If you could create the ultimate tribute show, what would it feature? Let Sarah-Louise Young be your guide at Theatre@41

Sarah-Louise Young: How to construct the ultimate tribute act in an adventure cabaret of singalongs, dance-breaks and audience participation in I Am Your Tribute

AFTER An Evening Without Kate Bush, Julie Madly Deeply and The Silent Treatment, Sarah-Louise Young returns to Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, on Thursday with only the second preview of her Edinburgh Fringe-bound new show, I Am Your Tribute.

In her “most ambitiously interactive performance yet”, sparkling host Sarah-Louise invites you to help her create the ultimate tribute to an act of your choosing in an adventure cabaret featuring singalongs, dance-breaks and audience participation aplenty.

Along the way she will teach you the tricks of the trade, share her greatest hits and uncover the occasionally darker side of living in someone’s else’s shadow. Expect backing tracks, a box of wigs and wonderment in an exploration of what it means to pay tribute as she unpacks the unspoken contract between a tribute artist and their fans, inspired by her own experience of creating shows about Kate Bush and Julie Andrews.

“I think it’s a really interesting time for live entertainment,” she says. “On the one hand, audiences are being lambasted for joining in and singing along. On the other, they are being fed musical re-makes and film adaptations which have that invitation baked in.

“Look at the popularity of Mamma Mia! The Party. We want to be inside the action. I wanted to make a show which allowed the audience to join in and take centre stage, enjoying all the guilty pleasures available.”

Sarah-Louise Young: Theatre-maker, cabaret performer, writer, director, improviser and producer

Here Sarah-Louise discusses tribute acts, unspoken contracts between tributes and fans, favourite tribute names and weirdest tribute shows with CharlesHutchPress.

How would you define a tribute act? 

“An act of worship and shared fandom.” 

What is “the unspoken contract between a tribute artist and their fans”?

“That the performer on stage is not Whitney Houston or Roy Orbison or whichever star they are emulating. Everyone knows it’s an act of worship, make believe and magic. I have heard stories of tributes who take things too far – ending up imitating the off-stage life of the star too – which can be very dangerous when drugs and alcohol are involved.

“The performer needs to know where they begin and the star ends. That’s why I speak about us all being fans. We pay tribute when we listen to a song, sing in the shower, wear a tour T-shirt…

“…Some of us are such big fans, we choose to get up on stage and say, ‘watch me show you how much I love them too’. As I say in the show, ‘every tribute counts’.” 

Sarah-Louise Young in the “chaotic cabaret” of An Evening Without Kate Bush

Your shows An Evening Without Kate Bush or Julie Madly Deeply featured songs associated with Kate Bush and Julie Andrews, but they were expressly not doppelganger shows, but had a theme within a structure of songs and “chaotic cabaret”. Discuss…

“For a long time I resisted the word ‘tribute’ in connection to my work. A friend of mine used to be the UK’s number one Madonna tribute and I have huge respect for the skill, talent and hard work it took to pull off a real lookalike and soundalike performance.

“But I was more interested in exploring the dynamic between the performer and the audience and the shared love they both hold for the artist being celebrated. In both the shows you mention, I see my role as a creative facilitator.

“Yes, I sing the songs and guide the audience through the experience but I’m also looking for their stories, their input to influence the show. However, when a review for An Evening Without Kate Bush from The Stage said I was ‘re-inventing the tribute act’, I began to see myself as part of a wider community of artists who all swim in the same sea of ‘fan art’.” 

The prospect of encountering yet another Queen or Abba tribute act fills CharlesHutchPress with dread. How do such shows make you feel?

“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people look down their noses at tributes, and prior to making this show, if I really am honest, I would not have chosen to go and see a straight tribute myself. I’d rather listen to the music at home.

Sarah-Louise Young’s poster for I Am Your Tribute

“But I really had my ideas turned upside down when I went to see a few bands as research. It’s more than just what’s happening on stage. It’s about the communal experience of people getting together.

“You can still go home and listen to the songs, and of course not everyone wants to share their fandom with others, but for many people, coming together at a gig can be a quasi-religious experience. We are tribal by nature. 

“It also depends greatly on the band. I know, for some people, Queen without Freddie Mercury is not Queen. But for others, Adam Lambert (who now sings the lead with the original musicians Brian May and Roger Taylor) is the perfect tribute. He’ll never replace Freddie, but he honours him with his performance. 

“When an artist is no longer here to perform themselves or chooses not to tour, a tribute can be the only way to hear their songs live. Personally, I’m more excited by performers who bring something new to the table. Like Baby Booshka, who are sadly about to retire but are a United States-based Kate Bush tribute who play multiple eras of Kate and bring great humour, passion and inventiveness to their act. They are doing their final UK tour this autumn and I urge you to check them out.” 

Sarah-Louise Young in her Julie Andrews show Julie Madly Deeply. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

What should a tribute act seek to achieve? Authenticity is often stressed for shows by Pink Floyd/Genesis/Dire Straits/Beatles acts, but does it need to be more than that? 

