The Importance of Knowing Who You Are

April 12, 2020 | By | 5 Comments

Article #2 in this running series.

“Just be yourself on stage.”

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s anything but easy.

Every time you go on stage, you’re playing the role of some person. In theatre, it’s through a character. In cabaret, the person is you. Defining who you are on stage—the aspect(s) of yourself that are conveyed through your performance—is probably the most critical element in creating a great cabaret act.

You As A Character
When I asked Tony and multi-award-winning theatre artist André De Shields—also the 2018 recipient of the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award—what it’s like to play himself in cabaret, he states: “There are times, when not bound by the context of character making, I perform wearing the mask of André de Shields. It is then that I am my least compromised self, committed to authenticity, integrity, and trustworthiness. It is the most transparent I can ever be, considering that my essential ambition is self-preservation.”

And why is there always a mask? His response reveals more of André and his take on the world: “Because I have no other choice but to self-identify as a Black man living in the United Plantations of America.”

Whether or not you are aware of it, on the cabaret stage you are always creating a character and conveying information about that character, with every song you choose, the style and tempo in which you sing each song, and what you say before and/or after to lead your audience into and out of the moment. All define you as a character. And so, understanding that character can only make it easier to play the part.

Knowing who you are is self-awareness, and self-awareness is an enormous benefit. What is not a benefit is self-consciousness. That’s when you’re only concerned about how you look, how you sound, and how the audience is perceiving you. The audience can feel this over-focus on yourself and the resulting awkwardness and discomfort, and it can make them feel uncomfortable, too.

Ways to Discover
So, if you’re at a loss as to who you are on stage, how do you figure it out? Try this: Imagine that your ideal audience member has just left the ideal performance of your ideal cabaret act. How would they describe you? I don’t mean evaluative terms, like “fabulous” or even “talented.” What I mean is, how would they describe the person you are onstage? Are you down to earth and homey, or fiercely dramatic? Are you strong and dynamic or soft and vulnerable? Do you fill the room with your energy or create small moments that draw us into your world? Or are you wildly idiosyncratic, changing with each moment and each song?

What are the philosophies and perspectives about life and the world that you bring to your song choices and your arrangements and interpretations? Are you a joyful, faithful optimist or a dismally dark cynic? Do you take it all very seriously or find the silliness in everything? Is the form and style of each moment especially important to you, or is it just about the substance? These questions are even a bit simplistic, but I wanted to give you an idea of the kinds of things you want to think about, talk about with your creative team and allies, and even write down.

If you enjoy actor prep and character breakdowns, take a character bio or character profile question sheet (I’ve created one for you; it’s attached at the end of this article), or you can find all kinds of templates for these online and in some acting manuals as well. Answer all the questions using yourself as the character. You may even learn some interesting—and even surprising—things about yourself. But the objective is to know your character, so you can throw yourself in deeply and focus on communicating the ideas and emotions of your material.

This is not to be confused with thinking that minor details and laundry lists about your life are automatically of interest to an audience. Just like with a play, or any great writing—fiction or non-fiction—details are of interest if (and only if) they create a compelling picture, tell an interesting story, and/or they illuminate some aspect of the world. You are creating the character in order to be imaginative and creative, and to increase your depth of understanding of the layers to be mined onstage.

Audience Is Your Acting Partner
When you’re acting in a scene, your focus is your acting partner; their focus is on you. What brings greater comfort on stage is the understanding that you may be the character and the focus of the audience, but, for you, the focus is the audience. You are there for them, to give to them, to share with them. Just like when you’re in a play or a musical, you do the work to understand the character, the music, text, and your subtext, so they are there for you as you focus on your acting partner and your objective.

Of course, the greatest comfort comes when you know what you are doing so well, and are so engaged in the doing and the sharing of it, that you just are. Which is why it’s important to create a show that engages you. The better you understand yourself and what engages you, the more likely you are to create a show that keeps you focused and emotionally alive and that is compelling for the audience.

Singer and composer Michele Brourman’s response to my question about being herself on stage, is lyrical, because that’s how she thinks and is used to phrasing her ideas.

“For me, cabaret is personal theatre
Songs that sing through your body—
That hold depth and meaning for you in this moment.
Something you want to convey, transmit, share with the people
who’ve come to commune with you in that room.”

Michele, who won this year’s Bistro Award in the category of Singer-Songwriter-Musical Director, is so comfortable and warm on stage exactly because she knows what holds depth and meaning for her, and what she wants to convey and share with an audience. Ed. Note: Watch her performance at this year’s Bistro Awards: https://bistroawards.com/the-2020-honoree-roll-call-michele-brourman/

Practice, Practice, Practice
And then you need to practice. Practice being you? Yes! Go to a lesson, a workshop, a piano bar, or a friend’s living room, and tell the story and/or sing the song that you feel is authentically you. Note where you get stuck, where you question yourself, where you get timid, and where you want to run and hide. Think about how you would prefer to be in those moments, and practice it—over and over again. And by that, I don’t mean you should steel yourself and just push through. That actually makes you less present in the moment and less real. Go deeper into how you feel about the text of the song, the melody, the accompaniment, the sub-text, and how much you want to share all of that with your audience. That is where comfort is gained.

Make the Most of Each Moment
In a show with few performances and many variables, there are likely to be mishaps: everything from a forgotten lyric, a loud drink order, a missed light cue, to a wrong note from you or your accompanist. The reason you can trust yourself and go with the moment is because once you start, there is nothing more to be done about anything else but what you’re doing right now. The best you can be in this moment is if you stay true to your intention: to be who you know yourself to be, to go as deeply as you can, and to stay open and fill the room with all you are, through the words and music.

That is how you define yourself on a cabaret stage, and that definition will continue to evolve as you evolve, as a person and as an artist.

****

Here’s a set of sample questions that you can start asking yourself:

*How you feel about your name, age, gender, and physical presence

*Where born and where live now and how that has shaped you

*Heritage and religion and connection to them in the past and now

*Parents and siblings, relationship in the past and relationship now

*Education, Occupation, Passions, Pastimes

*Introvert/Extrovert / Optimist/Pessimist / Silly/Serious / Self-centered/Empathetic

*What makes you laugh? What makes you angry? What makes you cry?

*What are your best and worst memories from each phase of your life?

*Who have been your greatest teachers (whether or not actually teachers)?

*How have your gender identity and sexual identity evolved?

*What have you been most satisfied and dissatisfied with in your life?

Category: Cabaret Handbook

Shellen Lubin

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 (5)

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  1. Avatar Katherine says:

    Brilliant and so helpful

    • Thank you! Glad it’s helpful–it can be challenging to break down and generalize these concepts. Always trying.

      • Avatar barbara says:

        I think this is fabulous. I found all segments to be very interesting and written with great clarity. But more importantly., I related to everything you said about the essence of cabaret. I felt so excited and inspired .
        Keep it coming.

  2. This is absolutely illuminating and helpful. These are the best acting aids, the best guideposts I’ve come across in ages. Eye-opening. Thank you, thank you.

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