Yale Memories: Marianne Glass Miller

January 12, 2008

      This past spring, my daughter and stepdaughter were patiently awaiting letters from the colleges they had applied to but, ironically, I was the first one in the family to get an acceptance letter: “Oh my God!” I screamed.  “I’m going to Yale!”

      If I had to describe my experience at the Cabaret Conference at Yale, I’d say it was one part boot camp, one part summer camp and one (very large) part epiphany.  For ten amazing days, away from the usual markers of home/work/children, I lived and breathed cabaret, surrounded by people as passionate about it as I.  The stunning Yale campus, complete with quaint courtyards, incredible architecture and a dining hall straight out of Hogwarts, underscored the uniqueness of the experience: I was clearly not in Rockville anymore.

       Our schedule was grueling: early morning classes, a quick lunch, various workshops, a hurried dinner, then the evening treat – a faculty concert nearly every night.  These concerts were one of the highlights of the program.  At each concert I watched a faculty member bring to life some of the feedback and advice I’d heard them give me or a colleague that week.  Every concert was completely different and utterly personal, which reminded me that as much as I admired and even envied some of the voices and acting abilities of the other participants, the point wasn’t about being other than me: it was about becoming me. 

      One of my favorite experiences was working in small groups, the eight of us rotating among the various faculty teams.  As the week went on, our group formed a strong bond. We saw each other start to take risks, approach the same song from a completely different vantage point, drop some of the polish and add more truth.  Of course, Sally Mayes helped speed that process along with her acting exercises that, by the end of our session, had all of us in tears.  I went through a lot of tissues that week.

       It’s difficult to sum up what I learned at Yale.  Some of what I learned was captured in my notebook and on digital voice recorder, and I still refer to these notes when I work on a song.  But I know I’m still absorbing what I learned, like a saturated field slowly drinking in the moisture.  Now when I watch a cabaret artist perform or begin work on a new song, I know I’m seeing, hearing and thinking in a way that I didn’t before – before the summer I went to Yale.

Yale Memories: Lonny Smith

January 7, 2008
      Every person I know who has attended the Cabaret Conference at Yale—whether they are a social worker, a seasoned performer, or the vice president of fine fragrance development—faced at least one moment of deep spiritual crisis. Some of these moments were experienced onstage, others happened in the privacy of a hallway or an empty bathroom stall, and many were faced in Fred Voelpel’s mirror during an “image consultation.” My own spiritual crisis occurred at Au Bon Pain: somehow, an Asiago cheese bagel forced me question whether anyone in the world ever needed to hear another false, poorly enunciated, out of tune note from me again. The moment passed, the pain was absorbed, and I ate the bagel. I went to another class to sing again, hopefully emerging with greater honesty, crisper diction, and more accurate intonation.
        It doesn’t always happen that way. “Jennifer” (not her real name?) came to Yale with a garment bag filled with striking pink outfits and a weeklong reservation at a local hotel, presumably to avoid mixing with us heathens in the dormitory. Reaching the upper cusp of middle age, she was still rail-thin and not quite naturally blonde. Somehow, she made sure she was always viewed from flattering angles.
      Unlike other students, she did not bring messy binders of heavily notated songs to class. Instead, she brought only the “Frank Sinatra Songbook,” which she pulled out of her Prada bag and leafed through while others performed. In one class, she sang a steamy rendition of “Embraceable You.” During another, she offered a steamy take on “I Get a Kick Out of You.” I particularly enjoyed her steamy interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me” as she purred flirtatiously to an audience of women and gay men about the travails of being “a little lamb who’s lost in the woods.”
      It was during her steamy rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” that I learned the cardinal rule of cabaret, the one that we all dropped almost $3000 to learn: skillful performing and singing are very nice, but the truth—your truth—is enough. Sally Mayes (who spots falseness in a performance like a mother spots smudges on her child’s face) told Jennifer that she wanted to see more from her. She asked Jennifer to lie on the floor, who rolled her eyes but complied as one of the women kindly (but thanklessly) laid out sweatshirts to protect Jennifer’s delicate pink clothing. Jennifer did not like this exercise at all, displaying all the comfort of an upended, pink turtle. Back at the chair, she was coaxed to sing the song to someone real—maybe her son?
      Apparently, Jennifer was facing health problems (“Cancer, no big deal—I’ve got it licked”) and an ugly divorce. There was a distinct possibility that she would not be there come rain or come shine. For three minutes, the wrinkles concealed by the sexpot image became unflatteringly visible. Jennifer’s persona melted away as the entire class leaned forward to see a real person aching, suffering, and letting down her guard. At the end of the song, there was silence, only broken by Sally’s “That’s it. That’s exactly it.” And it was.
      “No, it’s not.”
      Jennifer explained that she sang for fun, not to dredge up real things, which were nobody’s business anyway. This was her week to escape. She insisted that there was no such thing as a “real” person—we were all constructed and fake whether we admitted it or not. By the end of the day, Jennifer left the conference. I suspect she will never face her spiritual crisis, because I don’t believe she will let happen.
      As performers, even during real life, we have the magical gift to become who we imagine rather than who we are. Others don’t always know better and, even if they do, they won’t always tell you. The spiritual crises at the Yale cabaret conference happen because the faculty and the students are taking the time to figure it out, sometimes bluntly but always honestly. Your personal charm, your beautifully spun high notes, and your bag of clever tricks won’t protect you.
      Sure, all sorts of great things happened while I was at Yale—I learned a ton, worked on some great songs, met lots of talented and/or famous people, connected with people through shared creativity, and escaped the dull monotony of everyday life for ten music-filled days. I even found out that my body is ideally shaped, sized, and proportioned, which came as a total (but pleasant) surprise. I remember it all, but the lesson from the Asiago cheese bagel will be the one I hang on to for the rest of my life.  

Yale Memories: Emily Everson

December 24, 2007

For Emily Leatha Everson, the Cabaret Conference at Yale was a Golden Experience…

Going to the Cabaret Conference at Yale University in 2003 was like getting a Golden Ticket and walking into Willy Wonka’s Wonderland of Cabaret (think more Gene Wilder than Johnny Depp).  Every fellow falls into the chocolate river, getting fully immersed in the art of cabaret.

You get to work with and learn from much of the very best talent in the cabaret world…performance instructors (each one a working cabaret luminary), technical mavens, and musical directors (oh, how wonderful they make you and that piano sound).  And don’t forget your classmates!  Their talent and insight will AMAZE you!

The experience is challenging in every way.  The days are long, you want to be on the top of all your material at all times and you will process huge amounts of information. Some instructors moon all over you and others tell you exactly what you need hear (ouch!).  But it is a challenge that many of us crave as artists and are ready to meet like Veruca going for that goose that lays the Golden Egg. 

My advice to anyone going to the conference is to steady yourself for elation and heartbreak, especially for when you are emotionally spent.  Practice your most convincing “smile and nod.” There is no harm in trying to fully understand a comment from an instructor…but never argue. I saw a few classmates try that and it never turned out well.  Just smile and nod.  Pack away your ego, keep what you can use and let all the rest of it go.

I walked away more confident. I became more of a professional and learned better habits.  Every participant introduced enriching ideas and worlds of material. Best of all, the experience changed me in many ways that I can’t articulate…I was just a better.

I heard Leo Buscaglia say “You can’t give what you don’t already have.”  Yale gave me a wonderful opportunity to acquire more so that I could have more to give.  Get yourself well prepared you’ll have a golden chance to make your way!