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The New School for Cabaret: Introducing The Singer’s Cabaret Workshop

Singer's Cabaret Workshop The new school of cabaret! Jamie Anderson (far left) hosting the showcase of September 2015's Singer's Cabaret Workshop. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.
Singer's Cabaret Workshop

The new school of cabaret! Jamie Anderson (far left) hosting the showcase of September 2015’s Singer’s Cabaret Workshop. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.

Life is a cabaret! And like life, cabaret can sometimes do with a bit of education. So why not enroll on the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop?

London is a veritable hot bed of cabaret. Outside of New York and Sydney, there are few other places that have quite as much or as good and ground-breaking acts as the Big Smoke. But despite the boundary-teasing and jaw-dropping acts on offer in the capital, cabaret is still seen as a “lesser” genre, not helped by derogatory comments by personalities like Gary Barlow, or memories of Jane McDonald crowing on cruise ships.

Championing the cause and promoting cabaret as a legitimate and exciting art form has always been Paul L Martin, founder of Excess All Areas who represents umpteen cabaret acts as well as putting on the London Cabaret Awards. Martin, and long-term friend, associate, and fellow cabaret performer Jamie Anderson, don’t just sing cabaret’s praises, they also school acts in the finer points of cabaret performance via their Singer’s Cabaret Workshop.

What is Cabaret?

If thinking how amazing someone’s voice was is what you walk out of the room with, then you’ve failed as a performer. – Jamie Anderson

singer's cabaret workshop

Jane Anghelatos never tries anything twice, at the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop showcase.

If last year’s London Cabaret Awards is anything to go by, cabaret is a broad genre that covers everything from drag to burlesque and performance art. There are acts that are more “traditional” that follow a familiar format of storytelling and song, but even those span a variety of styles and timbres. Anyone who has engaged with the thriving cabaret scene in London will have gotten a taste of that. So why has cabaret been labelled with “The Gary Barlow Definition”, I ask?

“The Gary Barlow Definition: it’s the name of my second album,” chortles Anderson.

“Sounds like the name of a lesbian night club!” says Martin.

Gay women and difficult second albums aside, the ire towards Barlow from the cabaret community isn’t something new. But stereotypes are based in fact, right?

I think that the idea is that cabaret is people eating peanuts whilst you’re singing in a hotel lobby somewhere just being ignored: that it’s somehow insincere, that it’s somehow dated, that it’s not relevant,” Anderson explains. “I think its been felt that it’s somewhere that people end up when they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

“But this notion that cabaret is bad is just pathetic. Its very very outdated, it’s rather childish, and it’s quite lazy,” rails Martin. “There’s good cabaret and there’s bad cabaret. Just like there’s good opera and there’s bad opera, and there’s good Shakespeare and there’s bad Shakespeare. That’s the end of it, really.”

Martin, founder of Excess All Areas who represents umpteen cabaret acts and who also produce the London Cabaret Awards and West End Wendies knows what he’s talking about. And so does Anderson, with a cabaret career of around two decades behind him. So what is cabaret? Speaking further with Martin and Anderson, it becomes apparent that cabaret, to them, is much more about the connection with the audience that a performer fosters rather than just belting out show tunes and telling a few knock-knock jokes.

singer's cabaret workshop

New tricks aren’t just for old dogs. A participant swaggers in the Cabaret Singer’s Workshop showcase. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.

“We’ve been stuck in a culture where everything is very produced, everything is very managed: we don’t see anything that’s live or spontaneous or raw in any way,” says Anderson. “[With cabaret] there is something visceral and there is something incredibly exciting about being in a room whilst someone is performing. A performer that really knows what they’re doing is able to ignite people and create a happening that’s completely unique and feels completely spontaneous and alive.”

It becomes apparent that cabaret is not just about singing, although being able to sing certainly does help.

