“I got my start, truly, in solo shows at Fringe,” says comedy and cabaret artist Reuben Kaye.

Kaye is a 2022 Fringe ambassador, but his association with the festival – while intense – only began relatively recently. Originally from Melbourne, he has performed between Australia and Europe since about 2010, but first came to Adelaide Fringe just five years ago.

“I only started making solo shows in 2016… and the first time I performed at Adelaide Fringe was 2017,” he says.

“It was hilarious. You know, dealing with drunk hen parties in London is wonderful preparation for dealing with the Clipsal audience at 11pm in the Garden of Unearthly Delights. I loved it.”

Kaye’s flippant aside belies the season’s importance as part of a seismic shift in his career. Prior to making solo work, he performed mostly as an acerbic and wildly funny host for cabaret and burlesque shows.

“When I got to Europe, I saw that there was this role of the host who just got up and kind of ran their mouth… worked the crowd and kept the energy going, and I fell in love with that idea,” he says.

With the help of a lot of “bullshitting” – he says he got gigs in London by saying he was a big deal in Australia and vice versa – Kaye became highly sought-after in the role.

Residencies at London’s Savoy Hotel and the famed Café de Paris in the West End, along with his intelligent, cutting delivery and undeniable singing talent, cemented his status. But, industry colleagues were pushing him to do something more.

“Everyone was telling me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do a solo show, you’ve got to do a solo show’,” he says. “Eventually, the owner of the Butterfly Club in Melbourne, Simone [Pulga] just said, ‘I’m giving you a room at the Comedy Festival for a two-week run and you have to do a solo show’.”

It was in that solo work and in his second original show, The Butch is Back, which has just completed a season at Adelaide Fringe, that Kaye was fully realised as an artist.

Both shows deal with weighty subject matter – the first with the scarring that occurred as a result of a gay bashing, while the second is about Kaye’s relationship with his father and the connection to creativity they shared.

Reuben Kaye prefers his comedy to have a strong viewpoint. Photo: Jax Moussa

The performances are still gut-wrenchingly funny and gloriously camp. This juxtaposition is exactly what Kaye believes cabaret and comedy should be about.

“Cabaret has always had something very political at its core,” he says, “and it’s always been one of those things that breaches subculture and wealth barriers.

“And I just think I don’t really enjoy frivolous comedy. I want comedy with viewpoints. I think the reason why things are funnier is when there’s something at stake, so comedy that dances around a serious issue or punches straight is more the comedy that I will always try and write.”

Making a living from these original works is a different proposition to being sought out by venues and other show-makers to play the role of host (something Kaye still does between his own tours). As a solo artist, Kaye found festivals like Fringe created essential opportunities for extended runs in front of enthusiastic audiences.

“Without the Adelaide Fringe you miss a very large chunk of touring work – that’s true for Australian artists, but also international artists.

“And Fringe really fights for artists and makes sure that the money that’s given is given into artists’ pockets. It doesn’t get caught up in bureaucracy… Fringe exists for the artists, while also being a strong force for the South Australian economy.”

This year was the second time Kaye toured The Butch is Back to Adelaide Fringe. For him, this season was not only a vital opportunity for steady work, but also a creative necessity.

Kaye personally spruiked and flyered every night around the Garden of Unearthly Delights, making sure he had the maximum audience for his evolving show. With an expanded live band and significant musical rearrangement that needed to gel with Kaye’s trademark spontaneity, the artist used the season to explore and refine ahead of a busy year of touring that kicks off this week at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Returning to the Fringe with the title of Ambassador, Kaye says, was an easy decision. For him, the festival is not only a vital part of his career, but a vital part of culture in Australia.

“I truly believe that the best way that we can ever change the world is by hearing viewpoints and seeing art made by people who look and think differently from us,” he says.

“So, to be part of Fringe at that level and to be, in many ways, a nexus – a very public bridge – between the mainstream and the Fringe was a really wonderful thing.”

Reuben Kaye is performing ‘The Butch is Back’ at Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 31 – April 24. He will return to Adelaide on June 17 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

The Business of Art is an InReview series about the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of Adelaide Fringe.

Read more of the series here.

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