Cabaret is a difficult thing to pin down, because there’s no single definition of the genre. While most performances are made up of songs punctuated by the performer telling stories about their life, a given show could involve standup comedy, spoken word, dance numbers, recitations, and variety performances. We spoke to a few cabaret performers and behind-the-scenes professionals about what to know if you want to put together a show of your own.
Unlike a play or musical, cabaret is defined by its atmosphere rather than its staging. Performances are generally held in a casual setting with a small audience—often a dinner club or a nightclub where patrons sit at tables. This allows the performer to engage with their audience. British performer and acting teacher Samuel Morgan-Grahame told StageMilk, “The best advice I was ever given is: The audience wants to have a connection with the performer or song on a personal level. It’s less about, ‘Here’s a song I like,’ and much more about what this song has meant to you, how it has shaped you, how you have shaped it.”
Connecting with the audience is key to a good cabaret performance. Make eye contact with them, but don’t go over-the-top; for example, don’t sing an entire song to one person. That said, avoid singing with your eyes closed or focusing on the back wall. People come to cabaret for a candid, personal performance; give it to them.
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Burlesque is occasionally confused with cabaret, and while it is often set in a similar location, modern burlesque is best known for artistic stripping, seductive dance, flashy costumes, and bawdy humor. While cabaret often includes adult language and humor, it is more often geared toward general audiences, whereas burlesque is decidedly adults-only.
The most important thing to remember is that your cabaret show should be personal and honest, versus simply made up of a collection of songs you like to perform. Combined with true stories from your life, the numbers you choose should tell a story from start to finish. Also, make sure to strike the right patter-to-singing balance. Award-winning cabaret performer Billie Roe says that “it’s important to find a happy medium, which is why God created directors.”
Most professional cabaret artists recommend building a show around a theme. “Some performers feel as though this is a step they can skip—especially if their desired topic is ‘a cabaret of songs I can sing well to show how well I can sing,’ ” writer-director Alexander Lee-Rekers wrote on StageMilk. “There’s nothing stopping you from doing 10 great musical theater numbers with some banter in between; but ultimately, it’ll feel hollow.”
“A lot of people who do cabaret hire people to write their patter. I really wanted this to come from my heart,” Tony winner Nikki M. James said of her own show. “So good, bad, or otherwise, the only person who wrote anything that I say onstage is me…. I have only myself to blame if no one laughs at the jokes.”
A throughline tied to your chosen theme should be evident in the songs you choose to perform. “I think I’ve learned to trust the songs as being the means by which I’m communicating, as opposed to yapping so much,” Broadway veteran Brian D’Arcy James told us ahead of his first-ever cabaret show. “I think hopefully I’ll be able to keep the thread going in between songs when it’s necessary to maybe highlight an idea or a thought or to give credit where credit is due. But I’ve learned to let the music do the talking.”
Musical numbers aren’t a part of comedian and playwright Chris Ferretti’s cabaret act. When conceiving a show, he begins with deciding how long he wants it to be. “Once you know that, it’s all about distilling down the hours of material you have into a killer performance,” he says.
Ferretti advises setting a day for your show in order to give yourself a hard deadline. “That becomes your D-Day. By hook or crook, you and your fellow performers are getting your asses up onstage.”
Make sure you rehearse and workshop your cabaret for friends, family, or fellow performers; they can identify any spots that need to be tightened up—or that simply don’t work. Getting your show on its feet in front of a friendly audience will also help you get comfortable with the material and smooth out your performance.
Securing a venue is usually a low-key affair. Since most cabaret shows don’t require complex staging or a large cast, look for any place with a stage and a piano, such as a small theater, club, or bar. Most venues can be rented for a reasonable price and will already have the lighting and audio systems in place to make your show look and sound professional.
There are several schools of thought on whether or not cabaret artists should use a director. Cabaret singer Eddie Bruce, for example, prefers to create shows on his own. “I’ve been onstage since I was 11. I know what I want to sing and what I want to say and how to move onstage,” he says. “If I were doing a more theatrical piece, I might rethink it.”
Ferretti, however, believes that cabaret should be treated like any other theatrical performance, so a director is essential. “How silly would it be for someone to get up onstage and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do “King Lear” next week. But don’t worry, we don’t need a director. It should be fine’?”
A director offers an objective point of view and helps you polish your show. Ferretti says that his director, Julie Rose Wallach (who is also his wife), has pointed out seemingly insignificant details in his performance that make a big difference. “[She’s said,] ‘Make sure you move your arms up when you say that, because that adds to it,’ or, ‘Don’t move when you say that part, because you’ll take us out of it,’ ” he says. “It helps having someone on the sidelines calling out things in your blind spots.”
A director keeps an eye on aspects like blocking and timing, allowing you to focus on your performance. Some will create the show alongside the star, helping to pick a theme, choose songs, and possibly even co-write the patter. Some performers, however, feel that their shows are too personal to turn over to a director.
If your cabaret involves singing, Lee-Rekers says that you should “do everything you can to find a musical director” who can work with you on musical arrangements.
A musical director will also hire any other musicians you may need for your cabaret and help you interpret your songs to best suit the story you’re telling. If your budget doesn’t call for additional musicians, they may be your stage partner as well, accompanying you on piano or another instrument. Many performers develop close relationships with their musical directors, and they’ll often turn to them for wisdom when creating future shows.