Rick Jensen at the piano works with Lonny Smith -- Photo courtesy of Matt Howe
Several participants in last weekend’s Cabaret Intensive Workshop taught by Lina Koutrakos and Rick Jensen very generously shared their impressions of their experience. (And if anyone has anything to add, please freely comment or e-mail me to post a separate blog entry.)
For me, that was the key to the Cabaret Performance Intensive Workshop I attended January 23, 24, and 25.
Our class was comprised of ten students: Debbie Barber-Eaton, Marilyn Bennett, Christy Frye, Emily Gleichenhaus Everson, Char James-Duguid, Justin Ritchie, Lonny Smith, Christy Trapp, Steve Spar, and myself. Each of us brought our own unique selves to the workshop. Some of us had no singing experience; some of us had gifted singing voices; and some of us needed to “do less”. With Lina Koutrakos teaching us and Rick Jensen at the piano adding his musical two cents (sometimes five cents!), we were all in good and capable hands.
I have taken many theater classes over the years. It’s been my experience that there are usually one or two students whose “baggage” can divert the class and whose resistance to the process thoroughly derails the work being done. Perhaps it was serendipity, but all of the workshop participants dropped the baggage at the door, opened up, and did not fight Lina and Rick. In return, Lina and Rick responded in kind and give us their all. I felt like some true breakthroughs were achieved in the workshop because of the fertile and *safe* atmosphere that was allowed to flourish.
On Friday we jumped right in and everyone sang a song. Lina, responding to whatever level the singer was at, worked on the song. She reminded us that a cabaret performer uses her brains, chops, and heart all at once – you’ve got to make educated decisions about what you’re singing; then your vocal chords have to cooperate; and you must bring the dimension of your heart to a song – otherwise it’s not authentic (there’s that theme again!).
Many of us pleaded guilty to schmacting. That’s Lina’s word for indicating emotions instead of actually expressing them. Schmacting is false “acting”. We raised our eyebrows and squinted our eyes and looked at imaginary trees in an attempt to prove that we were really feeling something deep!
Lina stopped that nonsense whenever she caught one of us “cheating” or using tricks. A great visual metaphor she used was to take the fishing hook and dig down deep … then lower it even deeper. We also talked about walking to the edge of truth and emotion, but not going over the edge.
Tears were shed on Friday. It was very emotional … in a good way. I can’t tell you how moving Christy Frye’s “Better Days” was. Lina suggested Christy sing the song’s verses to specific people from her life – the first verse to a young person, the second verse to an elderly person, and the third verse to herself as a prayer. Christy knocked it out of the ballpark. The lesson was that a “general” point of view does not work as well as breaking the song down into specifics.
And Emily Everson’s comedic song, “Elves”, illustrated that sometimes it is necessary to be specific with a song line-by-line. The comedy of that song worked so much better when Emily sang is “seriously” and specifically.
Another theme raised on the first day was Beginning, Middle, and End. We learned that sometimes, at the beginning of a song, it’s simplest to tell “Just the Facts”.
I got nailed for schmacting when I sang “Isn’t This Better”. The first lines of the song are: “I loved a man. Truly I did. When he would touch me I’d act like a love-hungry kid.” I kept singing “truly” and “love-hungry” very earnestly so that I made sure the audience understood what those words meant to me!! However, the audience knows what “truly” and “love-hungry” means. The first lines are only a set-up to get to the more important part of the song: “Isn’t this better?” And the earnestness and feeling should be saved for the end of the song. Also, since my song had the word “better” repeated thirteen times, Lina challenged me to specifically define “better”. And I found that I actually sang the word differently when I was that specific.
On Saturday we wrote patter – the prepared speech that introduces a song. We performed it for the class and Lina edited it and suggested new lines or ideas. The main thing I learned about this exercise is that you really have to wear two hats when writing patter. The first hat is “creative” – write down everything and don’t second-guess yourself. The second hat is “editorial” – you must distill the patter to its essence and make it specific to your song. Comedy works in threes. And sometimes it helps to run the patter by someone else – but out loud! They need to hear you say it, not read it on a piece of paper.
The Cabaret Intensive Workshop took place in the Indigo Room at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. During the day, we sat around tables and sang with Rick Jensen at the piano. On Saturday night, after a break, the room was transformed into a cabaret space and our instructors took off their “teacher” hats and put on their “performer” hats. Tim Schall, who produced the workshop, sang first. In great voice, Tim – with smart Jensen re-arrangements – showed us how to tackle Cole Porter songs and how to take a pop song like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and make it sound cabaret-fresh and very personal. Lina Koutrakos sang with the same authenticity, command, and honesty that she brought to our workshop sessions. She proved that those who can … teach. It was truly wonderful to experience Lina live and I can’t say enough about “The Heart of the Matter”, her closing song, and the depth she brought to it.
