Cabaret Consciousness

When stars of the scene coach new talent and perfect theirs, everybody wins

Cabaret & Performance Conference

Cabaret & Performance Conference
July 30-Aug. 9 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Rd., Waterford. (860) 443-5378,

Connecticut can't boast one single performance space deeply committed to the genre in its purest form. Local promoter Debbie Bisno has done what she can with makeshift stages in restaurants and lawn clubs. The Yale Cabaret has the name but is a whole other post-modern definition of cabaret, in the European experimental theater sense. Caffe Bottega on Chapel Street has just embraced a specific offshoot of the form, featuring dueling pianists. But there's no place where you can confidently show up and expect to see a dapper gent or dolled-up gal cunningly enunciating literately wrought and emotionally overwrought pop songs, buttressed with snappy monologues and wisecracks.
Except in late July. Then, you can find two competing conferences at which major stars in the field are perfecting their new acts while training up-and-coming cabaret talent for the big time. Yep, you can see them developed here, but you'll have to catch a train to New York to see them when they're done.
Both cabaret confabs have a similar format: a lot of closed-door workshops and classes where established stars coach new talent, then a slew of public performances of full-length solo works-in-progress plus a showcase revue featuring short routines by the students.
The public performance aspect of Yale's Cabaret Conference is bookended with multi-performer revues—the faculty concert at 7:30 p.m. July 27 and a lengthy "Class of 2008" student concert 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2. In between, on Aug. 1 starting at 7:30 p.m., are solo turns by four of the instructors—Steven Lutvak's Unexpected Complications, Carol Hall's Hallways, Sharon McNight's Gone, But Not Forgotten and Pamela Myers' And Another Hundred People. That night's split between cabarettists who identify as songwriters (Lutvak and Hall) and as musical theater performers (McNight and Myers both have Tony nominations, for 1989's Starmites and the original 1970 Broadway Company, respectively). Also on the conference faculty: Tex Arnold, Rita Gardner, Jason Graae, George Hall, Shelly Markham, Laurel Masse, Sally Mayes, Erv Raible, Alex Rybeck, Pam Tate, Paul Trueblood and Julie Wilson. If you don't know any of those names, then you've never been to a nice New York restaurant with a piano in it, or read the supporting-cast bios in Broadway theater programs. Laurel Masse, for one, is a veteran of the group Manhattan Transfer. But the goddess among mortals here is Julie Wilson, a musical theater star in London and New York from the 1940s through the '70s who mastered the rarefied art of cabaret following a short retirement to Omaha in the mid-'80s.

The O'Neill conference, whose Open House/Opening Ceremony is at 8 p.m. July 30, is more elaborate than Yale's. This is partly because it's been at it that much longer: A brief hiatus for the long-running O'Neill cabaret klatsch fomented the Yale one. It's also because idyllic out-of-the-way Waterford isn't just a Metro-North commute from NYC, as Yale is.
This is a proper intensive workshop retreat at which entire new acts may be composed, compiled or otherwise concocted in bucolic comfort. Among the 2008 O'Neill offerings: Cross That River, jazz vocalist Allan Harris' song-filled narrative about a 19th century slave who becomes a black cowboy in the old West (8 p.m. July 31) and The War Between My States, Penny Fuller's personal culture clash as a Northern-raised woman with Southern-born values (8 p.m. Aug. 1).
Are there recriminations, carping, bad blood and one-upmanship behind the scenes at these competing conferences? How could there not be? This is the theater! But none of that matters beyond the footlights, since both the Yale and O'Neill institutions have clearly and cleverly learned to co-exist, and neither lacks for quality acts. The savaging, and upholding, of social mores is saved for the stage. For cabaret is not the refined, upstanding art form you may think it is if you've never gone. It can be catty, bitchy, sexy, confessional, silly, sloshed and sensational. And in Connecticut, where it's gestating rather than ingested with $15 Manhattans in suave lounges, it's especially raw and exploratory.