A Survey of the D.C. Cabaret Scene, 2010

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

The other day I went through all of my cabaret programs and also searched through Michael Miyazaki’s cabaret blog.

I compiled a list of every local cabaret show presented in the area since 2007.  I did this because I was curious about how much work we cabaret performers actually do in this town.

I was pleasantly surprised.

In the last quarter of 2007, we performed about 16 different shows (including shows by Deborah Davidson, Sally Martin, Beverly Cosham, Joe Peck, Doug Bowles, Michael Miyazaki, and Joanne Schmoll, among others).

In 2008, over 35 cabaret shows were produced in the D.C. area. Surprisingly, one could see a cabaret almost every month of the year in 2008.  Michael Sazonov, Ron Squeri, Maris Wicker, Dean Reichard and me, Katherine McCann and ongoing shows like CHAWbaret and Maggie’s Cabaret presented singers that year.

2009 was similar:  over 35 cabarets were performed almost every month of the year.  Lonny Smith, Terri Allen, Justin Ritchie, Elizabeth Keyes, Alicia Steffman, Marianne Glass-Miller, and Emily Everson were busy in 2009 (and others I did not mention because of space limitations).

In January 2010 you could have seen Joe Peck or Sally Martin sing.  In February, the Bethesda Theater sponsored a Valentine’s cabaret and Beverly Cosham sang in Reston.  And in March, Maris Wicker and myself presented solo shows; Capitol Hill Arts Workshop presented its seventh CHAWbaret; and group shows were presented at Atlas Performing Arts Center and The Arts Club.

After I surveyed my list, I was proud of us.  Way to go D.C. cabaret artists!!

I noticed a few things, too, after compiling my list.

Excluding the now-defunct Indigo room, Cabaret artists producing their own shows in D.C. seem to utilize these venues:  Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, The Arts Club, Playbill Café, The Corner Store, and Sitar Arts Center.  If you want to perform in a “group setting”, then there’s Artomatic and the D.C. Fringe Festival.

Germano’s (bless them!) in Baltimore is the only local venue consistently presenting cabaret artists.  The D.C. Cabaret Network hosts the only strictly cabaret open mic in town.

Otherwise, there are no venues in Washington, D.C. where fully produced cabaret shows are regularly presented.
It’s unfortunate that D.C. does not have a good cabaret venue.

The Indigo Room, housed upstairs at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street Northeast, no longer exists as a cabaret space (although I have recently spoken to Atlas about renting the space out for a solo show).  It’s too bad Indigo is gone.  It started off so well!  It had proper cabaret tables and drink service; the folks who ran it had just put in some lighting; and, despite the far-off location, it was kind of fun to spend an evening in that nicely-sized room.

I’ve had my eye opened lately as I cruise around town … is there a restaurant, art gallery, or back room that might host cabaret shows?

And – most importantly – do these untapped venues have a PIANO?! Lights, microphones, etc. can all be added later.  But if you’re going to perform a cabaret, you need a piano!

My cabaret buddy, Paul Pompeo, just checked out a new space I found called Black Fox Lounge at 1723 Connecticut Avenue. It sounded promising for a potential cabaret space.  Paul tells me that the piano room seats only about 25 people – which might be challenging for cabaret economics.

Still, I am curious to know what back rooms are sitting around unused in D.C. with an untuned piano needing attention?

Another aspect about the current state of cabaret in D.C. is the difficulty in self-producing shows.  For instance, Maris Wicker and I had to purchase an insurance rider for the two nights we performed at our venue.  That cost us about $350.  (I’m glad no audience members got hurt, though!)  Certainly the venues we rent from (especially the theaters!) should cover this sort of cost? We split the cost between us, but could a solo performer have afforded to rent the space, get the insurance, and pay for everything else?

Over at Michael Miyazaki’s blog, I posted about publicity and how D.C. newspapers infrequently list local cabaret shows.  I can’t tell you my frustration with this!

And yet, using my list of local shows as evidence, the newspapers could have listed up to five of our local cabaret shows EVERY MONTH over the last few years and steered potential cabaret audiences toward LOCAL talent.

The local D.C. cabaret scene (as I have said before) is small but vibrant.  There’s true talent here.  I salute all of you who have tackled producing your own show in this town – and commend any of you who are planning to do it.

Let’s keep thinking outside the box about how to make things better.

In my opinion, finding someone or somewhere to host a cabaret performance is key!

* Please note that my list of D.C. cabaret does not include professional or national theaters in town like the Kennedy Center or Signature Theater.  They book talent from out-of-town and their budgets and subscription base take care of audience attendance for their shows. My list covers 100% local D.C. cabaret talent!

Don’t forget: Open Mic on Monday, April 19th

“Failing” at Open Mic

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

I’ve noticed a pattern that I tend to follow when I learn a new song. 

After getting the sheet music, transposing it, and rehearsing it, there comes a point when I take the song to one of the DC Cabaret Network’s open mic nights and I sing it for the first time in front of real, live people.

And I usually suck.

And then I usually feel ineffective, untalented, and frustrated.

Until lately.

I’ve come to realize that part of my process of getting a song up on its feet and “performance ready” is also sucking at singing it once or twice.  There’s nothing like forgetting your lyrics or mangling a note in front of your cabaret peers.  Once I’ve done that, then the worst possible thing that could have happened to me on stage has happened.  And I can then move on and work on the song smarter and better.

