Perry-Mansfield Memories — Carla Gordon

February 25, 2008

Carla Goes to Summer Camp

When it comes to the art of cabaret, I can’t get enough of it. I enjoy wearing multiple cabaret hats: singer, songwriter, lyricist, and reviewer. I also feel as if I can never learn enough about it. Thus, I was pleased to have passed the audition to attend the Professional Cabaret Workshop offered at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. After speaking several times with the camp’s director, June Lindenmayer, who offered to transport me and my fellow attendees from nearby Hayden Airport, I sensed how accommodating the Perry-Mansfield community can be.

The half hour drive from Hayden to Perry-Mansfield is a joy of green mountains and blue skies. Camp residents include horses and (we will discover) a mama bear with two frisky cubs. Mark Fifer, a New York based musical director, who managed the myriad details of the Professional Cabaret Workshop, dropped each of us at our respective cabins. (Due to an old ankle problem, I had trouble walking on the mountainside; Mark showed up in a golf cart each morning to get me down the hill. It showed the spirit of this program; how it is truly committed to everyone’s success. I’m so grateful I’d like to name a street after Mark.)

Another delightful surprise at Perry-Mansfield is the food. The thought of “camp food” conjures images of stuff on a shingle. Happily, Chef Josh Webster’s London broil with portobella sauce had no trace of shingle whatsoever. The brioche French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh berries was another standout.

Participants and faculty arrived throughout the day on Monday. Following dinner, the evening’s agenda was that each participant briefly introduce him/herself and sing one song.

I was surprised and delighted by how different each participant was, as well as by the participants’ collective talents. It was a pleasure to reunite with my friend Susan Winter whom I met last year at Cabaret Conference at Yale. Winter is a long-time band singer, with luscious smooth delivery. Yet she has a way with a lyric and in 2006, when she sang Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” it stayed with me for a long time. Pam Peterson, my award winning colleague from Chicago’s busy cabaret community has a huge vocal range and brings powerful physicality to music. Her opening demonstration was an original comedy tune about middle age. (If I am nice to her, maybe she’ll let me mooch it one day.) I found Kelly Houston quite remarkable. If you said that one singer could embody the essence of Billy Eckstine one moment then Paul Robeson the next, I would be a skeptic. Nevertheless, Houston manages it with honest, effective phrasing to boot. Colorado resident, Eve Ilsen who is married to a noted Judaic scholar has a rich alto and connects beautifully with the story telling aspect of cabaret.

Amy Alvarez has a lilting voice and crystal diction. This mom-to-be also has a lovely face and sings with depth and heart. Everyone asks her about New Orleans. Hillary Hogan is another promising cabaret artist. Trained in opera and dance, Hogan looks like a Modgliani painting and warbles like a lark. Kate Watson is a fascinating cabaret personality; she looks and talks like a grown up southern belle, but brings a sly wit. Skie Ocasio has movie star looks and a gorgeous tenor voice. Although young, he has a compelling stage presence. My cabin mate is Jennifer Blades from the Baltimore area. She is classically trained vocally and her energy is lovely. This mother of two has great curves and a glorious mane of red hair. Then there’s Diana Vytell, a psychotherapist from Connecticut. When she asks Alfie what it’s all about, she really wants to know. Vytell is elegant. Richard Malavet has star quality. This handsome baritone sings in English and Spanish. He is a fine singer, yet with an engaging humility. His fans are bound to swoon. California based Nicole Dillenberg (being from Chicago, I mispronounced it Dillinger) is planning show featuring music associated with World War I. She states that her mission is to be funny in cabaret. She has a gentle way and I can’t wait to discuss vintage music with my new pal.

