Matt’s Notes From The Eight Annual International Cabaret Conference at Yale University July 23—August 1, 2010
I’ve been back from “cabaret camp” for over a week now. The Yale Cabaret Conference was an amazing experience for me. I am still processing what happened. Imagine intensive 14-hour days immersed in studying the art of cabaret performing. We’d start at 9:00 a.m. and sometimes finish by 10:30 p.m. after seeing two cabaret shows at the Iseman Theater performed by members of our distinguished faculty. And what a faculty we had! Erv Raible and Pamela Tate kept the whole 9 days in organized momentum. Then there were the amazing music directors Tex Arnold, Mark Burnell, Michael Joviala, Shelly Markham, and Alex Rybeck. Our instructors were equally as impressive: Tovah Feldshuh, Jason Graae, George Hall, Laurel Massé, Sally Mayes, Sharon McNight, Pam Myers, Faith Prince, Fred Voelpel, and Julie Wilson. Our days were filled with lectures on the history of cabaret; directing a cabaret show; technical aspects of cabaret; and more. We had intense “working” sessions with the faculty where we sang our song and received feedback and criticism. We also participated in sessions about style and publicity (which were very helpful!).
On Saturday, July 31st, the students—split into three performance groups—presented an evening of cabaret for a live audience. We’d spent several days before agreeing on a common theme, ordering the songs, and staging the shows. Over the course of the nine days, we also saw Tovah Feldshuh, Jason Graae, Sharon McNight, Sally Mayes, Faith Prince, and Julie Wilson perform their individual cabaret shows. This was very instructive because we were allowed to see the wide breadth of possibilities that a cabaret show can inhabit. For instance, Tovah’s cabaret show featured Lilly Tomlin-esque transformations into characters, poems, monologues, and expertly timed Borscht Belt humor. Sally Mayes was unabashedly musical and she was an amazing storyteller. Jason Graae’s show was hysterically funny and a great showcase of “specialty material.” Faith’s cabaret was very “Broadway” as she delighted us with hilarious anecdotes and in-the-moment acting choices. Sharon McNight and Julie Wilson were on opposite sides of the cabaret spectrum, with Sharon singing Blues and telling blue jokes, whereas Julie Wilson simply stood at the microphone and sang her heart out—literally.
I thought I’d summarize my experience by jotting down some of the notes I took during the various presentations and working classes I attended. Before my notes begin, I’d like to share my new favorite quote about cabaret performing that was illuminated by my experience with the cabaret professionals at Yale. Sylvia Syms, a cabaret singer who performed at Eighty Eight’s, Michael’s Pub, and Freddy’s in New York, once said: “In these little rooms you have to be totally truthful, or else you smell like cheap perfume.”
- If you sing a phrase in a song more than once – MAKE IT DIFFERENT. [example: “in a very unusual way … in a very unusual way …”]
- If your song lyrics have the words “IF” or “BUT” in them, LOOK CLOSELY at that. A major change is occurring. [example: “Say, its only a paper moon / Sailing over a cardboard sea / BUT it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me …]
- What is the CATAPULT that sets up the song and MAKES you want to start singing? Even in cabaret, you’ve got to have a reason to switch from talking to singing. Also called the “motor” or “hook” into the song.
- Commit to “making it up” – i.e. pretend like the words are coming to you as you sing them. Let us see the thought process. Another good term for this is: “coin the phrases!”
- A song is a person telling you something.
- What can you pick that’s the OPPOSITE choice? [example: Don’t sing that ballad as a “love lost” song. Can you sing it as an optimistic song? An angry song?]
- Regarding putting a whole solo show together: Know what it is you want to say and why you want to say it!
- Work on new material in piano bars. Record it, though! Sometimes your best lines are lost because you forgot what you said to introduce the song or in response to a vocal audience member.
- With an audience, an UPTEMPO song “buys” you a BALLAD.
- Regarding learning new songs: Practice them with a METRONOME. Tip: I just downloaded a free APP for the iPhone called “Tempo” that is a cool metronome and runs on my phone!
- Look at REPRISES of songs as a good source for alternate lyrics.
- VERSES: think of them as your patter set to music!
- Great quote: “Talent is what you can get away with.”
- If you don’t read music, “How To Read Music” by Roger Evans is a good book to learn from.
- A song is a scene set to music.
- Don’t let your spoken patter “give away” the song! [example: “I’m going to sing a song about a guy I met at Starbucks who made me feel extra frothy” before singing “Taylor the Latte Boy”. Then why sing the song?? You just told us what it was about!]
- Song Order: There are no hard-and-fast rules on this. HOWEVER, the second song is very important because the audience is settling in and LISTENING to you by then!
- Finding your way into a song: Try singing it with different tasks. Do it once VERY ANGRY. Do it again like you’re singing it to CHILDREN (you take care of children and make it very simple for them). This will OPEN YOU UP to variations within the lyrics and different ways of performing it.
- Cabaret ballads: YOU ARE A FILM STAR IN CLOSEUP. Which means … you really don’t have to do a lot. STAND STILL AND SING THE SONG. The audience will see your eyes and face and “get it” – if you are present and truly feeling it.
- Watch gestures, hand movements, bopping to the beat, and everything else! Most of the professional performers I saw did actually very little on stage with their bodies. And if they did – it was purposeful and with ECONOMY OF MOVEMENT!
- As a cabaret performer, we must TAKE CARE OF THE AUDIENCE. By this, I mean that if you sense your audience is worried or not settled because of something you said or something that happened in the performance space, then you have to make them feel okay. They don’t pay money to feel worried or unsettled.
- Break the “reverential text spell”! This means that if you choose a standard like “Skylark”, stop being so precious with it! It’s a song about talking to a bird! It’s a little ridiculous, ya know? Find humor, oddity, and quirkiness.
- If you have to choose between WORDS vs. MELODY or RESTS – choose the WORDS!
- Regarding patter: always take a second or third look and ask WHAT CAN I CUT?
- If you’re telling a joke ALWAYS HAVE A “SAVE” in case it doesn’t work! Sharon McNight likes to say to the pianist, “Start the car!”
- Regarding “cabaret performance opportunities”: Tovah Feldshuh recommends that, when asked to perform, one should always try to “show up great.” In other words, what do you need to do your BEST WORK? And is that place/person/benefit that asked you to sing going to provide what you need in order for you to do your best work? Sometimes “NO” is a viable option.
Thanks for letting me share my Yale cabaret experience with you. The main thing I walked away from Yale with was the warm feeling that we really and truly are carrying on an art form when we perform cabaret. (I also got to pick Erv Raible’s brain about how to build a better Washington, D.C. cabaret community! More on that later!) Next year’s International Cabaret Conference at Yale is July 22—July 31, 2011