Totally. I had a reception in North Carolina for an album release, and it was not what I wanted. I hired some drag queens from Raleigh. It was received so differently. It was a performance that would have killed in San Francisco! One critic wrote about the performance saying it was gimmicky; didn’t belong in rock and roll. There’s something about San Francisco; I can trust my audience so go along with me. I can always put myself out on a limb with every new show.
TBB: So, it sounds like the drag scene in San Francisco had a big impact on your current work. Is cabaret something that you worked toward?
KR: Misfit Cabaret is everything I wanted to do. It’s Broadway and rock and roll. I am really fucking lucky to have such an amazing supporting band and cast. Paul and Jordan Nathan approached me and said they wanted to do a show with me. When I was in my first band, I was not the boss, and I was also young. It’s harder, too, to be a girl in a rock band. It’s a boy’s club. There were a lot of restrictions. In my former band, I wanted to write a song about gender identity and sexual orientation. I’ve always loved the gay community. I’ve always been an ally. I don’t want to get into details, but the answer was no. The powers that be wanted us to be more mainstream. Another time, I was given instructions to write a song about going to the club and dancing with your friends, but it was a lie. I don’t do that. I go to dive bars and sweat to rock and roll. So, there had to be a compromise again. When I moved to SF, there wasn’t that same limitation or those same compromises. It was hard work, but it was also a lot more rewarding.
TBB: I’ve been to two of your Misfit Cabaret shows. I know you’ve got a lot of presence on stage during these events, but I’m wondering how much of the behind-the-scenes work you’re involved with.
KR: I create the entire show! I book everyone who is in the show. I hand pick the people. For instance, I saw Carne Asada at El Rio and I was like, ‘You have to come be in Whimsea.’ I built a giant seashell for her to stand in front of! I put together all of the medleys. Brendan and I have several practices before we meet with the band. I write two original songs, and I pick the other songs were going to be doing, I tell Crutcher what we need for set design, and I do all the marketing and graphic design. There’s nothing I’m not involved in. I don’t want it to sound like it is just me, though. It’s a huge collaborative effort. Jordan Nathan does a lot of the administrative part of it — paying performers, bookkeeping, front-of-house, and (laughs) dealing with me. My band, I cannot give them enough credit — I can throw anything at them I am very lucky to have them.
TBB: Your Misfit Cabaret shows are usually hosted at The Great Star Theater. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with The Great Star Theater? Why that venue?
KR: It’s my one year anniversary there! I don’t know what I would do without The Great Star. It is an old theater. It’s very lived in. The city is very lucky to have this space. It is great for up-and-coming performers. I came to discover it through Jordan. Paul Nathan is the proprietor and Jordan Nathan is his niece. Jordan works with me on the show so, we had an “in,” but we had to prove ourselves. It is very expensive to put on a show there. We had to do a Kickstarter for the first show there! Paul is a good man to have on your side, though. He makes a lot happen.
TBB: Do you have any opinion on the post-Ghost Ship crackdown on artist’s spaces? Do you feel like artists have adequate affordable work space in the Bay Area?
KR: So far, we’ve been very lucky. We’re going to stay in The Great Star as long as we can. The Thrillpeddlers were at the Hypnodrome and that venue has just been sold. You’ve got to roll with the punches. As we’ve been finding out in the last few days, the country is going to change a lot. And people, including me, are scared. Add that to the gentrification, and people not caring or supporting the art scene…and it’s scary.
TBB: So, you see gentrification as a real problem?
KR: Well, there’s no certainty. People are getting pushed out. You can’t fault people for wanting to move to the city. It’s such an exciting place to be. I couldn’t do what I do in San Francisco in North Carolina. There’s a very big space here that nurtures and respects artists. I was very much a misfit in North Carolina. I didn’t fit in with my peers. We had a great fan base, but they move on and you’re screwed. I struggled when I moved here, but people were so eager to help and open doors. It really is an amazing thriving artistic community, people just need to go out and find it. There are a ton of amazing shows to go see. We need to keep it that way, and the best way to support the artists is to go out there and see them work!
TBB: Tell me some about your up-coming show, Grimm. What can your audience expect?
KR: Well, this was Jordan’s idea — to do a fairy tale theme. I’ve always loved the villains; I was never really a princess-type girl. We had a discussion. I said “We’ll do this, but it has to have a dark side.” Misfit cabaret is basically a love letter to my childhood. When she said fairy tales I immediately thought of Legend! Tim Curry as The Darkness is perfection. Those movies…it was before CGI, it was all real, you could touch it. So, pulling from that — that and Labyrinth, Never Ending Story, all those great ’80s fantasy references. We have great performers, too. Johnny Rocket stepped forward to play The Darkness, and it doesn’t hurt that he can sing like Tim Curry! We’ve got an aerialist, and I asked them, ‘Will you dress up like Falcore?’ I’m going to be Maleficent. It’s going to be a huge collaborative effort. I feel honored to give these performers not just a great stage, but a great audience. People are so excited to see something with love and heart — something organic and real. We’re going to give it to them. Of course, also, there’s my band, The Darling Misfits. The music will be spectacular.
For more information about The Great Star Theater, including how to follow on social media, visit http://greatstartheater.org/. You can sign up for The Great Star’s email list via Facebook.
Grimm with Kat Roubichaud’s Misfit Cabaret will be at The Great Star Theater February 24, 25, March 3, and 4. You can buy tickets here.