A mesmerizing entertainer; artistry in stillness but with energy! Lena Horne for your Cabaret Tip Tuesday!
Welcome to Cabaret Tip Tuesday at McElrath Cabaret, where we offer cabaret performance tips to help you put together a great performance at your next show!
Today I’m thinking about how we perform when we do our shows, so my tip for you today is this: trust that you are enough.
I have had a few acting teachers and singing mentors over the years, and they have all said the same thing using slightly different wording:
Trust yourself that you are enough on stage.
I am speaking now to people who have basic training and experience under their belt. If you need acting or singing lessons, by all means, get them. That training is the basis of all that you do on stage. But once you understand the basics of acting and singing, you are going to want to take it further.
I have always had a tendency to want to do “too much” on stage. I’ve played a lot of comic character parts, and I have felt at times like if I wasn’t “doing something,” hamming it up and being over the top, it wasn’t going to be entertaining to the audience. Although there are moments to be big, much of the time in comedy is simply about being truthful, which can be quite funny.
Cabaret performance has really started to help me get comfortable in my own skin, so to speak. The comfort of the fourth wall in musical theatre is broken down in cabaret, where it is important to connect with every audience member so they feel that you are singing just to them.
It takes quite a while to get comfortable with people looking at you while you are performing. One suggestion I have is, when you are practicing at home, get some family or friends together and practice looking at them while you sing. Don’t look over their heads–connect with each of them at some moment (keep it brief so they don’t get uncomfortable–look at one through a phrase, then switch to another for the next phrase of a song) during your performance. Opposite of most theatre training, where you are taught to not look at audience members directly. Also try performing your song while watching yourself in a mirror. Dancers practice while looking in a mirror, so why not singers? You can catch any mannerisms that you might be using, giving you an opportunity in rehearsal to get rid of them and take a different approach before you get up in front of an audience.
Confidence comes when you are truly off-book as well.
- Are your lyrics memorized?
- Have you worked out your acting beats throughout the lyric?
- Have you selected a good key for your vocal range so you can hit the low and high notes without stressing out? (I have had to learn to embrace my alto range in this regard, and it didn’t come easily for me. But no one wants to hear a screechy voice when you are in your upper register, so keep this in mind.)
If you are worried that your bra straps are showing, or your skirt is too short to perform in without flashing the front row, it can break your concentration and get you thinking about things that waste your time in performance. This goes for men and women: wear something that you think you look good in, and something that you can raise your arms over your head and move your legs in, and the clothing still covers your body properly.
There are two books that have helped me with developing my look on stage. I am not affiliated with them in any way; in my opinion, they gave me some good advice about what colors look good on me, and clothing styles that help to flatter my body, which I found useful in selecting clothing for cabaret performance. They are: Staging Your Comeback by Christopher Hopkins, and Color Me Confident by Veronique Henderson and Pat Henshaw. These books are helpful for both genders.
Have you picked a song with lyrics that speak to you?
Some songs just don’t speak to me, because I haven’t had experience with living through what the song is about. You are your own best judge about what lyrics you can sell to an audience believably.
Your job as a cabaret artist is to communicate the story that the lyrics contain to the audience.
You do it through singing, but you also do it through carefully selected spoken words in the songs, and by pauses in the phrases in places where the audience will need a moment to take in what you just sang or said. Give the audience a chance to hear what it is that you are saying to them. (Can you say diction, my friend?) When you do this, you don’t need wild arm flailing, vocal melisma (think of the vocalized gimmicks that plague American Idol performances), or the other cheap tricks that so many pop singers without the acting chops are using today to pass as performers. Some of them might be good singers, to the extent that they can match pitch to a piano or have a wide range, but entertainers they are not. Don’t think of the lyrics as lyrics, but think of them as dialogue in a play. You want your song to lyrically have a beginning, middle and ending of a short story that you tell the audience. Most of the great standards have this.
The stillness comes in when you can just stand and deliver the story when you sing. The face becomes a primary vehicle of communication, but at moments the arms and hands can come into play as well. Imagine you are telling an engaging story to a group of friends at a party, and take your song in that fashion, because essentially, that is what you are doing in an intimate cabaret room where your audience is seated five feet away from you. If you are like me and have had acting training, you feel those feelings all throughout your body, which may make you want to move. If it is organic to the story you are telling, then move, but selectively, in order to tell the story in the lyrics more effectively. But don’t feel like you have to. Audiences love to watch someone who is honestly communicating a story to them, and they will feel what it is all about as well, as you are expressing it.
When you let the story come out of you, using your face and body stillness, thinking about the acting moments in the lyrics and using your phrasing and the all-important pauses, you will be enough, and you will be mesmerizing to an audience, because you are telling a story in your own unique way, which no one else can do. In this manner, you truly are what is needed to sell the song, because only you can perform it as you. This is what keeps timeworn standards fresh.
People are busy all around you–it takes a confident person to be still and comfortable with themselves, most especially in performance, but sometimes, the confidence also comes when you give yourself permission to be still.
How do you use confidence and stillness in your cabaret performance? Do you have any other tips that have worked for you to help make your act more entertaining? Let us know in the comments! We love to hear from our readers!