The next morning we deconstructed the show that Lina, Rick, and Tim performed. They were very open to discussing the dynamics that happened on the stage the night before. The wisdom I took away from the dialogue we had with them is that a cabaret show is very much analogous to giving the audience a really well-made scarf that you knitted yourself. The audience maybe even got to sit there and watch you knit! And any flaws in the scarf – if you want to call them flaws – are intrinsically beautiful because you can’t buy a scarf like that at Target, knitted by a machine.
Lina and Rick and Tim hand-crafted a cabaret show for us on the spot (or at least it felt like that.)
The rest of Sunday was spent putting together our own cabaret show, which we were to present to an audience of friends and family that evening. Lina and Rick demonstrated out loud their process of picking an order for the songs. Again, serendipity struck and presented us with an even balance of ballads, up-tempo and comedic songs. (They explained that sometimes this process can be difficult because a show is ballad-heavy.)
Lina went into “drill sergeant” mode as director of our show. After deciding an order, we ran the show with Lina jumping in and directing the songs as well as staging practical things like adjusting the microphone and moving a stool. I must say that I learned much from watching this process. I was able to watch Lina work with eight other students and picked up great tips about staging a cabaret show.
I learned that a seasoned cabaret performer never “takes his hands off” the audience. For example, even when you are lowering a mic stand or taking a sip of water, you must always engage with the audience and not leave them alone.
I learned that a song starts when the pianist’s hands hit the piano! I may not be singing, but I must be engaged. I can use the piano intro as a sense of purpose to sing the song as I walk up to the microphone.
I learned that Pop music (i.e. as opposed to Standards or Broadway tunes) are usually confessional songs, and sometimes stream-of-consciousness or poetic. In a Pop song, a lyric like “someone left the cake out in the rain” can really mean 1,000 different things.
And I learned to let the theme of the cabaret show present itself instead of forcing a theme onto a selection of songs. Sometimes, if you get out of the way and let the lyrics of each song speak to you, a theme will serendipitously present itself.
It was satisfying to see my fellow classmates perform on Sunday night. Everyone did their best work, given their specific level and whatever elements they were concentrating on overcoming or adding to their performance. I felt like growth was made and confidence was gained by everyone.
Mostly, I found myself very moved by the humanness of the whole weekend. Lina told us that there should be no difference between the person who is backstage and the performer who is standing at the microphone. When you walk into the theatrical lighting, you are still yourself, not some über-cabaret singer. Over lunch and dinner breaks I got to know the other participants better. Back in the workshop, I started to see the armor and tricks we used to protect ourselves onstage fall away. And soon, the performer was the person and the person was the performer. And that, to me, was much more interesting – and authentic – to watch. And I am grateful I was able to participate and learn with such an amazing group of people.
The workshop proved to me that amazing growth will happen when you humbly, honestly, and realistically take stock of where you are and work from there. No one resisted the process with ego or attitude. And so – in fits, jerks, and leaps – everyone blossomed. Over the weekend, I watched people who did not believe they can sing give deeply felt, truthful, and unspeakably musical performances when they focused on what really mattered. I experienced the difference between tones that were conceived to sound good and the sound that is the only way to express a particular feeling or thought. You can physically feel the difference, and you can observe it in others. Lina and Rick put aside their own values and tastes to give the performer exactly what was needed – comedic punctuation, vocal tips, analysis of the text, or a reminder to just tell the truth. But words can’t really convey what it was like: “journey” and “truth” and “amazing” are simply cliches and shorthand for three days that had to be experienced, not described.
We talk about the wonderful transformative effect of Lina and Rick on their students…but, in the 5.5 years since I was at Yale, Lina and Rick have become better teachers. They were both, of course, terrific at Yale, but in helping singers up their game in the cabaret intensive workshops, Lina and Rick also upped their game as educators. It was fun to experience a change in myself, watch changes in my fellow students, but also admire the growth that has taken place in Lina and Rick.
Also, it’s worth noting how HARD they WORK! They are ON…giving a thousand percent to everybody, to the process, to the craft…
and, lina did the whole weekend with a roiling infection in one of her teeth…in pain and on muscle relaxers.