“There are some amazing singers working in cabaret, but I don’t think [singing] is the primary talent,” Anderson states. “If thinking how amazing someone’s voice was is what you walk out of the room with, then you’ve failed as a performer. What cabaret is about is the connection between the audience and the performer.”

“A lot of singers don’t know what to do when there isn’t a fourth wall between them and an audience,” adds Martin. “What our course offers people…are games, exercises, and tools to find out how to access their own personality and be brave enough and bold enough to share that with an audience.”

“There has to be a sense [that everything] was spontaneous and just sort of happened: all slightly off the cuff,” explains Anderson. “But the truth is that there’s a lot of planning that goes into that spontaneity. Dolly Parton said, ‘A lot of money goes into looking this cheap’. With cabaret, there’a lot of effort goes into looking this haphazard! You’ve got to plan that spontaneity, you’ve got to have the structure and the skill to build something that will support moments of improvisation, will support moments of deviating from what you’ve planned. That’s the skill, and I think that’s what’s underrated.”

Why the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop?

…like any good practitioner, you have to keep flexing that muscle and working it. If you’re a personal trainer, you don’t usually stop training yourself and just reach for the donuts. – Paul L Martin

Singer's cabaret workshop

Good evening, Mr. Anderson. Jamie Anderson hosting the showcase for the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.

Therefore, Martin and Anderson started the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop in early 2013 to help develop something that was considered lacking and needed on the cabaret circuit.

The Singer’s Cabaret workshop came about because Paul had be running a two-day course in cabaret at the Actor’s Centre,” recalls Anderson, “and working as a high-class prostitute,” Anderson whispers in jest. Martin, sat at the bar with a glass of wine, pretends not to hear. “We had always seen a massive gap in the arena of training for something that is specifically focused on cabaret. What we wanted to do was find a way to really explore the idea of having something specifically for the cabaret genre and what made the cabaret genre specific. What I wanted to do was sit down and sort of say ,’Let’s create a definition of what is cabaret. Let’s look at what makes this an interesting art form: an art form that I love working in, that Paul loves working in, and so many people are attracted to.’ And then, actually work on teaching that and developing that skill, rather than pretending that it’s pseudo-stand-up or pseudo-acting training. So that’s why we started. We decided to put together an eight day course that was going to focus specifically on how to build an act, how do you choose what you’re going to sing, how create the patter between songs, how do you develop a persona, whilst also working on performance coaching and all that sort of stuff as well.

But the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop is not just something for newcomers to the genre, but also about refining the skills of people who are a bit more seasoned.

“Further training…is not something that’s very common in this country as opposed to America,” reckons Martin. “People [in America] don’t have any bones about carrying on having singing lessons, acting lessons, or going to dance classes in the evening whilst working their day jobs waiting for that next gig. But in the UK there doesn’t seem to be that culture, and I think that a lot of artists are not better off for that. I appreciate money is always a factor, but like any good practitioner, you have to keep flexing that muscle and working it. If you’re a personal trainer, you don’t usually stop training yourself and just reach for the donuts. You normally work out when you’re not working with other people. So I find it curious that with artists, not all artists, in this country there is a sense of, ‘I’ve done that, I’m ready, and I’ve made it.’ Well, the truth is, you may have done, but you’ve changed and so has the industry. Just get an MOT once in a while.”

singer's cabaret workshop

Goodness, gracious, grape balls of cabaret! A willing volunteer peels Fiona Coffey a grape at the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop showcase. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.

But don’t just take Martin and Anderson’s word for it. I also got the opportunity to speak to some of the Cabaret Singer’s Workshop’s students back during the September course. One of them was Fiona Coffey, who came wanting some tweaking to a show she has already created and performed.

“I’ve been looking at things like embodying more character into the cabaret: my cabaret is about Mrs Robinson. But its really my exploration of her, and I wanted to understand how to embody her more fully and get creative with that whole thing,” says Coffey. “One of the things I learned a lot about is, and challenged myself to do, is to understand who you are on stage. Who is the ‘me’ who is showing up here? Is it a version of me? Or is it somebody else? How can I play with that identity?”

