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Life As a Cabaret

Your article on cabaret scams (Sherry Eaker CenterStage column, Nov. 6) really touches a nerve, as I am still recovering from my own cabaret rip-off experience, which occurred over a four-year period.

I am an actress-singer-writer who has worked in all areas of the industry, and although I have been a working performer since the early '80s, in 1992 I realized that I was essentially booking dead-end jobs which weren't amounting to anything in terms of a career. So I decided to do a cabaret act to showcase myself to the industry and hopefully, generate better work for myself. I had made a previous attempt at cabaret in the early '80s and my act had seemed promising at first, but then I started to encounter negativity and rejection, and unfortunately at that time I didn't have the maturity to deal with those elements, so I dropped out of cabaret and focused on other performance areas, such as commercials and voice-overs.

Ten years later I compared where I was with other performers who had started in the clubs around the same time as myself (Example A would be Jerry Seinfeld). I highly regretted having given up on cabaret and I was determined to give it my best shot this time around, in spite of the inevitable stresses that I expected to encounter. Unfortunately, in my eagerness, which was bordering on desperation, I was unknowingly setting myself up to be exploited and scammed by those whose motives were less than honorable.

I answered a Back Stage ad for a musical director who offered a "cabaret package" in which he would "create, rehearse, and book the first performance of "my act' in eight weeks." That was my first big mistake. It was not just that this individual was totally unknowledgeable about cabaret, and totally unqualified to do anything other than write arrangements. It was not just that he had no idea about how to coach singers to sound their best. It was not even that, once I started to work with him, he hit me with all kinds of "hidden fees" which he had not informed me about at the outset (i.e. lead sheets). It was that nobody can "create" a cabaret act for someone, except that person himself. Others can advise, and offer feedback and encouragement, but the basic idea has to come from the performer, or it's not going to work. And anyone who says otherwise and promises to hand it all to you in a neat little package, is a liar. (I realize that this may not apply to big stars like Bette Midler, who can afford to hire the best writers, and commission them to tailor material to the celebrity's well-known persona, but I do believe that this is absolutely true for struggling unknown performers like myself.)

After working on an act for a year-and-a-half with this individual, I started performing it in June, 1993, and performed it about ten times during the remainder of that year. Besides the usual problem of attracting an audience, it was immediately apparent to me that something was wrong, and since I didn't want to repeat my earlier mistake of throwing in the towel prematurely, I decided to hire a director. This could have been a good idea if I had chosen someone who was knowledgeable about cabaret, who had honesty and integrity, and who basically liked what I was trying to do, but unfortunately, the person I selected had none of the above attributes. But I wasn't aware of it when I hired her, because she had completely misrepresented herself on all counts, and was basically out to milk me for every penny that she could, principally by involving herself in the writing as well as the directing, which meant twice as many sessions‹and twice as much money‹for her. (All of the above is clear to me in retrospect, but at the time, I just couldn't see it.)

Due to health problems and my desire to completely overhaul my act, I did not perform it again until Sept. 1995, when I did one trial show for an audience of friends, and then I committed to several performance dates in December, and hired a publicist to promote me. I didn't know it, but I was about to enter Major Ripoffsville!

Whatever problems I may have had with my director and musical director, at least they did the jobs that they said they would do (even if they didn't do them well). Not so with my publicist. At our first meeting, in advance of seeing my act, he presented me with a contract full of inflated promises about how he was going to "promote" me, and, to put it politely, it was all horse manure, as I discovered after the fact, when I attempted to do a follow-up on the "contracts" which he had supposedly made on my behalf. This particular publicist also doubled as a manager, and concurrently made many promises about major clubs where he was going to book me, and lucrative cruise ship work which he was going to obtain for me, again, in advance of seeing my act. In retrospect, I realize that I should have been more skeptical, but struggling performers like to believe in miracles.

The upshot of all this was that not only did my act turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, but I poured thousands of my hard earned dollars down the cabaret toilet, and I am still in the process of paying off the debts which I accrued at that time. And what really makes my blood boil is that the "professionals" whom I trusted, were lying to me and leading me on about the quality of my act in order to bleed me of every penny, and could probably still be doing it today if I had not received an all-out pan from a major cabaret critic, which finally opened my eyes. I thank God for that bad review, as devastating as it was to me at the time.

It's a dangerous double-edged sword: the quality which makes the club scene so great (accessibility and opportunity for exposure) is the very same quality which can lead to the exploitation of a performer who is uninformed, na™ve, or not careful. It's the old story of "if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is." I have certainly learned a lot from my cabaret experience, as painful as it was, and will approach my career differently in the future because of it. There are no easy shortcuts, or substitutes for going through "the process." Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is probably out to con you.

Lana Forrester

New York City

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