Before leaving Chicago, I sought advice from Beckie Menzie, a former Perry-Mansfield attendee (and musical director for my upcoming Davenport’s show, The Brice Is Right – A Salute to Fanny Brice). Beckie advised that my “demonstration” be something that “really shows who you are.” I choose my original, inspirational ballad, “The Voice in Your Heart.” I had worked on the lyric for a long time and changed some words after the World Trade Center events. I introduced it by saying how it takes courage to stand up and sing before a group of colleague performers, but that we sing because the voice in our hearts tells us that we must. I finish the song and hear the word “Brava” waft across the pavilion: it’s Andrea Marcovicci complementing my song. (She asked for a chart …. Be still my heart.)

The Professional Cabaret Workshop faculty is even more remarkable. Participants rotate among three distinct faculty teams, each promulgating a unique cabaret philosophy. The team of Andrea Marcovicci and her long time musical director Shelly Markham focuses on lyric text. “If a lyric is well written,” says Marcovicci, “the cabaret singer’s job is to interpret the text.” Those words reflect my personal philosophy of cabaret as well. I sang Frank Loesser’s “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” for this class and still revel in team Marcovicci and Markham’s positive comments after.

Team Karen Mason and (musical director) Christopher Denny place a greater emphasis on subtext. They worked with each singer to explore the internal layers of text and the “character” in the song. Team Mason and Denny’s approach is to go deep. Denny also reminded participants of the importance of full vocal charts, personalized arrangements and the ability to transpose.

I looked forward to working again with Barry Kleinbort after taking his class in Chicago. With help from musical director, Norma Curley, I took advantage of Kleinbort’s reputation as an expert on special material. I tried my parody of “Purple People Eater,” (original version by Sheb Wooley) in which the extra terrestrial wants to sing cabaret. It got good laughs, but Kleinbort suggested that the outro verse would close better by bringing the narrator back into the story along with the People Eater’s impact on the singer. Kleinbort’s advice is spot on. Kleinbort and Curley also provided me with sage advice on a medley of “What’ll I Do” (by Irving Berlin) and “Where Do You Start” (music by Michel Le Grand and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman). “Be careful with songs that can be construed as self-pity,” Kleinbort advises. In an instant, Norma Curley suggested a cut of a few bars that gave the medley a more optimistic feel.

Norma Curley led daily morning vocal warmups in a way that was particularly suited to cabaret. Classical vocal music emphasizes vowels, while lyric-driven cabaret requires precise consonants. Curley’s warmups were very effective. Many of us took them home like prized recipies.

Faculty members are good diagnosticians and provide each singer with constructive recommendations. The opera trained singers face the unique challenge of relying on lyric rather than voice. The musical theater crowd is challenged to find the intimacy of cabaret. Others are challenged to project. While there is no browbeating in classes, the quality bar is set high.

Evening seminars explored marketing and publicity, arrangements, and a host of topics with meaning to rising cabaret artists.

The participant program includes a cabaret concert that is open to the public. The faculty collectively structures the show, assigning each participant one particular tune. Usually, when I have the opportunity to sing only one song in a showcase, I prefer to sing something I wrote (to strut my songwriter chops, of course). However, I was happy to be asked to sing “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager which was commissioned in 1929 by my muse, Sophie Tucker. It’s a funny number, and I was glad to fill one of the few comedy spots. Following my turn, it was great to introduce Nicole Dillenberg and link our mutual interest in vintage tunes. Dillenberg presented a pairing of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (lyrics by Lena Ford and music by the prolific Ivor Novello) and an unusually wistful interpretation of “K-K-Katie” with which the audience was eager to sing along in order to “bring Jimmy home.”

The participant show had a lovely arc, beginning with Hillary Hogan singing “Take Me To The World” (by Stephen Sondheim from the musical Evening Primrose) and ending with Pam Peterson’s powerhouse rendition of “Defying Gravity”(from the musical Wicked with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz). Amy Alvarez’ rendition of “It’s Amazing the Things that Float” about optimism in the face of the loss of post-Katrina damage remains with me weeks later. Each vocalist’s presentation showed meaningful growth after a mere week of study. While the concert ended with a communal rendition of the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” none among us could face the prospect of the Rockies crumbling. But we knew our sense of fellowship was to last a “long, long while.”

