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"There'll be a short break in the middle, and a long break at the end, which will last for a week." At the start of an evening at the Catweazle Club in Oxford, UK, compère Matt Sage often uses these words. And for many of the people in the audience, the whole week really is a break between one Catweazle and the next. Laura Theis tells the story of how she arrived in Oxford from Munich and found a creative home. 

everything's better on a thursday night

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Photo: Catweazle (all rights reserved)
"A bland community centre room is transformed into a cosy salon": compère Matt Sage, who dreamt up the Catweazle Club more than 18 years ago.

Leaving your home country can be a scary experience. It certainly was in my case when I left Munich for Oxford last year, arriving into the middle of a cold, miserable English February. For the first weeks I trudged through the town's venerable cobbled streets wallowing in homesickness, missing my friends and family; and I spent a lot of time writing melancholy piano songs to turn my gloom into music. When I searched for local venues to showcase these songs, I came upon a place called the Catweazle Club, a weekly Thursday night open mic named after the eponymous 70s fantasy TV series. Little did I know that I had found more that just a place to perform. I had found a new home.

The first song I ever performed at Catweazle had a chorus part that went "Will you be my friends and sing along?" My heart almost stopped when the voices of every single audience member sang the answer back to me in a stentorian choir: "Yes we'll be your friends after this song!" I couldn't have hoped for a warmer welcome, and Catweazle certainly lived up to its promise.

The world's most extraordinary audience

If I had to describe the Catweazle phenomenon in a single word, the most appropriate term would be magical.

Its magic is at work once a week, when a bland community centre room is transformed into a cosy salon with the help of candles, incense, large cushions on the floor, sequined curtain panels and a fabric banner spelling out the night's name in golden letters. A golden chair and a spotlight mark the "stage", not really more than a small piece of carpet in the corner of the room, welcoming anyone brave enough to share their creative outpourings.

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Photo: Catweazle (all rights reserved)
Poet and musician Ed Pope is a regular at Catweazle; his songs and stories have become an Oxford legend.

And there is no other place in the world where doing that could more rewarding - or more terrifying, endlessly more so than in any "traditional" open mic night.

The reason for this is the simple fact that Catweazle is an open mic without an actual mic. Instead, every unamplified performance is greeted with an expectant pin-drop silence from the audience, the kind of silence you get in opera houses when the curtain rises. And everyone who goes to Catweazle, be they performers or not, will for some hours become part of the world's most extraordinary audience - this is another aspect of the Catweazle magic. No audience could be more eager to sing or clap along, to laugh at jokes, to reward with applause. Week after week, there is an invariable atmosphere of non-judgmental support in the room; and for many performers this makes it the right place to share a piece of music or writing for the very first time, to share a piece of themselves with virtual strangers.

The Catweazle audience is a real crucible of Oxford's population, of town and gown, where people of all nationalities, social and cultural backgrounds and age groups get together, which also makes it a birthplace of unlikely collaborations and friendships. And the performances are just as varied: besides the classic open mic staple, the singer-songwriter-cum-guitar or piano (a well-loved but notoriously untuned specimen in this case), a typical Catweazle night might also feature magic shows, poetry, a capella singing, storytelling, stand-up comedy, rap, science talks, calls for help in campaigns and protests and even rare birds like striptease opera or a handbell trio.

And no matter where you come from, it is hard to feel like a stranger in a place where a girl from Eastern Europe sings a Spanish song, an American poet describes her vision of Berlin, and a young man from Galicia plays the bagpipe. Poems are often first read in their original Turkish, French or German before the English translation is offered. For a visiting friend of mine, this openness caused his spontaneous decision to perform an a capella version of the traditional Bavarian folk song Drunt in da greana Au instead of the English one he had intended, and it was greeted with gleeful applause.

Becoming a performer at Catweazle is very simple: everyone can just turn up on the night and sign up on a first-come first-served basis. Each performer gets about 5 minutes of stage time, although every now and then, longer sets are assigned for special occasions: some nights might end with an intimate album launch of a local band, a couple of songs from a touring musician passing through Oxford or even a film projection with a live soundtrack. But every night ends with a sense of having been part of something unique and wonderful.

Laura Theis met Ditte Goard at Catweazle; here they perform a cover of Regina Spektor's Apres Moi, with a bit of audience participation...

The wizard behind the magic

If Catweazle is a magical creation, Matt Sage is the wizard responsible for dreaming it up and keeping it alive every single Thursday since 1994, the year he arrived in Oxford with nothing but a guitar and moved onto a house boat on the Oxford canal. When he didn't find the creative home he'd been hoping for, he put out flyers looking for willing co-conspirators, hoping to set up his own space in a "deranged fantasy that people of a like mind might come together for inspiration, the sharing of ideas and a real sense of community," as he describes it.

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Photo: Catweazle (all rights reserved)
Laura Theis performing at Catweazle's new sister night, the Bluebird

His experiment started at the Victoria Arms, moved around different pubs of increasing sizes for several years until finally settling in the east of Oxford. Now, on busy nights, more than a hundred people squeeze into the space, huddle on the carpet and sofas. And despite the thousands of different performers Sage has seen in his time (Catweazle recently celebrated its 18th birthday!) he is anything but jaded: his compèring conveys the sense that for him too, every new Catweazle night is a special adventure.

Far from tiring of it, he has recently set up the Bluebird, a smaller scale sister night on Tuesdays - a measure to counteract the ever-growing Catweazle queue of performers hoping to sign up, a queue that sometimes already forms two hours before the start and winds up a whole staircase onto another floor. On top of that, Sage and his friends are launching The Catweazle Magazine next year, to open the stage even more for visual artists and other "unperformable" creativity.

So I feel safe in the knowledge that Catweazle will be here for years to come, and that on most future Thursday nights, I won't even have to perform on my own anymore. There will be friends, friends who will play along with me on the violin, guitar or harp; and friends who will sing harmonies with me on my latest song's chorus:

Everything is better on a Thursday night / When I get to be with people that I really like / when I get to do the thing I love to do / and the thing I love the most is just to sing with you / that everything is better on a Thursday night...

http://catweazleclub.com/

A sample of what a typical Catweazle night might sound like...

http://catweazle.bandcamp.com/

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