Jane Anghelatos is another one of the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop’s participants. Unlike Coffey, Anghelatos doesn’t have a show to work on, but has an enthusiasm for singing and performing, and went along to develop her talent outside of her usual classical singing summer school.

Cabaret can be all sorts of different things, and its up to us to create our own interpretation of how we want it to be,” muses Anghelatos. “It can be a story that we put together, or it can be a series of songs on a theme. It can be all sorts of things. For me, learning to talk more creatively and attentively between songs is something that I’ve learnt to do. There were a lot of challenges. Developing the narrative between my songs, to sort of have a script, was quite challenging for me because I tend to talk between songs a bit off the cuff, and in the past I’ve always had a vague idea of what I’m going to say. But now I’ve got to have a much clearer view of what I’m going to say: virtually scripted.”

What to Expect on the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop?

If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you’re not going to learn anything. – Fiona Coffey

Singer's cabaret workshop

Another performer struts their new-found knowledge at the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop showcase. Photograph: Courtesy of James Waygood.

The Singer’s Cabaret Workshop, whilst mostly about developing the audience connectivity and skills outside of singing as well as singing skills, is also about challenging performers and pushing them outside of their comfort zones. Like the genre, the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop isn’t to be considered easy fayre.

The point about this course is to shake things up,” brews Coffey. “You have your routine, you have your ways of doing things, you have your comfort zones. And if you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you’re not going to learn anything. There’s a lot of stimulus. It’s the day before the show and I’ve just learned how to sing a song in a completely different way, and I’m supposed to be performing it tonight, and, ‘AARRRRGH! Can I do it?’ That’s the sign of a good course, because you want to be challenged in that way, and it’s always a journey.”

“We’ve had a an awful lot of stuff thrown at us, and [the challenge has been] managing the fatigue of the assimilation of all those things, and making sure that I capture as much as I can,” adds Anghelatos.

“You get to a point at about day three, where you can see in people’s eyes that they’re starting to panic,” says Anderson. “You’ve managed to find whatever that kind of soft spot is where they’re scared of loosing control, and you can see it starting to unravel. It’s a really effective thing to see, because you know it’s going to be fine, because this is what you need to do to break through this wall in order to start connecting with an audience. You see [the students] go through that moment of terror and panic, and everyone goes through it and everyone always manages to come out at the other side and pull out something really incredible that they just wouldn’t have been able to do so two weeks ago.”

The Results

Latter on, a handful of The Singer’s Cabaret Workshop’s students gave an evening of performances, showcasing what they’ve been working on. And the results? Pretty damn enjoyable. Coffey pretty much nailed her performance persona skills in singing “Peel Me A Grape”, bringing on two strapping gents to, um, peel them a grape on stage, interacting and bouncing energy off them and the audience’s reaction whilst holding their own very well vocally. Anghelatos really pushed her boundaries whilst still drawing on her classical training, oozing fun and sexuality in their rendition of “I Never Do Anything Twice,” resulting in a performance you’d never expect if, like me, you’d met her but moments before. Other singers ranged from first ever public performers to tweakings of established characters, but all were tremendously enjoyable to watch perform.

It’s clear that, even if you don’t quite agree with Martin and Anderson’s definition of what is cabaret and how it should be implemented, the training they give is still of great vision and benefit to anyone looking to learn a new skill or hone something they’re familiar with. But it also goes to show that cabaret is far from a stale genre. It’s still working, it’s still learning, and its still thrilling. Under the tutelage of Martin and Anderson, will you be the next big cabaret star?

For upcoming course dates and taster dates, and to book yourself onto the Singer’s Cabaret Workshop, visit http://singerscabaretworkshop.co.uk.

You can catch Fiona Coffey’s show A Touch of Mrs Robinson at the London Festival of Cabaret, on 28 April and 4 May 2016. For more information, visit http://atouchofmrsrobinson.com.

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