Cabaret Mechanical Theatre : a south east creatives success story
Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (CMT), run by Bexhill-based Sarah Alexander, exhibits and tours its collection of wittily designed and expertly engineered automata worldwide.
Originating as clockwork puppets in the 17th century, modern-day automata are mechanical sculptures which are mainly motorised and operated by pressing a button. Alongside exhibitions, the team also runs workshops and courses for artists, makers, schools and families, sharing their passion for automata and giving people the opportunity to learn about and experience the craft of model-making.
“Our automata share an eccentricity, a wry sense of humour and a slightly shrewd way of looking at the world. They bring pleasure to people of all ages.” Sarah Alexander, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre.
Cabaret Mechanical Theatre’s original owner Sue Jackson, Sarah’s mother, began selling hand-made automata in her Falmouth craft shop in 1979. As more artist/makers began creating pieces and interest in the field grew, Sue closed the shop and opened a permanent exhibition of her growing collection nearby. Then, in 1984, the exhibition moved from Cornwall to a new home in Covent Garden in the heart of London’s West End. The business’ income came initially from exhibition entry charges, coin-operated models and sales of automata, kits and books. In the early 1990s, Cabaret Mechanical began touring its collection and in 2000 decided to close the Covent Garden premises to focus full-time on a touring business model.
Following Sue’s retirement in 2012, Sarah, who had always worked in the family business, took over. By 2018, she was organising a minimum of twelve tours a year, with shows, workshops and courses held at venues globally including in the US, Japan and across Europe.
While the demand for exhibitions continued to grow, the operational side of the business had become more challenging.
The automata collection was warehoused in London and rents were rising. Model preparation and repair was done at another site, Bow Arts studio in London, and different parts of the collection were being continually shipped worldwide. Sarah, now based in Bexhill, was juggling logistics with venue pipeline and negotiation, marketing and merchandising and preparing and running courses, workshops and materials. At this point, she felt the businesses needed a new direction but was struggling to work out what that direction was. A conversation with Lisa Finch, a Hastings based freelance arts consultant, prompted Sarah to contact South East Creatives and Marina Norris, one of the East Sussex local co-ordinators, recommended she apply for business mentoring through the programme.
In August 2019, Sarah had the first of six 2 hour sessions with business mentor David Adlington of The Consortium. David travelled to Bexhill for all except the last meeting which, due to lockdown, was conducted on Skype.
“The mentoring came at exactly the right time for me’ says Sarah. ‘I was already re-thinking the business and it was great to get an independent perspective. David also really helped with practical advice and tasks to help me streamline the commercial side and work more efficiently and effectively.”
While the Coronavirus lockdown had a devastating impact on touring, CMT continued running workshops and courses online, sending materials in the post and welcoming participants from across the world. They were then awarded funding by Arts Council England (ACE) from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund to help sustain and secure the business for the future.
Cabaret Mechanical Theatre will continue to tour their collection and share their passion for the art of automata.
Their current touring show at St Albans Gallery continues until 21 February and a new show opens at The Oxfordshire Museum on 27 February. Other 2021 exhibitions in the pipeline include Hastings Museum and Gallery and the RH Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California. A simple but ingenious solution mitigates the risk of operating the touch-button models – all visitors are given a free pencil to use to press the buttons.
2021 will also see the business move to a brand new home in Bexhill. Cabaret Mechanical Theatre are one of the anchor businesses of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) and Rother District Council funded Bexhill Creative Workspace which is due to open in Spring 2021. The automata collection will be warehoused at the exciting new creative and cultural hub in Beeching Road and model preparation and repair will also be done on site. Alongside will be a small gallery and shop and workshops and courses will also be run from the specially configured premises.
Sarah recognises the support and guidance she and the business has received over the past two years and is excited about the future.
“The advice and mentoring from South East Creatives plus input from our amazing local creative network including Lisa Finch, who I’m delighted has since joined us as our Development Director and Stewart at the De La Warr who first planted the seed of an idea about the Beeching Road workspace in my mind, really helped shape my thinking about the direction of the business. I can’t wait for the move to the new space and am so pleased to be bringing everything together and establishing a legacy for the collection in Bexhill, my adopted home town.”
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Posted by sally on Wednesday 13 January 2021