The last day of the workshop is devoted to debriefing. The morning is a group session in which both participants and faculty reflect on the week and on the previous night’s concert. It is an emotional sharing of gratitude. I, for one, felt that the Professional Cabaret Workshop well honored my treasured art .

The afternoon session allows for short one-on-one one participant conferences with each faculty member. (That Mark Fifer put together the scheduling tells me he can handle the Invasion of Normandy.) . It was tough to say goodbye to Norma Curley for whom I felt a particular affection. It was a thrill to have fellow Chicagoan Shelly Markham gently and generously dissect a lyric idea I brought to him. The opportunity to examine songwriting craft with Markham was a privilege.

I could have spent the whole day with Andrea Marcovicci discussing the American Songbook, music research, vintage music, and the state of the art. Marcovicci recommended that I put together a program of vintage music from the 1920s and before, citing that it is an underserved area of American music in the cabaret vein. I plan to do just that.

One last pleasure happened on my walk back from debriefing when I saw two bear cubs scamper between some trees. Not the Chicago Cubs …. these are the real deal.

Most sessions in which all participants took part were held in a glass-walled pavilion with views of the mountains dressed in rich summer greenery. All found sweet music and fellowship there. Much of the time, a tiny hummingbird buzzed in the rafters. It called to my mind the old humming bird riddle. It was clear to me that why this humming bird was hanging out with us was, yes, he wanted to learn the words.

THE PERRY-MANSFIELD PERFORMING ARTS SCHOOL & CAMP can be reached at 40755 RCR 36 Steamboat Springs, CO – 970-879-7125 –

Entire Article Copyright, 2007 by Carla Gordon

Perry-Mansfield Memories: Hilary Feldman

January 19, 2008

Hilary Feldman was a participant at Perry-Mansfield in 2005.  A Chicago-based performer, she heads up a cabaret charity, Acts of Kindness Cabaret.  The following is a letter she wrote home during her Perry-Mansfield experience; the Perry-Mansfield site also features an essay based on her last morning.

Letter from 7000 Feet

 I finished dinner early, so I stole away to the camp office to check my e-mail and write for a bit.  I didn’t read any e-mail, as I don’t want my mind filled with doings back home.  I just made sure to clear out the junk.

I had some vague notion of writing a little each day while here in an effort to somehow capture this glorious experience or, at least, pieces of it.  But despite scattered hours of down time each day, I never seem to get to it.  There’s ‘homework’ to be done, or walks to take, or a nap to grab (I’m fighting a bug), and I want to actually add to and live in the experiences each day more than I want to stop and write them down.

They are too big for pen and paper anyway… like trying to capture the enormity and history of The Grand Canyon in a photograph.

There are the shouts of youngsters outside the window just now.  “Look, Mom, there’s a rainbow!”  Andrea Marcovicci’s daughter is here, along with a friend, so we have two young girls in our midst for the rest of the week.  They are right… there is a rainbow.

(Above — with Hilary at cabaret camp) 

We had wonderful thunderstorms on and off all day today.  The storms and the sky here are tremendous.  Everything is so much bigger here, it seems, perhaps because we are 7000 feet closer to it all.  Thundering, angry clouds roll in over the mountains on the west side of camp, put on spectacular show of music and light and volumes of mountain rain, and then blunder off over the mountains to the east to entertain those next in line.  Blue skies with big, white, puffy clouds always follow, and the temperature fools us into thinking we will have a warm day, but it never gets too hot.

It’s rained every day we’ve been here, but never for long and, until today, just once a day.  Just enough to give the growth what it needs, and then it’s gone.  Like Mother Nature’s sprinkler.

