It's not a theater and it's not a cabaret, so what exactly is it? The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre is a collection of contemporary automata - a kind of mechanical sculpture - that functions as a kind of exhibition or museum. It started as a slightly offbeat crafts shop called Cabaret in Falmouth, Cornwall, more than 30 years ago. At the time, Sue Jackson sold simple wooden toys along with knitwear and ceramics that she designer herself. When Paul Spooner started working with Jackson, the designs grew more and more complicated.
Usually people or animals, the automata are powered by motors, cranks, springs, heat, or hydraulics to produce motion through a series of cams or gears. Fascinated with the motion and spinning and action, Jackson quickly gave up knitting and ceramics to work on the automata; she saw how much pleasure they gave her customers.
In May 1983, the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre began. Customers, Jackson and Spooner found, would pay just to turn the cranks and press the buttons that brought their creations to life. Most of the pieces on display, though, were built by only one or two artists. When business took off, Jackson commissioned more - and larger - pieces for her collection.
Ever since, the Cabaret has continued to expand. With such a large collection, Jackson began sending some of her most famous and most complicated pieces overseas. The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre has now been brought to the United States, Japan, and countries all over Europe. "For Sue it is always a labour of love," according to the Cabaret's official blog. "It receives no subsidies or sponsorship, yet it helps to support a number of crafts people. CMT endeavours to remain a haven of wit, intelligence and individuality in an increasingly homogenous and mass-produced world."
Today, part of the collection is on display at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. While part of the collection used to be on permanent display in Covent Garden, once the lease ran out, the only way for visitors to enjoy the automata is to find a traveling exhibit. Details of exhibitions are listed on the website, which shows upcoming, current, and previous projects.