Commentary: It’s Not About You

April 5, 2020 | By | 11 Comments

Time was when cabaret was a performing arts form in which audience members sat at tables and the people on stage had a job to do: to entertain the audience. Period. Rather simple, eh? Alas, at some point in the not-too-distant past, cabaret took a wrong turn. Today, a growing number of people, especially recent entrants into the field, seem to think that cabaret is something else—some kind of mushy, touchy-feely group-therapy session, in which we are all there to share in the performer’s life and feelings. I won’t take time right now to examine the causes of this regrettable development; I think it’s more important to focus on quashing it.

The most common manifestation of this misconception is the inclusion of autobiographical information in cabaret shows. A few months ago, a singer explicitly expressed this vision of cabaret when she said to her audience at the end of her act, “This is cabaret; you’re supposed to leave having learned something about me” or words to that effect. Why should singers think that the audience is interested in their lives? A more appropriate statement would have been, “This is cabaret; you’re supposed to leave thinking that your time and money were well spent.”

I’ve been going to cabaret since I was ten years old—which means having seen something on the order of 10,000 cabaret shows. I did not go into any of these shows—not a one of them—thinking, “Gee, I’d sure like to know more about so-and-so.” I went looking for a number of things: to be entertained, to be amused, to be moved, to be enthralled, and sometimes to be informed—not about the performer; rather, about the show’s material or subject matter. Mind you, at times I left a show thinking, “I’d like to know that person,” but that was not because of any facts I learned about the performer. Instead, it was because of the performer’s talent, as evidenced by the performance, itself, and the performer’s sense of life, as communicated by attitude, style, humor, and many other verbal and non-verbal indicators, but very rarely through autobiographical revelations.

Cabaret is the most personal of the performing arts: you must put yourself into your interpretations, let your views, your understanding of life inform those interpretations. Honesty does not mean full disclosure; it means being true to your material. But doing that requires artistry—the ability to: analyze and understand a song, take a personal point of view, and communicate that interpretation to an audience. In terms of importance as well as process, it’s artistry first, honesty second. Were this not so, audiences would be flocking to see performers lying on a couch unburdening themselves of their problems and frustrations. But, you’re not in an analyst’s office, you’re on stage. This isn’t therapy, it’s showbiz.

To the best of my knowledge, no formal job description has ever been written for the position of cabaret entertainer. If one were, the objective of the job would be expressed in terms of your obligation to the audience; it would not mention you. In describing how you should accomplish that objective, the job description would talk in terms of the various skills needed to fulfill that obligation.

Where do you come into the picture? You select which songs to sing, it is you who determines what point of view to give each song, it is your sense of life that informs your interpretations, and it is your talent that is required to put it all across. I submit that these elements give the audience a much more intimate and revealing view of you than it would derive from learning where you grew up, why you moved to New York, or what a particular song means to you.

Mind you, this does not mean that under no circumstances may you include such information. A line of autobiographical dialogue can help to set up a song—but note that this device is effective not because it tells us about you, but because it establishes a context or creates a subtext, thereby tuning the audience’s antennas as it were. And remember, if your song interpretation is artful, setup may not be necessary; if it isn’t, no amount of introductory material can compensate. In general, autobiographical patter should have at least one of the following attributes: (1) it is insightful, making observations that have resonance beyond your own life and experience; (2) it is uncommonly well phrased and, so, qualifies as spoken literature; (3) it is funny.

There are other manifestations of this same phenomenon. A singer said out into the audience: “(her husband’s full name), I love you.” Though it turned out that she did this as part of the setup for a song, it came out of left field, delivered as a fervent expression of love directly to someone unknown to most of us, and, so, it was both jarring and cloying. At the end of her show, she thanked friends who’d traveled considerable distances to see her perform—and to make matters worse, she named them individually and identified the origin of each friendship. Both of these choices might be appropriate when performing for an audience solely of friends and relatives, who could reasonably be expected to be interested in her love for her husband and in knowing about her friends. In other words, it is unprofessional. When you are performing a show, you should assume that no one in the audience knows or cares about you. As you write your patter, repeat this mantra: “No one knows me, no one cares about me. No one knows me, no one cares about me.”

