By Matt Howe
I’ve returned from The Eighth Annual International Cabaret Conference at Yale University, which was held July 23—August 1, 2010. It was a 9-day immersion in the art of cabaret performing. Working alongside cabaret professionals from New York and Los Angeles, I took in so much information that I am still processing it all! I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in studying the craft of cabaret performing in a practical setting should check out http://www.thecabaretconferenceatyale.com for more information.
There’s one concept that was driven home for me at the conference that I wanted to share with the D.C. Cabaret Network community.
As cabaret performers we are called to be a specialized hybrid of actor and singer. There was no escaping this reality during the conference. Time and time again very good singers were challenged to dig deeper and stop singing so prettily! The faculty didn’t care about long-held notes. They wanted to know what the singer felt about the words they were singing.
They wanted to see “the movie in the singer’s mind” playing out in front of the audience.
Let me try to explain.
It became very apparent to me at Yale that I must approach a song as a “scene” and answer very specific questions. Why? Because this helps me create that “movie” that my Yale teachers kept talking about.
So … whom am I singing the song to? Where am I? What did the person I’m singing to just say to me that made me start singing?
Let’s take a small snippet of a lyric from “Weekend in New England” as an example.
“Time in New England took me away / To long rocky beaches / and you, by the bay …”
What do “rocky beaches” look like? Was it cold outside? Warm? Who is “you”? And what does “you by the bay” look like? What was he/she wearing? Was her dress billowing in the wind? Was she/he crying? Laughing? Furrowing his brow?
By creating the specifics and drawing deeply from your own experiences, you start building a movie inside your head that you “run” when you sing the song. And, yes, by being that specific it really comes across! As long as you are truthful and not “schmacting” (i.e. hammy acting), the audience will respond.
Here’s the magic though … the more specific your movie is, the more permission you give to your audience to run their own movies in their heads! And that’s the magic. Then we all connect to each other through a song. And the strange thing is that it’s universal, despite the specificity.
I saw examples of this all week at Yale. Several singers got up to sing with a very general attitude toward the song and we were bored! As soon as they dug deeper and brought in their own humor, anger, or attitude then we connected.
I also saw how singing could get in the way of running that movie inside my head. In fact, one thing that the Yale faculty kept saying over and over was to CUT THE NOTES SHORT! DON’T SING SO MUCH! (I can still see faculty member Sharon McNight and her fingers making “cutting scissors” motions).
Other terms that supported this “movie in your mind” concept include “coin the phrases” and “pretend like you’re making it up”. In other words, don’t recite your lyrics like a poem. And don’t get stuck being sing-songy with the words. If you have juicy Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyrics to sing, then pretend like you thought them up yourself!
“I want to see your face in every kind of light
In fields of dawn and forests of the night
And when you stand before the candles on a cake
Oh, let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make …”
It’s funny to think that I spent lots of years studying acting in my 20s. I took many classes about how to read a script, how to analyze what the words mean, how to justify why my character moved across the room … and what did Shakespeare mean when he added a semi-colon to a sentence? How do you act a semi-colon?
After the Yale Cabaret Conference I feel I’ve come full circle. I’m back to acting! I just do it with songs now.
A song is a scene set to music.
When I work on a new song now, I am going back to “acting class mode.” I’m going to write my lyrics out onto a clean sheet of paper. I’m not going to break the sentences into musical phrases. I’m going to look at the lyric like a monologue. And I’m going to ask specific questions, dig deep, and personalize the lyric. And soon I’ll be running that movie in my mind … and hope you’ll be running yours, too.