Critical Thoughts: You’ve Rehearsed and Rehearsed….Now What?

March 13, 2022 | By

For the purposes of this column, I will be wearing both a director’s hat and a critic’s hat, with the former being a bit larger than the latter.  You will see why as we go— 

1) Patter, Patter, Patter

Sometimes even the most seasoned of performers will find patter (talking between songs) the most difficult aspect of doing a cabaret show.  You must be yourself, be natural, without any cover—not even music.  There is no place to hide.  It isn’t necessary to talk a lot; in fact, there is often too much talk.  But you do need to speak, or it will appear to the audience that you are too scared or uncomfortable to talk to them, and you never want that.  As far as content, you’re pretty much free to say what you want.  It is often good to connect it to either the song that was just sung or the one that is about to be sung, but don’t give away the story of the song in your introduction of it.  If you tell the audience the story of the song, why should they bother to listen to it?

One of my rules of thumb in watching a show is that I want to feel that the person (and the persona) that I am witnessing on stage is the person I would experience off stage.  Jokes are welcome but not always necessary and can be intrusive to the flow of the show.  Not everyone has the temperament to be a comedian, nor should they have to be.  When you are doing multiple shows, the trick is to make the patter retain some spontaneity. Just because the words seem old hat to you, they will be new to each audience filled with people who have not yet heard them.  There is no need to speed it up or rush through it because you don’t get the same reaction as the last show.  

When learning the patter, try not to concentrate on memorizing word for word.  Be familiar with the points you want or need to make, and what your ultimate destination is just in case you get sidetracked or throw in an adlib.  At all costs, avoid the ”umms” and “ahhs” as you try to think of the next line or word, and never go back and start over. Save the memorization for times tables; try to remain relaxed and natural.  Having the patter written out and put on the piano or (god forbid) a music stand is a set up for disaster.  If it’s there to look at, you will look at it. If you must have a cue sheet, just write down single words or phrases and place the sheet discreetly on the piano. But, the best remedy is to rehearse until you’re ready to ride without training wheels.  If you are having difficulties remembering a portion of patter, then re-write it, simplify it, or cut it.  If your show or song relies on patter for its success, then the show or the song is in trouble.

2) Paperwork

In the days approaching your show, there are non-performing things to be done.  Early on, prepare a press release to promote yourself—unless you are lucky or financially stable enough to hire a publicist to take care of things for you.  Brevity is the most important aspect.  A critic does not want (and probably doesn’t have time) to read a multi-page description of your endeavor and your history. 

Start with your name and your show title if there is one.  Then the location, date(s) and time(s); include the cover and minimum.  Be sure to list the musicians, the music director, and the director (if you have one, and you probably should).  In addition to giving them credit and calling attention to their talents, this can also help put bodies in seats by promoting your show to anyone who follows them.  Have a short and simple description of the show, including song titles or songwriters if they are relevant to the piece.  If the show has had reviews, a brief quote or two can be effective, but always accurately attribute whatever quotes you may choose.  Uncredited quotes can run the gamut from desperate to ludicrous.  And limit the ellipses or it will look like you have cut out a bunch of negative comments.

On the night of the show, or even a day or two beforehand, you should have a song list for critics with each title followed by the writers and (if appropriate) the year and the show or movie from which it comes). Include the name of your musical director and any other musicians you have on stage with you to make sure the critics know their names and spell them accurately. Triple-space the songs so that there is space for the reviewer to take notes during the show. Offer a link or a website where photos can be obtained, and credit each of the photos with the photographer’s name.   

I have found that audiences often appreciate a one-sheet, single-spaced song list as well, especially since cabaret audiences so often include other performers.  I always give this out after the show, so the repertoire remains surprising during the show, and no one is fussing with papers trying to figure out what’s next or how many songs are left.   It is also helpful to give a copy of the song list to the waitstaff so that they can keep track of where they are in the show.  If there is a quiet or intense moment that you do not want interrupted by table service, you can make that request when presenting them with the list and indicate the song in question on it.  The staff appreciates the consideration, and it never hurts to have the club on your side during your performance.  

3)  Technically Speaking

You can create a worksheet for the tech person out of the critic song list by removing everything but the titles and indicating where there is patter.  You can also point out where you might want a black out or slow fade for effect.  I usually give them two copies, also triple spaced, so they can write down lighting and sound cues.  

If you don’t have a director (and, again, you should), you should at least have someone to be a third eye (and ear) at the tech rehearsal.  Not every tech person is on the same high level and it’s your ass…er…show on the line so you want someone to check how you look and sound from the house.  In many rooms, the monitor on the stage does not reflect the sound in the room if there is a monitor there at all.  There is tendency in in the 2020’s for tech directors to favor lots of reverb. This is not always the best or most natural sound.  It is a curse of shows like The Voice and American Idol that even professional ears think of this as a desirable sound.  Even the best singers can give the impression they need technical “cushioning” to cover limitations in their voice, even when there are none to speak of.  It is never pleasant to listen to a singer performing in a wind tunnel.  Echoes are perfectly fine in the Alps but not in a cabaret room. This is the cabaret equivalent of auto-tuning and it is a distraction at best and a disaster at worst. Certainly, some reverb is good so the sound is not “eaten up” by a full room, but moderation is the operative word and you need someone in the room to give you honest feedback – no pun intended. 

4) Thank-Yous

Bette Midler is the culprit when it comes to endless thank-yous; there were more people thanked on her first album cover than signed the Declaration of Independence. A cabaret show does not need that many spoken thanks. Start with the club (with the owners’ names if you’d like), then people connected with your show offstage—songwriters, costumers, significant other, et al.  The person you hired to videotape your show or design your flyer need not be included in the list unless they are doing it gratis or have gone above and beyond in some way.  Next, thank your director (and you really should…oh, you know) and the people on stage with you, ending with your pianist/music director. Last, of course, thank the audience for being there.  When you begin your acknowledgements, make sure that you do not use words like “need to” and “have to” as if you are contractually obligated to mention them.  “Want to” is a good alternative or you can come up with your own but try to make it sound like you are eager to express your gratitude, not like you are begrudgingly mentioning the names.  Always use full names, accurately pronounced to avoid embarrassment.  If you have additional thank-yous, you can list them in print on the bottom of the song list you hand out to the audience.   

5) Final Note

Now you’re ready to have fun and knock out that audience.  I leave you with the “mantra” I share before each show with my performers—relax, breathe, smile, and drink water!  

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About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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