I’d forgotten the splendor of mountains, but I won’t forget again I think… I hope… at least for a long, long time.  The air is thin and clean and full of fragrances.  I feel more primal somehow, more tuned into my senses.  And it’s so silent.  It’s just the earth out there, with a few of us upright beings scattered about.  No TV’s, no radios, no advertising, no intrusions.  I expect I would want some intrusions if I were here a long time, but right now I don’t want them at all.  I don’t miss them at all.

Our work here is very intense, very difficult, and unbelievably fun.  I am completely at home doing this work, thoroughly myself.  I hope I can find a way in my life to do much, much more of it.  It is, without question, the work I am meant to do.  I don’t know if that’s true for everyone here, but it doesn’t matter.  Everyone is working hard.  Everyone is doing what they need to be doing and honoring each other’s time and work.  We all have the same work ethic… and the same play ethic, which is also good.  Hard work like this requires lots of laughter, and we do laugh a lot.

Last night, Wednesday, we saw Andrea Marcovicci’s concert, which was outstanding.  I was feeling most unwell by the end of it, and it was cold standing outside at the reception, so I was happy to get back to camp and into my cabin.  Two of our colleagues, Michael and George, joined Francesca and I in our Cabin for a glass of wine and some conversation.  Well, they had wine… I had “Airborn” and tea and Tylenol.  =)  It was nice to have some time other than meals to just relax and chat.  They left around midnight, which is 2 hours later than I’ve been going to bed here every other night, and I was ready for sleep.  But, no dice.  We had another visitor.

A bat.

Can’t say I’ve ever encountered a bat indoors before, and neither of us knew what to do.  Bat was swooping and swirling around our living room, dive-bombing our heads as if to say, “Hey!  Get out of my house!”  It was a bit unnerving, really.  Francesca opened the door, and I turned on all our lights, but Bat wouldn’t leave.  Too tired to do anything more, we ended up sleeping with Bat as our houseguest.

The days are full here.  Breakfast at 8:30.  Warm-ups at 9:40.  Class from 10:00 – 12:30.  Lunch from 1:00 – 2:00.  Class from 2:30 – 5:00.  Dinner from 6:00 – 7:00.  Evening session or concert from 7:30 – 9:30.  I’ve gotten up each morning to go for a walk before breakfast (except this morning as I wasn’t feeling well).  I don’t go far, but everywhere is just beautiful, and the early morning has its own kind of wonder to it.  After breakfast, I go up to my favorite spot, a ridge from where you can see the entire surrounding valleys, and do some homework before class.  I just sing away, work on my songs, read lyrics aloud to find every ounce of intention in them.  No one to bother, no one to bother me… just me and the mountains for half an hour or more.  It’s heaven. 

After that, though, the scattered ‘free’ hours throughout the day end up being filled one way or another.  We’re exchanging and copying music, practicing a bit, taking care of one logistical living matter or another, or just stealing a few moments of true down time… to process the previous hours.

There are three groups of morning and afternoon classes.  The faculty teaches in teams of two:  Andrea Marcovicci and her music director, Shelly Markham; Karen Mason and her music director, Chris Denny; and composer/director, Barry Kleinbort and pianist/arranger, David Gaines.  Andrea and Shelly teach in The Pavillion, a post-and-beam building with three glass walls, surrounded by the mountains.  Karen and Chris teach in a big dance studio, raised off the ground, with 3 walls of sliding barn doors.  When the doors are all open, it’s like having class outside in the trees.  Barry and David teach in the theatre, a small black-box-type space.

The 11 students get divided into three groups.  We stay with the same group of students for three class sessions, so we rotate through all the teachers, and then we switch around, so we get to work with different colleagues.

Evening sessions are all-group session, large discussions with all faculty members present.  We talk about arrangements, show structure, and business topics.  The faculty members tell us war stories, and we drift off point a lot, but it’s great fun so no one minds.  Everyone gets along so well here, students and teachers.  It’s quite remarkable.

I’m overwhelmed with excitement over the work I have done here, and the work I’ve seen my colleagues do, and we’re only half way through the week!  My show in October, though a ‘repeat’ show, will be vastly different and vastly improved over the last time you saw it.  I can’t wait to give it another go.