Speaking of thank you’s, I will go so far as to suggest that they don’t belong in cabaret shows at all. Of course, you should acknowledge the onstage musicians so that the audience can applaud them—but that’s different from a “thank you”; similarly, it might be appropriate to acknowledge the person running lights and sound. But that’s it. If you want to thank your director, your vocal coach, your husband, your lover, the person who did your flyers, the booking manager, the wait staff, whomever, then do so—after the show. Do you realize how annoying it is for the audience to be asked to applaud after each name you recite as you perform this misguided ritual? This practice started getting a toehold about two decades ago; now it’s become ingrained. During their curtain calls, do the stars of plays and musicals thank their dressers or the theatre ushers? Why do you think the audience cares about to whom you are grateful?

Indeed, the only people you should consider thanking are the audience—the people who left the comfort of their homes and paid to see you. An exception can be made on special occasions, such as closing night of a long run. Because a different dynamic prevails at such events, the audience would be more receptive to personal thank you’s.

Another nearly always ill-advised practice is articulating your personal philosophy of life in your patter. Though I’ve seen this done many times, seldom has the wisdom expressed risen above greeting-card banality. And when the speaker giving us advice on how to live is in his or her early 20s, it is especially ludicrous. While I’m at it, let me caution against making gratuitous political remarks; you risk alienating a portion of your audience. Note that I said gratuitous; if political commentary is integral to your show, it very well might be appropriate.

Why is all of this important? Because if cabaret is to be taken seriously by the general public, not just by the insular world of cabaret aficionados, its practitioners need to treat it professionally, and not as some sort of informal get-together, encounter session, or journey to self-awareness.

This commentary is based on commentary I wrote for the MAC website. I welcome your questions and comments—RS

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About the Author ()

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.

Comments (11)

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  1. Avatar Todd Murray says:

    Bravo!! Thanks for this. A masterclass in op-Ed form!
    If anyone is to make a living at “cabaret” we have to go in building shows that have legs outside of our own NY based cabaret audiences. Keeping them personal at the same time. with the end-game to entertain not only the cabaret sophisticate, but the common joe who is willing to fork over $40 in cover and wants to come away having seen something special and ENTERTAINING. Thank you for reminding me and all of us.

  2. Avatar Roy Sander says:

    Thanks for your nice words, Todd. I appreciate it. Roy

  3. Avatar Warren Schein says:

    Roy,
    You hit the nail on the head.

    Throughout my career, it’s the audience that always comes first, second and third.

    The end……

    Thank you for your wisdom.

    Much appreciated…..

    Warren

    • Avatar Roy Sander says:

      Thanks, Warren. In every performance of yours I’ve seen, your dedication to entertaining the audience was unmistakable.

  4. Avatar Mary Lahti says:

    Hi Roy, great editorial. You helped put into words experiences in cabaret that have somewhat made me uncomfortable at times. One of the things that made me hate cabaret way back in the day before I learned that cabaret can be AMAZING, were the shows where ongoing comments and name dropping about family and friends were made and I had no idea who they were and they were not part of the set up or show. It really created a disconnect. I have such an appreciation for the work that goes into a good show and glad I no longer hate cabaret. 🙂 Hope all is well with you and healthy.

    • Avatar Roy Sander says:

      Thanks, Mary. In line with your reaction to autobiographical references, I’m going to repeat an anecdote I relayed in a piece I wrote six years ago. (It also ties in with the comment Todd Murray made, above.)

      “Several years ago, a friend, who was visiting me from Berlin, and I went to a cabaret show. After the performance, I asked her whether she’d liked the singer. My friend responded with a question: ‘Why did she tell us about her grandfather?’ You see, my friend was a ‘normal’ audience member—not a friend or relative of the singer, and not someone who’d been exposed to the crappy advice that performers must tell us about themselves. My friend is your target audience—unless you expect the audience to comprise only friends and family and you wish to remain an amateur.”

  5. Spot on, Roy. Thank you for articulating these points so artfully.

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