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Audience Participation

18 July 2012 | 8:15 am | Sarah Braybrooke

“I won’t be wearing nipple tassles or throwing around pom poms... although, maybe if I got drunk enough.”

If you're set on keeping the fourth wall solidly in place you might want to avoid Tom Dickins, who is performing at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival this week. Dickins has made an art form out of involving the audience in the creative process, from generating themes and lyrics for his songs to shaping their performances and financing his forthcoming album.

Dickins doesn't fit the stereotypical cabaret performer mould. “I won't be wearing nipple tassles or throwing around pom poms,” he deadpans, before conceding “although, maybe if I got drunk enough.” He cites as his influences the likes of Regina Spektor, Rufus Wainwright and close friend Amanda Palmer, of the Dresden Dolls. In fact the performer Dickins most resembles at first glance is Tim Minchin – a comparison he admits he can't avoid, as a piano-playing Australian man given to lyrical witticisms and wearing eyeliner.

The allure of cabaret for Dickins is twofold. On the one hand it's irreverent and permissive. 'I can be a lot more playful than if I was playing in a pub, or at an open mic night. Moments of theatricality are expected. I can get away with a lot more.” But at the same time it has the potential to talk about confronting subjects in an engaging way. “Cabaret has its roots in social and political commentary, a way for artists to reflect upon recurrent social or political issues,” he says. For Dickins, those issues range from perennial themes of love and heartbreak to discrimination and the campaign for same-sex marriage.

Dickins frames his work as “very much a conversation between the artist and the audience about what's going on in their world at the time.” That conversation is one he takes seriously, using his shows as a way to test out new ideas and workshopping material with his online audience. This interactive approach may account for his startling success in crowd-funding his album; he recently broke Australian crowd-funding records by hitting his campaign target of $10,000 in just 15 hours on the website Pozible.com. The campaign went on to close as the most successful ever for an Australian musical project.

“Now the campaign has been funded there is an online secret Facebook group for anyone who pledged, where I am posting half-written songs and ideas, and gleaning a lot of responses. I've been dumbfounded by how generous and brave people are with their criticism, not just because it's going to the artist but also because it is going up in front of all the other people who have funded this project. It's been really exciting, songs that I had previously left by the wayside are now coming to life in a way I had never imagined before.”

It almost sounds like Dickins has found a perfect symbiosis of artist and audience. Are there any downsides? He thinks about it for a moment. “There are naturally some growing pains both in the artist world and in the audience world about what [this kind of model of crowdfunding] means, and whether that's sacrificing any of your creative control of a project. To counter that, I guess I would say, all music is made not just by the artist but by the audience, and the people who listen to a song are jut as involved in creating the meaning for themselves.”

Tom Dickins performs This Is Our Show tonight (Wednesday), Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Chapel Off Chapel.