“For me it’s about channelling the spirit of the original. I never try to impersonate Kate or Julie, but Russell Lucas (who also helped me to make this new show) and I sought the ‘Essence of Kate’.

 “We would never replicate an exact costume, but we’ll take the feathers as a motif from the album Aerial, for example, and weave them into the look for a track from another era. We want to emotionally engage and remind people of why they love the original. 

“For the more traditional tributes, there are some incredible Elvises out there. The ones who are really successful manage to embody the passion and energy of Elvis, even if they don’t have the exact same look or voice. I saw a terrific female Elvis who really blew me away with her passion.” 

In a world of Oasish and Blurd, what is your favourite name for a tribute act?

“There are so many! I like The Arctic Numpties!” 

“I’d like audiences to feel nourished and entertained and part of something positive,” says Sarah-Louise Young of her new show I Am Your Tribute

What is the weirdest tribute act you have seen?

“I love weird so I might not be the best judge! I did see a clip from a BBC programme, which I’m still trying to find the full version of. In it there was a Britney Spears tribute who I would say was about three times older than the real Brittney but utterly committed.

“I’d love to see more elders in the tribute act world, especially when you think of how many incredible artists we’ve lost too young. Members of the 27 Club like Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see how they might have aged?”

Jo Hird, Theatre@41’s publicist, says you have “lots of fun things to say about the life of a tribute act”.  Such as?

“Oh, that’s interesting! York will only be my second preview. We’ve changed a few things since London, which is the nature of work-in-progress. The show is less about tribute ‘acts’ and more about acts of tribute. You do learn quite a lot about wigs though!” 

Here wig go, here wig go, here wig go: Sarah-Louise Young in I Am Your Tribute

Jo also described your show as “unusual”. How would you describe it?

“Ha-ha… well, I hope it’s joyful and inclusive. We’ve tried to choose songs which most people will know and feel comfortable joining in with. I’d like audiences to feel nourished and entertained and part of something positive.”

I Am Your Tribute is your “most ambitiously interactive show yet”. In what way?

“It’s ambitious because there are a couple of sections where it really could go anywhere. I’ll be trying something brand new on Thursday in York and it might fall flat on its face! But I hope the audience will be open to the adventure, and if it’s all goes south, they can applaud the ambition and laugh with me at the joyful failure. It’s the only way to improve and learn.”

You thrive on being off the cuff, whether in a decade of performing with the Olivier Award-winning improvised musical troupe The Showstoppers! or 15 years of solo work. Discuss…

“I love shows which are made with love and danger. Of course there will be rehearsed moments, songs and stories I want to share – but what excites me the most is the collaboration between the audience and me and what they bring. I love being surprised. I always say there is no such thing as a one-person show. The audience is the missing ingredient. I can’t wait to meet them!”

“I hope the audience will be open to the adventure, and if it’s all goes south, they can applaud the ambition and laugh with me at the joyful failure,” says Sarah-Louise

How will you use the audience in this show?

“I feel very strongly that any audience participation should be ‘opt-in’ and no-one should ever feel under pressure to do more than they want to. It’s the first time I’ve added the word ‘interactive’ into the description of the show, so I’m curious to see whether that changes the dynamic in the room.

“There will be invitations to sing collectively, and some people may find themselves being interviewed or even dancing with me on stage, but they’ll never be on their own. I hope after 25 years of making shows, I am pretty good at spotting who wants to play and who doesn’t.

“There is never any pressure to participate. We have billed the show as interactive on purpose, but if you want to come and experience it in the dark anonymity of the back row, you are just as welcome and valued as people who want to get stuck in and join me on stage. As long as you’re having a good time, I’m happy.”

Tribute acts account for more than 50 per cent of programming in many theatres up and down the country. Why are they so popular?

“Nostalgia, economics and familiarity. Some people want to re-live their youth, be transported back to a time when they first fell in love with certain songs or a particular artist. Plus, tribute shows are a relatively cheap night out.

Making a noise about the voice: Sarah-Louise Young in The Silent Treatment

“Tickets to see Taylor Swift start in the hundreds and go into the thousands, but you can see a tribute band for as little as £12. With the economy under so much pressure, tribute shows remain comparatively affordable and accessible.

“For many people, they might only go to a gig or the theatre once a year. Along with panto, tribute nights are a safe bet. You know what you’re going to get… unless it’s one of my shows, in which case all bets are off!” 

Sarah-Louise Young, I Am Your Tribute, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, July 11, 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

She will play Latitude Festival, Henham Park, Suffolk, July 25 to 28, performing I Am Your Tribute and An Evening Without Kate Bush; Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as part of PBH Free Fringe, at Voodoo Rooms Ballroom, Edinburgh, August 3 to 11, 13 to 19 and 21 to 25, 12.05pm; box office: tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/i-am-your-tribute.

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