This happened at some point in the last 5 years. I think that's vague enough that I'm not incriminating or annoying anyone.
So I get a phone call. Am I free next Thursday for a gig. Late night, about 11pm. My usual cabaret spot, but for a very small audience. Five people. Sure, I thought to myself, this sounds weird enough to be interesting. Turns out I was kinda right.
“Ooh”, says the booker, “We've got a beautiful girl – maybe she could be your assistant for your act?”, “Well, no, I don't really use an assistant”, I explained, “It's a solo act, and it's all kinda set in stone..”, “Of course. Sorry. Yes. Totally understand”, slight pause, “What if she was dressed as a sexy French maid and she could..”, and that's how we chatted for a little while until we agreed that I'd just be doing my act, sans sexy French maid.
So, Thursday rolls around and I arrive at a fairly posh London hotel, and get taken up to the dressing room, which is the gym. I'm not the only act on the bill. Turns out it's a small variety show, featuring myself, dancers, a magician and a host. We're all a little amused and confused about how the night will play out, and this feeling doesn't go away when the booker arrives and tells us that the main guest has just woken up, so we might be starting the show a little late. So we wait, chatting about how we don't know, really, what's going on. And then he's ready and I get taken up to the suite where I'll be performing, to set my props.
Suites in posh hotels are like little apartments. Not so little actually. Electronic keypad entry, corridor with bedrooms off it, then around the corner, down a couple of stairs into the lounge where we'll be doing the show. There are three sofas, and on one of them sits a middle-aged middle-eastern man. He's wearing the hotel bathrobe, seems half-conscious, and is sucking on a hookah. The other two sofas are occupied by two young women per sofa, also middle-eastern. Dressed to the nines in micro skirts, tight tops and killer heels. Each with a hookah pipe in one hand and smartphone in the other.
The air is thick with the sweet sickly smoke from the waterpipes, and I start to set my props as I watch the hotel butler liaise with the private security team about how best to bow and/or scrape. I've done small private shows like this before, and there's a way to do it, a way to slightly change the manner in which you talk to the audience to make it work – a way to engage them as a group of individuals rather then an audience, that works nicely. But this already felt a little off. But I'm nothing if not a battle hardened pro, so I was up for fun.
I do my act. All five of them occasionally glance in my direction from under droopy, tired eyelids. Jetlag? Hookah? They're much more engrossed in the phones and their smoking to give me much more than some cursory attention. They're like this for the whole show. Disconnected. Except for two moments. Whenever a female performer does anything...well, pretty much anything at all, the man yells “SEXY LADY” to which the girls all immediately reply, in unison, “OWWAA!”, and fall about laughing. They do this dozens of times. Fuck knows.
Their second choice of engagement was a little more challenging. Whenever I, or the magician, do a trick, the man gets to his feet, points, and loudly attempts to explain how the trick is done. He was, of course, always wrong – especially bearing in mind that I'm a juggler, so the only secret to how any of my tricks are done is shitloads of practice. But this didn't stop him. He'd leverage himself to his feet, stabbing his finger at my face and bellowing “AHA! THIS IS MAGNETS. SEE? YES! I SEE! I KNOW!”, before sitting down, satisfied with his dominance of me, and waving his hand to signify that I may continue, as the girls applaud his astonishing insight.
I finally get to the end of my act. I pull the cloth. No response. I put it back on. Nothing. Politely half-hearted applause, mainly from the other performers, as I exit, shaking my head with a bemused grin on my face.
While the rest of the show ran, I waited in the corridor. At one point, one of the young women walked past me and went into one of the bedrooms. As her bedroom door slowly continued opening behind her for a handful of seconds and I got a glimpse of a few things in her room. A slice of her life. The door swings open. A rack of couture outfits that had clearly been brought in for her to choose from. It swings open wider. A transparent bag the size of a suitcase by her bed, completely filled with every brand of prescription medication you could imagine. The door swings open wider. Her bedside table, with some bricks of money laying around on it like they were coffee mugs waiting to be washed up. The she breezes back out and slams the door behind her, leaving me slack-jawed in her wake.
I collect my gear, pack it away and leave. As I go, the booker says thanks, pays me, and gives me a tip. I go outside, enjoy some fresh air and get a taxi.
According to the booker, this is what these people do. All the time. They're obviously obscenely wealthy, and this is what they do with their riches. They spend their lives – literally – travelling from hotel suite to hotel suite in various cities of the world. They have food, shopping and amusements brought to them. They don't go out. And that's when, as I sat in the back of a black cab heading home, I started to feel a little queasy. Maybe it was the hookah smoke. Maybe not.
I turned it over and over in my mind. I'm a dweller. I mull. I started to feel sad. For me, sure, having to work to an audience that couldn't care less is never fun. For the other acts, for the same reason, too. But also for them.
What a dull way to be rich, I thought to myself. What a waste of incredible privilege. To see a string of the world's most amazing cities from the picture window of a climate controlled luxury hotel suite. They probably brag that they've been to, say, Rome, or Paris, or Las Vegas, or New York, but of course they really haven’t. They're using their fortune to buy a kind of bland, basic comfort. The luxury, I suppose, of disengagement. Seems all wrong. If you had millions wouldn't you use it to have adventures? To increase your level of engagement with more people in more exiting places? It felt like they were using it to just fall asleep on the sofa in front of the TV.
I rode home in the taxi, grateful for the clubs that make up most of my work. Grateful to be able to work for audiences that get dressed up and go out hunting for something they've never seen before. People who are not millionaires, but who still head out with their hard-earned cash looking for adventures. I was glad that mostly I get to work to people like that, because that night, I felt like a professional of another kind, brushing something unsavoury out of her hair as she heads home for a long hot shower.