In the valley where campus lies, the sun sets early.  The valley fills with shadows by 7:30 or so, while the surrounding mountains are still bathed in sunlight until the late evening hours.  The very tops of the mountains remain glowing until well after 10, as if they are not of the same world as we are.

Tonight after our evening session, we plan to have a bonfire if the weather holds which, at the moment, seems likely.  It should be a good time with our colleagues and teachers to sing and laugh together and get to know each other more as people than as cabaret artists.  I am looking forward to this very much.

Now, though, I must head back to our cabin to take some medicine before evening session begins.  I refuse to be sick here.  Absolutely refuse.

This is one of the best weeks of my life.  I’m soaking in every moment of it, relishing every savory bit.  I feel myself being filled up.  It will be hard to leave on Monday.  But it will be easier knowing how much I will be taking away with me.

Perry-Mansfield Memories — Michael Miyazaki

January 17, 2008
 Editorial note.  I’ve been running a bunch of stories about people’s memories of the Cabaret Conference at Yale.  I’ll also be running stories about performers’ experiences with other workshops.  I’m glad to start off with some thoughts about the Perry-Mansfield Art of Cabaret Workshop which I was fortunate to attend in 2005.

(Above — Andrea Marcovicci shows what a cabaret diva wears for a rustic breakfast in the mountains.  Check out the shoes.)

(Above — Regina Harcourt, Karen Mason, and Andrea Marcovicci during the initial rehearsal of Love is Here to Stay as the closer for the student show.  This also shows the main pavillion rehearsal room, the perfect reward for all the glorious days in my past that I’ve spent in windowless rehearsal rooms.)

(Left — With cabin-mate George Wall in front of our cabin for the week.  We actually had a deer in front one afternoon.)

So, how do you know when your life has changed?

I was having a great time at Perry-Mansfield, but there was no specific “aha” moment.  I had gone with a portfolio of songs that I felt didn’t work for me the way they should.  I got insights into what I needed to adjust.  Later, somehow, the cumulative effects of those insights really shaped me into being a somewhat different, somewhat more competent performer. 

Andrea Marcovicci and Karen Mason were kind enough to work with me on songs they had recorded, and  I worked with Shelly Markham on a song he wrote.  At the time, it seemed a sensible idea.  But I later found out that their validation of that specific work would have the general effect of making me more confident as a performer.  It really does boost one as a performer to be able to think, “Karen Mason said I really get this song and SHOULD be singing it” or “Shelly liked the way I sing this and even recommended another one of his songs for me.”   That will get you through a lot of iffy moments in your cabaret life!

On the third day I noticed something odd.  Despite the great talent around, egos had been pretty much subdued.  Not only had there been no sniping or no interpersonal tension, but everyone was getting along really, really well.  But I had no idea in the summer of 2005 that years later I would still be regularly in touch with so many of my classmates — seeing Kate Loitz, Brandon Cutrell, and Francesca Amari performing in New York, having Regina Harcourt show Ron and me around LA last summer, having Francesca stay with us while she was singing at a benefit in Washington.

Perry-Mansfield is a special place.  The mountain setting is beautiful.  The accommodations are much better than one would expect from a camp, the faculty forgets what stars they all are and concentrate on the needs of the participants, and the food is shockingly good. 

Around the end of August these days, I’m always envying the new participants who are about to realize that their lives have changed.

Perry-Mansfield 2008 Dates

January 4, 2008

Perry-Mansfield has announced workshop and audition dates for its 2008 Art of Cabaret workshop:

  • Workshop
    • August 18 – 24
  • Auditions
    • New York (Feb 11/Apr 14)
    • Chicago (Mar 10)
    • Los Angeles (Mar10)

The workshop takes place in an edenic mountain setting and features a stellar faculty.

As someone who has been through the program, I can personally attest to the magic.  I envy anyone going!