This. Is. That. Post.
I love words that are difficult to define. Y’know, words like credulous, or post-modernist or British cuisine. I think the word cabaret is one of the harder words about which to get, as they say, the gist.
I think what most of us think of when we hear the word is one of two things: Liza Minelli playing Sally Bowles, or some smoky bar where a husky-voiced singer is holed up in the corner meandering through jazz standards for a semi-invested audience.
(If you have a different knee-jerk response, please comment it!)
When I think of cabaret, from my personal experiences, I define the art form using four main points:
1.) It is a vocal performance, with small-scale accompaniment.
2.) There is no “fourth wall”.
3.) The setting is casual or semi-casual.
4.) The performer is playing the “role” of him or herself.
1.) I’m sure there are cabaret acts that have huge orchestras or big bands, but in my experience, the vast majority of cabaret performances I’ve produced or attended are typically just a singer and a piano, or at most a small combo (piano/bass/drums, etc.). Just a singer singing songs and telling stories without a lot of bombast. An intimate feel serves to further the other three points.
2.) The “fourth wall” is that magical thing that separates a theatrical performance from the audience, so the audience can simply observe the action. Take note of the fourth wall the next time you watch a TV show or movie, and note how infrequently actors look directly into the camera. They’re not talking to us – they’re talking to their story. Compare this with a newscast – where they always look into the camera, because they are talking to us.
Theatrically, think of the stage as a box with four walls, one of which is a one-way mirror. The actors can’t see out, but the audience can see in. That is the typical rule for standard theatre. For shows like, say The Glass Menagerie, where there is an element of narration, the fourth wall is broken frequently as Tom directly addresses the audience.
In cabaret, the goal is for the audience to feel as if they are having a conversation directly with the performer through the banter between songs and the songs that the performer picks, so a good cabaret performer will make it a point to engage his/her audience as openly and as non-theatrically as possible.
3.) I’ve been to cabarets where the setting is super formal and it never plays as well as when the setting is casual. Again, we’re talking about connecting the performer with the audience as intimately as possible here, and in my experience the fewer social conventions that need to be observed, the better.
4.) This is BY FAR the most difficult aspect of cabaret for most performers. I know plenty of performers who have no issue whatsoever performing for thousands of people at a time, but give them a crowd of 10 who are right in front of them, and they have mind-numbing stage fright. There is safety in the insulation of the bright lights. There is that magical “fourth wall” to protect us from ourselves.
I think this is why it’s important to hone a cabaret character that in some way, shape, or form mirrors ourselves. For instance, my cabaret “persona” is very similar to Jadd The Person, but is simplified to highlight my more entertaining qualities.
Basically I took my love of “the pun” and my generally self-deprecating wit-meets-high-school-jock-arrogant qualities and put them to the forefront and shoved my less broadly-engaging feel-my-feelings-almost-decided-to-go-back-to-school-for-wildlife-biology qualities to the back burner.
So what the audience gets is a super easy-to-stomach version of me that is still truthful, so if I do say something sincere, it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
That’s me. Other people have different tactics, but the root in creating a successful cabaret character for oneself is always in building it from who you already are, as opposed to trying to create a totally new person.
At least that’s my opinion on the matter.
So, yeah! Cabaret! If a performer is comfortable meeting the audience where it is – and the audience receives the performer where s/he is, there is a synergy that can occur like no other performing art.
And bam! Magic!
P.S. Because I am who I am and CST does most of its big work in the summer, I’m planning to put on a bunch of cabarets throughout the year. Stay tuned to our website and facebook page for updates. They’ll be easy and inexpensive and often provide a super-chill night out.