The art of cabaret is a tricky one. It’s intimate, revealing, and vulnerable. Cabaret performers must reveal something of themselves to an audience, engaging them and interacting with them in way that is so different to traditional theatre. The eight second year students at Showfit, the full time musical theatre course at Centrestage Performing Arts School, are currently exploring what it means to create cabaret, each devising a 15 minute cabaret performance that is entirely their own. While daunting, the task encourages the students to be proactive in creating their own piece of work which can then be expanded and refined to a product they can take outside the walls of drama school.
Under the guidance of extraordinary musical director and composer Mathew Frank, and with no limitations other than “create a 15 minute cabaret show- go!”, these young performers are diving head first into the issues and areas which interest and resonate with them most, creating theatre which is bound to excite, inspire, amuse, educate and move the audience. Drawing on musical styles vast and many, they are busy writing, changing and interpreting
songs to support original script work and movement. Covering everything from public transport, well known performers, reality television and many topics in between, each individual work is shaping up to be reflective of the performers passions and talents. The works are being devised predominantly in the students own time, and the dedication shown by the performers is clear in their drive and thirst for success in this venture.
Cabaret has its origins in late Europe during the late 1800’s. Beginning mainly in France, clubs began popping up that gave performers an opportunity to showcase acts, and audience members to dine and drink while being entertained. The Moulin Rouge and the Lido remain amongst the moment famous cabaret venues in the world. This early European cabaret had a lean towards political themes, with a slightly satirical twist, and when cabaret began in America during the early 1900’s, it focused more on jazz music and singers, reaching its peak in the 20’s. Since these beginnings, the art form has come a long way- and writers and performers use the cabaret medium to address taboo issues within society, satirize things that would be controversial outside such a theatrical environment, and tell stories reaching from real, honest, autobiographies to fantastical, imagined worlds of wonder.
The musical director of the Showfit cabarets, Mathew Frank, is himself a successful cabaret writer. Alongside Dean Bryant he has created many a piece which has succeeded in the Melbourne cabaret scene. Usually witty, honest, and inescapably touching, one of their shows, ‘Britney Spears: The Cabaret’, recently did its second Melbourne run and was praised for the way in which it contrasted poignant moments of brutal honestly and total vulnerability with cheeky, sassy theatrics and bold comedy.
Often a cabaret show will come across as a very informal, unscripted, spontaneous performance. This is all part of the magic however, as any writer or performer will know. Hours of work are put into perfecting a script so that not a single spoken word is there without absolute intention. Cutting the fat from a multitude of material can be a dreadful, but is a necessary part of the process. The timing is executed flawlessly, so that at every moment of performance the musicians, technical crew, and performer know precisely what is going on, down to details so minute as a pause in text or even a breath. Rehearsing a piece so all these aspects are precise and unchanging every time and still being able to find spontaneity and life is what makes it so exciting, and makes the performers so skilful. They have fooled the untrained world into thinking cabaret is a freeform art riddled with improvisation and frivolity, when in reality; it is as practiced to perfection as a ballet dance.
The hours of research that go into creating a character play an enormous role in the success of a show. Both the writer and performer scrutinize every aspect of what they are performing about- right down to what the most popular food was in French courts in the decade that cabaret is set. Things that may seem so trivial to a person watching can ultimately have a huge effect on a character. One of the Showfit students currently rehearsing said “I find because I am both writing about and playing a pre-existing public figure, I have become totally absorbed in their world. Every physical nuance, speech patterns, what muscles they move when they speak or are approached about a topic they aren’t comfortable with. It’s all consuming. You have to know everything about the character you’re playing, right down to if they’re a folder or a scruncher. It’s the difference between standing on stage telling a story about a half-imagined character, and living and breathing the character.”
Melbourne certainly is a thriving place for young performers to create and perform their own cabaret works. Venues like The Butterfly Club and events like Short and Sweet provide a platform for artists to lift works off the ground. Often fresh from drama school, it gives them a chance to showcase pieces they are proud to have created.
So keep an eye out for the cabarets that will be on stage for Melbourne audiences in the future.