I went through this process recently with “Losing My Mind” by Stephen Sondheim.  I performed it in my cabaret, HAPPY ENDINGS, and I suspected right up until opening night that I should have cut it from the show and not performed it.  For some reason, I could not get a “handle” on it.  And I still have the recording I made at January’s Open Mic when I choked on the big note and when I sang the lyrics incorrectly (“spend sleepless nights AND think about you” instead of the correct lyric, which is “spend sleepless nights TO think about you” – very different meanings!)

I’m not 100% sure how I finally got “Losing My Mind” to click. 

One thing that helped is that I wrote new patter to introduce the song.  (Originally, I started singing it in the show without any introduction).  The new patter really helped set up the “story” of the song for me.  Also, Alex Tang (my music director) seamlessly connected “Losing My Mind” with “Isn’t This Better?” which gave me a nice transition between the two songs – and which also helped inform my singing of “Losing My Mind” because now it was followed with a more “serene” song.

Also, at some point before opening night, Alex stopped playing the “big piano” version of “Losing My Mind.”  I remember turning to him after a rehearsal and saying, “Alex, can you give me more piano?  I feel a little naked out here.”  My director Judy Simmons and Alex both said:  “It’s better this way.  It sounds more like your version of the song, rather than someone else’s.”

So to sum this all up, in my experience I’ve got to get up and suck at singing a song before I can be good at singing the same song.  It’s a “journey” to get a song to resonate – trying out different patter, staging, and pairing it with another song – before it works.

Practice, Practice, Practice

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

Hello, DCCN peeps!  I’m thrilled and delighted to be this month’s guest blogger.  Since I just finished premiering my solo cabaret show HAPPY ENDINGS, which I performed March 19-20 at Sitar Arts Center, I’ve got cabaret-on-the-brain, so I’m hoping my blogs here at SongSpeak will spread the cabaret-joy I’m currently feeling.

So, there’s that old show biz quote:  “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  And the answer is, “practice, practice, practice…”

I’m a practicer when it comes to cabaret.  For me, I like to practice my patter and movements on the stage so that I’m 100% certain of them – then I feel free to throw it all out when I get onstage in front of a LIVE AUDIENCE!

What I found myself practicing the most—in preparation for my solo show—was microphone and stool placement.  If you watch the cabaret pros, they never make an issue about their mic stands or stools.  They don’t apologize when they can’t make the darn mic stand work.  They just make it work.  You don’t notice that they rearranged their stool and mic because it happened in front of you so seamlessly that it didn’t draw attention to itself.

So—aspiring to those high mic and stool standards—I ran through my show several times, simply rehearsing when and where I moved them.  I like rehearsing this way because it’s like finding the “traffic patterns” of my show.  I don’t want any collisions while I’m on stage!  For instance, during rehearsal I would discover: “Oh, I can’t put the stool behind me during that song, because in the next song I’m going to be in the piano crook, and right now the stool is there, so I’m about to have a ‘traffic accident’ on the stage!”

The same goes for the microphone stand.  Oh, the microphone stand!

My director Judy Simmons educated me about this tall, lean, metallic pole that is omnipresent on most every cabaret stage.  When I first started in cabaret, the mic stand was the least of my worries.  It held the mic up, right?  And I could grasp it when I was nervous and it would hold me up.  However, if I had to move it in any fashion – watch out!

Now Judy has alerted me that the mic stand can be an audience-blocker!  So, if I’m not using it, I should move it to the side so the audience can see everything on the stage clearly.  (I used to move it in front of the pianist.  Not good.  That blocks the audience’s view of the pianist as well.)

This sounds ridiculous of course, because there’s no way a skinny metal pole can hide a person or a piano from plain view, right?

Well, I started watching other cabarets.  And Judy’s right: it is distracting when that mic stand is just hanging out for no good reason all by its lonesome self. It’s almost like there’s a third “person” on stage with you and the pianist.

So, I practiced clearing the microphone stand.  And I can tell you, it’s very easy.  It’s very light.  And with just a few steps, I could actually get it far left (or right).  And – even more amazing – I could do that while speaking!

The stool is a security blanket for me.  When I was rehearsing my show, I realized that in the span of three songs I was sitting, standing, and then sitting again.  That meant that I was moving the stool out, then back, and then out again.  I thought, “Jeez, I’m like a Jack-in-the-Box!  Simplify!”

I started exploring JUST STANDING THERE and singing a song instead of sitting on my comfy stool.  And this was not as bad as I thought it would be.

When I’ve watched cabaret (and when I’ve rehearsed my own show) I have discovered that the audience actually enjoys seeing us performers move around the stage.  They like to see us set up the song in our cabaret space, move the stool, and take our time to physically orient ourselves.

But why??

I think the more we interact (with command) with all the elements on stage, then the more we appear relaxed and at home in front of our audience.

How about an analogy?  It’s like the audience came over to have dinner at our house.  We’re hanging out in the kitchen. I’m busy cooking and entertaining my guests, and they’re sitting at the counter watching my preparations.  They’re listening to what I’m saying—but they’re also fascinated by all the activity going on.

So that’s why I like to rehearse where my microphone stand goes and what position my stool sits in.  It helps make my show seamless and entertaining – because I’m in control of my stage environment as opposed to being thrown by it.

April Newsletter Now Available

The DC Cabaret Network’s April 2010 Newsletter is now available. Be sure to check it out for news about cabaret in Washington, D.C. and members of the DC Cabaret Network.