When MAC members checked in at Jack Rose Upstairs for the annual meeting held Sept. 20, they could grab a take-away from a stack placed on the reception table. The impressive raft of stapled papers included letters to Michael Estwanik and Nancy McGraw from officials at Juilliard, New York University, and 8 Plus Program, all expressing gratitude for entertainment packages sent their way through the MAC Outreach Fund, for which Estwanik serves as president and McGraw as program director. The enthusiastic correspondents raved about shows in which Julie Wilson, Margaret Whiting, Mary Cleere Haran and Richard Rodney Bennett, Philip Officer, Julie Gold, Jim Caruso, Karen Oberlin and Ted Firth, Amanda Green, David Lewis, and others demonstrated the potency of cabaret and provided a living definition of the word, and world, to young audiences.
These expressions of gratitude were the kind that could very well have warmed the hearts of the MAC dues payers. The letters indicated positive, some might say proactive, efforts by MAC and the MAC Outreach Fund off-shoot to address perhaps the biggest problem small-room advocates face these days: too few potential patrons have a clear idea of what cabaret is and therefore don't find their way to it. You hear about the situation regularly. For instance, in her recent "Melody Melodie" show, Anna Bergman mentioned appearing in Kansas City (I think it was), and running into another singer. He was gigging in a large venue in town and asked what she was doing there. She said she worked in cabaret. "You mean stripping?" he asked.
Anyway, were it not for the cheering handful of letters MAC distributed, which some members may even have overlooked, it might have been possible for the average attendee to wonder about the effectiveness of MAC's current leadership. Although there is a good deal of talk about "community" in the community, it sometimes seems as if the communards doing the most vociferous chatting have figuratively drawn their wagons into a circle, pioneer-like; it's as if they're feeling under siege from the larger, uncaring population. Why else would board member and Cabaret Scenes writer Peter Haas, introducing the general discussion, say he'd been alerted fireworks were expected and wanted to make sure everyone remained calm throughout the confab.
What was the point of his make-nice gesture, if not to co-opt valid, heated discourse? Why else did Peter Leavy, also a board member and Cabaret Scenes writer, note when introducing himself (as did all the board members present) that in his capacity as reviewer, he never writes anything "nasty" about anybody. I took "nasty" to mean negative and thought that it's worth debating the long-range value of criticism that doesn't recognize the difference between good and bad. If reviewers slip everyone—good, bad, or somewhere in between—a pass, doesn't that eventually erode quality?
Furthermore, why did treasurer Jan Grossberg give a report in which he mentioned no figures? Isn't membership, particularly a membership where only the board members elect the board, entitled to know the organization's financial standing? A couple of apparent knowledgeables mentioned sotto voce that MAC is in debt to the sour tune of $20,000. Queried as to the number's accuracy, Grossberg said it was difficult to estimate, since dues from what are now 1,257 members are still coming in. But he also didn't insist that $20,000 is a highly exaggerated sum. The deficit is apparently a result of the MAC Awards night, though that fact didn't stop the preliminary mention of a separate MAC CD Awards night.
The sole hint of dissension in the otherwise fireworks-less session—well, outgoing member-at-large James Beaman did call passionately for greater activism—was former board member Gregory Kennell's suggestions that a number of amendments be made in the bylaws. (Lennie Watts replaces Beaman, and, it appears, there will also be two additional members-at-large appointed soon.) Suggesting that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between his recommendation that MAC membership resume voting for officers and his being dismissed from the board, Kennell stayed cool while questioning the status quo. Which includes the need for 50% of the membership to make up a voting quorum at any general meeting. The plea for amended bylaws has resulted in his joining the bylaw committee, currently presided over by Audrey Lavine.
Perhaps the most startling, if unremarked on, comment of the evening came from MAC president Estwanik in reply to an urgent and poignant speech by Miranda Records topper Kitty Skrobela. Saying she'd poured every penny she had into the label's CDs, but isn't strong on promotion, she confided that she looked to MAC for help building cabaret audiences. Estwanik took the mike to admit, "I don't have an answer for that." Kinda shocking, but perhaps he was just trying to move things along. Or maybe he truly had no answer, which would seem strange in someone who will have headed the MAC board for five years when he steps down next September.
Of course, Estwanik does have a partial answer and has put it into practice, as the MAC Outreach strategy attests. So does the introduction of concierge evenings. But, by this time, he and his board should have other beneficial answers ready for Skrobela. Not to offer some response to her and those in her position is to admit a lack of vision that any board must have if it means to serve its membership to the best of its ability. (MAC counsel Alan Bomser, sitting next to me, noted that Estwanik has done much good. He pushed, Bomser pointed out, for the organization's 501(c)(3) status as a not-for-profit organization able to raise funds and pay performers for Outreach shows.)
But Skrobela's request really gets back to the problem Anna Bergman's anecdote exposes. The public, especially the younger segment, needs to be educated about cabaret. Their many misperceptions have to be corrected. Dispatching shows to schools is a strong beginning, but something larger is also called for—something along the lines of the campaigns that the League of American Theatres and Producers wages on behalf of Broadway. There need to be aggressive media crusades explaining that cabaret is not strippers or fogies singing operetta, but vital performers uniquely offering up-to-the-minute entertainment in intimate surroundings. And there's a more radical question MAC needs to probe. Is the word "cabaret" confusing, even obsolete? Is there another, more forward-looking label for the high-quality entertainment to which MAC wants to draw attention?
Of course, this course of endeavor must be accompanied by sponsorship dollars, lots and lots of them. For the moment, MAC would seem to be too much in the red to do much more than talk about the possibilities. But, as the Sept. 20 meeting attested, MAC is prepared for managed talk.