How to Put Together a Cabaret Act

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One of the best showcases for new talent is the cabaret act. Whether you are planning to strut your stuff in front of industry executives and area audiences, or are just looking for a way to keep up your chops while earning a few bucks, you can plan the perfect cabaret act by following these tips.

  • Make a list of your musical likes and dislikes. Make another list of your vocal strengths and weaknesses. Write a list of your favorite songs or songs that communicate something that you feel strongly about. Using your lists, prioritize the elements that you most want to incorporate into your act.

  • Once you have an idea of what you wish to communicate and the type of music that suits your voice best, get specific. Plan a 1-hour show on paper. Your material should be fresh and unique, not songs that are over-performed or boring standbys. Instead, look for original or obsolete material that communicates what you are about or tells a story. Listen to old record albums, or visit the music section of your library to research songs from different eras which can be updated or interpreted in an original way by you and your band.

  • Start seeking venues so that you have an idea of the seating capacity of each one and what available dates they may have coming up in the future. Don’t book a venue yet, but make notes about the ones you visit. Decide if you will pay outright for the room or give a predetermined percentage of your cover charges to the room in lieu of rental.

  • Figure out a realistic budget for the venue, arrangements, musicians, lighting and sound person, mailings, performance clothing, sheet music and any other expenses you are likely to encounter. It could be helpful to speak to someone that has done a cabaret act recently to get a breakdown of her expenses.

  • Find your musicians. If you are on a strict budget, you may opt to keep it simple—a good pianist can accompany a cabaret act as effectively as a small band, if the arrangements are good. You may wish to hire an arranger to make sure that your musical selections are presented in a fresh way. Look in the classified sections of your local newspapers, or find online musician sites where available musicians post notices. Another way to find good musicians is to frequent clubs where they play. Speak to other singers for recommendations, or ask bar managers and studio engineers if they know of musicians looking for work. You may have to negotiate a payment schedule based on future earnings, but some musicians want to be paid up front for rehearsals. Have them sign a contract that states explicitly the dates they will be available for rehearsals and performance, as well as the terms of payment.

  • Choose your venue, and present a portion of your act to the cabaret’s booking agent, if required.

  • Create a mailing list with the names of everyone you know, everyone you know knows, anyone you have every worked with in any capacity, the names on other people’s mailing lists if you can access them and the mailing list names from any performance organizations that you belong to, such as MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabaret). If you are planning to invite industry executives, write a personal greeting on the card you send, and make sure they know you are looking forward to seeing them and are really expecting them to be there. Because they attend a lot of showcases, you want to make sure to give them plenty of advance notice about your showcase, and even send a reminder a week or two before the actual performance date (see Resources below).

  • Make sure you have enough easy-to-read copies of each piece of your sheet music or charts for everyone in the band, as well as yourself. Make sure any changes or musical notations are clearly marked, and discuss them before your musicians begin to play. This will save time and money in rehearsal.

  • If the club does not provide sound and light technicians, be sure to line those up well in advance of your performance, and make sure they are free to attend at least one of your rehearsals together.

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! If you can’t afford to pay your musicians for more than one or two rehearsals, tape the first one and use the playback while you rehearse.

  • Choose what you are going to wear and a couple of backup outfits, just in case your feelings change on the evening of your performance.

  • Be sure to have mailing lists or cards on each table in the room during the performance so that your audience can be notified about when you will be performing again. Ask for email addresses, phone numbers and home addresses in addition to names.

  • If you have a CD, T-shirts or any other items to promote during the act, have someone set up a table outside the door, and make sure the audience is aware that they are for sale. Include a mailing list request inside the CD case, as well, in case your audience member purchases a CD as a gift for a friend.

Tips & Warnings

  • Be sure to follow up with any industry executives that attend your cabaret act. Thank them for being there, and let them know that you would like feedback, if possible, to help you improve your future performances.
  • If you have a CD, T-shirts or any other items to promote during the act, have someone set up a table outside the door, and make sure the audience is aware that they are for sale.
  • Include a mailing list request inside the CD case, as well, in case your audience member purchases a CD as a gift for a friend.
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