Lonny Smith’s Open Mic Experience

Lonny Smith generously shares his learnings from the 2008 DC Cabaret Network Open Mics.  If he inspired you, remember, the next one is Monday at the Warehouse Theatre…

It Takes the Time it Takes

Last year, emboldened in a moment of idealistic grandiosity, I made a New Year’s resolution to attend every DC Cabaret Network Open Mic during 2008. Though I’d never been to an open mic, this seemed like a great way to jump in. Even though my resolution-addled mind cooked up some rosy transformational ideas about what I wanted to achieve, my goal was simply to attend and perform at every Open Mic. If opportunities for fame or fortune intervened, I vowed that I would break my resolution without guilt.

Hollywood didn’t call and Hank Paulson extinguished any hope for fortune, and so I was able to attend every Open Mic last year. There was no moment of transformation – rosy or otherwise – but I made a few humbler observations along the way:

When you meet a bear in the woods, it is just as scared as you are. Last January, as I shivered in a room with twenty people, I saw mostly strangers. Surely, every one of them was a true cabaret artiste and open mic veteran, prepared to ridicule me the moment I stood on stage. Only in retrospect have I realized that we were all playing the same games: ruffling through music, making small talk, having long conversations with the people we did know, and averting the people we did not. By May, there were no shivers, and I knew the crowd a little better. It was room of people simply looking for an opportunity to perform and try out new material. By December, I saw a community of people and new friends who cared as much about each other as they did about their own work.

Clichéd but true: learning comes from doing. I remember a political professor who insisted that if you couldn’t clearly express an idea, you did not truly understand it. Fair enough. Similarly, with performance, if you can’t express what you know, I don’t think you can truly understand it. Over a year of open mics, I began to sense viscerally what it meant to “get” a song rather than to simply explain its meaning and rhyme scheme. Over time, I learned to see this process develop and reveal itself in others.

Repetition does wonders. Doing something hard over and over makes it less hard, and facing fear over and over teaches you to forget about fear. The butterflies finally fly off to greener pastures.

Know what you are saying, and get out of the way while you’re saying it. If there is a silver bullet for cabaret performance, I think this is it. For me, two of the most electric performances of the year were Emily Leatha Everson’s “She’s Always A Woman” (about her mother) and Eileen Warner’s “Leavin’ on A Jet Plane,” one of her late husband’s favorite songs. Both women are talented performers, but what I remember was the palpable connection between the audience and the song – there was no question what these songs were about and the performers didn’t embellish or shy away.
A lot went through my head over the year, and I’ve tried to make some unified meaning out of it all. I haven’t succeeded. I learned some new songs, pulled out some old songs, and witnessed an amazing variety of performances. At the end of 2008, there was no grand transformation – no new life metaphors, no catharsis. I don’t know that I learned anything in particular from a year of Open Mics, but I do know that I experienced a lot.

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2 Responses to Lonny Smith’s Open Mic Experience

  1. Justin Ritchie says:

    Lonny,
    It’s always a pleasure to read something you’ve written – so full of truth and insight. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Marianne says:

    “Know what you are saying and get out of the way while you’re saying it.” I think this will become my new cabaret mantra – so well put, Lonny. Thanks for your insights. You always make me think a little bit deeper! xoxo Marianne

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