Just How Valuable Is a Director to Your Cabaret Act?

January 18, 2021 | By

The New Cabaret Artist’s Handbook

Article #11 in this continuing series.

Most likely there have been times when you’ve asked yourself this question:  “Do I really need a director for my cabaret show? After all, I have a theme and ideas, plus I’m working with my longtime musical director who is smart and savvy and who knows me so well.”

Well, as we’ve stated in previous articles in this handbook, on a cabaret stage (or for that matter, even a theatre stage),  there’s so much more to it than just “singing” a song. It’s for this reason, among others that we’ll get into here, that you could use the assistance of a director.

When a number of us started out in cabaret in the late seventies and early eighties, most cabaret shows did not have a director; direction was mainly reserved for revues and group shows. However, as solo shows became more carefully crafted and well designed, that began to change. Additionally, many singers realized how much more effective a show was when they understood who they were on stage (i.e., the interpretation of the songs as well as how the songs were introduced), and actors realized that as adept as they might be playing a role in a musical, they were often not as comfortable being themselves on stage, communicating directly with the audience. Directors started to be utilized more and more, coming from multiple directions: theatre and revue directors, musical directors, coaches, and other performers.

So what is the value of having a director? A director gets the cabaret artist ever closer to realizing their vision onstage, their vision of both their show and themself. A great director is in a prime position to truly assist the performer in telling the story they want to tell through their songs and patter. At the same time, they also make sure that the show itself is an effective and entertaining experience. The reality is that you cannot be outside yourself, literally, and experience the performance from a pure audience perspective. A director does that for you, which is why it is critical that any director that you hire for your show (as opposed to one who casts you in a show) is someone who is always operating in your best interests. Whether or not you can see the director’s hand in a cabaret act, you can often tell when it’s been poorly directed, when the performer seems uncomfortable with what they’re saying, doing, and/or even the way the songs are sung.

“…since you are fundamentally the character you are playing, you need a director who can see where you’re succeeding and failing in illuminating your own ideas and your own journey.”

Directing a cabaret act is often more like collaborating in devised theatre than it is like directing a conventional musical or theatre piece. This is true for a number of reasons: 1) the show is often not written in advance of the rehearsal process; 2) the director often helps to assist in the construction of the show—if not the writing itself; and 3) since you are fundamentally the character you are playing, you need a director who can see where you’re succeeding and failing in illuminating your own ideas and your own journey. It’s a balancing act, but can be incredibly effective when done well. Some of the most beautiful cabaret acts have been created by the performer and the director together from inception, with the performer retaining the inside view of the journey, and the director supporting that internal development while always retaining the outside view of the journey as well, always also seeing the audience perspective.

When there is a director for a show, performers often have an even more intimate collaboration with their director than with their musical director. This is particularly true if: 1) the director is also a teacher or coach of the performer; and/or 2) the performer is extremely personal and revelatory in their work. Unlike the musical director, who also serves the music itself, the director is always in service to the cabaret artist–to their vision, and to their voice. Because of this notion of being “in service” to the artist, the performer-director relationship in cabaret is usually one of the most coherent and symbiotic relationships, and is rarely contentious.

So what exactly does a director do? As with a musical director, this can actually change from director to director, performer to performer, and show to show. So let’s look at what they can do, and might do, and given that understanding, be aware that any of these might not be on the list at any one time:

1) Lead or assist in defining the performer onstage.

2) Recommend songs.

3) Lead or assist in selecting songs.

4) Be present at musical rehearsals to give notes and feedback and even help with recommendations for arrangements, keys, tempos, feels, and beginnings and endings for the songs.

5) Lead or assist in determining the order of the songs.

6) Lead or assist in determining where you speak during the show and what you speak about, sometimes even in actually writing the patter.

7) Lead or assist in determining the interpretation for each song and the ‘moment’ in which each song lives.

8) Give feedback on song interpretations.

9) Give physical direction both during and between songs.

10) Choreograph movement and/or dance, or work with a choreographer.

11) Hire or recommend any additional personnel.

12) Lead rehearsals, including techs and dress rehearsals.

13) Lead or assist with naming the show, booking the show, design for flyers, and other promotions.

14) Lead or assist with stage setup, lighting design, and light cues for the show.

15) Function as stage manager, lay therapist, life support, et al.

16) Liaise and advocate with all other collaborators, venue staff, and audience members connected to the show at any point.

Note: In cabaret, the stage setup (where you put the piano, any stools or chairs, the microphone stand, any other musicians or singers) is your set, so although I listed “stage setup,” this means that the director often functions as a quasi-set designer as well.

Directors also have their own personalities and backgrounds, including different entry points to the artist, the material, and the show. Some start with the personality of the artist, some with the musical feel, some with the lyrics of the individual songs, some with the overlying or underlying message of the entire show. But one thing is always true: the director is there to make the artists’ voice ring, and ring true, and they are always focused on supporting the performer to give and get their best. Although cabaret can be intimidating for some actors and singers who are afraid of being themselves onstage, this is why many performers who come from theatre breathe more deeply in the cabaret space. As Gerry Geddes says so well: “In theatre, the performers are in the service of the piece. In cabaret, the piece is in the service of the performer.” We’ll hear more from Gerry Geddes in Part Two of this article, along with other directors that include Tea Alagić, Kevin Free, Barry Kleinbort, and Lina Koutrakos.

As with musical directors, it is important that you work with a director who is adept at the aspects of the role you are most in need of, right now, for this show. It is also important that they understand what you do and don’t expect from them. You are always the one who decides your objectives, your budget, and your teammates, but a really great director can help you understand and assess your priorities, hone your objectives, and really show yourself as you want to in your cabaret act.

Category: Cabaret Handbook

About the Author ()

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote."  www.shellenlubin.com, www.mondaymorningquotes.com, @shlubin

Comments (2)

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  1. carol sue gershman says:

    Thank you for this article. It is very helpful in making a decision.

  2. I’m so glad. I hope your collaboration with your new director serves you well!