The New Cabaret Artist’s Handbook (From the First Note to the Encore)

March 29, 2020


EDITOR’S NOTE: Twenty years ago, I compiled and edited The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook – Creating Your Own Act in Today’s Liveliest Theater Setting (Back Stage Books). The text was based on the hundreds of “Bistro Bits” columns that Bob Harrington wrote in Back Stage where I was his editor. The chapters covered all the elements that go into creating a successful cabaret act, as well as the business skills needed to promote and market the act and the artist.

Shellen Lubin and I had been talking for a while about updating the book since so much surrounding the art form, and inclusive of it, has changed over the past two decades.

I’m proud to say that this introductory article from Shellen is the start of an ongoing series, written exclusively for, to help both aspiring and already-established cabaret artists achieve their goals along their journey — Sherry Eaker


Putting up a cabaret act? Seems so simple. You just get up on a stage and entertain an audience for an hour with song, story, and shtick. Right? Not.

The reality is that getting cabaret right is anything but simple. Cabaret is its own art form. The elements that combine to make cabaret in chemical, alchemical, and even combustible ways are many and varied. Although there are artists who just get up onstage and get it right without much planning or analysis, there are also so many artists, even very talented artists, who don’t.

This series of articles that I will be writing over the next few months is an effort to analyze those multi-faceted elements that combine to create the art form that we call cabaret. I am hoping to present a much fuller and more complex understanding of the medium by exploring each of those elements, and also the different ways that they can be integrated. These include the elements of music and theatre, entertainment and artistry, structure and spontaneity, personal perspective and communal experience, plus the intimacy that uniquely occurs when a performer is speaking directly to a responsive audience who is therefore an integral component of the experience. We’ll be addressing performing artists and those who work with them: writers, directors, musical directors, and more. In addition, I’ll be speaking with accomplished practitioners to bring in additional perspectives on the medium.

So where exactly will this analysis begin and what will it include?

1) We will begin with a definition of the term, and how to determine what makes something cabaret, and what makes it successful as cabaret. We will look at the history and evolution of the medium–and the history and evolution of the word itself. All of this can give us insight into both what it is and how it continues to evolve. A primary focus of this will be the relationship to the audience, probably the most essential defining element of cabaret. In cabaret, there is no fourth wall, and the audience is the acting partner.

2) Next, we will look at musical genres: theatre songs, jazz, pop, folk, and rock. All have been performed successfully in the cabaret world. Of course, in cabaret, it’s not as much about the genre as it is about the take on the material. Almost any genre can be effective on a cabaret stage. What the experience is really about is the personalization of the lyric and the authenticity of the experience of the song. From this perspective, we will enumerate the ways of growing performance legs (that is, comfort onstage). In cabaret, this can be particularly challenging: staying present and in-the-moment with lyrics and scripted text, and at the same time developing the ability to continually adapt and improvise. As some say, the craft of rehearsal is for it to feel improvised, and the craft of improvisation is for it to feel rehearsed. Maybe it always has to feel like both, which may seem like a contradiction, but is more like dancing on a tightrope. That tightrope dance–ever balanced between safety and flight–is one of the most beautiful and essential elements of cabaret.

3) We will look at where you should be starting your journey: defining and refining the character that you are playing on the cabaret stage (yes, even when that character is yourself!).  Defining who you are onstage–the aspect(s) of yourself that are conveyed through your performance–is probably the most critical element in creating a great cabaret act. Whether or not you are aware of it, you are always creating a character and conveying information about that character, with every song you pick and every word you say. By looking at it this way, you can make clearer, more cogent choices about who you are on stage and how you convey that to an audience. Of course, creating cabaret intimacy while playing the role of someone else is its own kind of challenge, but has definitely been met by a few actor/singers, who I will be interviewing.

4) Once you understand the character you are playing, you can look at the songs you want to include and discover whether and how they will support the show. As there are trunk songs from every musical ever written, there are also songs that have been eliminated from every cabaret act because they did not say anything new, different, or relevant. These are sometimes perfectly wonderful songs that just did not fit the journey of that particular show. Song order will also be addressed, and the most common pitfalls made in that realm.

Songs are road maps. Shows are journeys. We will look at the construction of songs and shows for cabaret, talking with a number of songwriters, directors, musical directors, and others to hear how they’ve created these accomplishments. We will deconstruct how overt and subtle themes–both overlying and underlying–work together to create a cabaret act that takes the audience on a journey–not just through a series of songs. Included in this article will be interviews with a few artists who have created successful theme and tribute shows. We will examine how these type of shows also need underlying layers, not just the more obvious themes.

5) The words you say onstage, often referred to aspatteror intros, will be examined. Since connectivity occurs both before and after a song, we will look at both intros and “outros”–how to create intros that lead into the song, when to continue in an outro, and how to say enough but not too much both before and after a song. We’ll talk with a number of accomplished writers as to how they write cabaret acts for individual and group shows.

6) The next few articles will be about taking your act onstage. We will discuss what specific venues are most open to new artists, and how you can best approach them, and also what kinds of solo and group shows work best in what kind of rooms. Included will be plusses and minuses on different sizes and shapes of the room, layout of stage and audience, and more.

7) Another article will spotlight when and why it’s important to have a director in cabaret. A director visually constructs the “world” of the show and can help you make decisions about every moment–when it’s best to stand or sit, where to sit, having the mike in your hand or in the stand, dealing with the stand when you’re not using it, and switching over within a song.

8) Then, of course, once you get the show ready for a venue, there are all the technical elements: lighting, costumes, sound systems, and more. There are so many ways that the technical elements of the venue will affect your show. Some of those ways you will have no control over. Some of those ways may serve you in surprising ways, but there will also be ways they can make things more difficult. We will discuss what to look for, what to ask for, and how to make best use of them all.

9) Primary in cabaret is the relationship between the cabaret performer and the audience. Feeling the space and playing the room will all be delved into; as the audience is your acting partner, your cabaret act is ultimately in large part about your relationship with them. We will explore methods of growing your ability to stay centered yet open, and also your ability to trust your collaborators, your acting partner (those people out there), and the cabaret experience moment to moment. Included will be how to use what you can actually see and not see from the stage, the difference between real and imaginary audiences, and when the audience are your partners and when they are your witnesses.

10) Musical directors, arrangers, and accompanists serve different functions, although most cabaret acts have one person who serves all those functions. We will differentiate the functions so they are clear and understandable, and when you need to stress which aspects and why. The same is true for directors, choreographers, and coaches of all kinds. How about having a group onstage? Is it really better with a band? We will examine the plusses and minuses of more instruments onstage, backup singers, and, additionally, look into the value of doing a collaborative act, including the advantages and disadvantages of group shows.

12) The conclusion will focus on how you build an audience once you have your act where you want it to be, and once you have bookings for it. The mechanics of building an audience are constantly changing. What was true back in the day of postcard mailings may not matter anymore. We will analyze publicity and promotion, and what actually works in this day and age to build a following and create a fan base. As for social media, we will do an in-depth analysis of all the current platforms. Included will be how they function, who most uses each platform, and how each one can best be used to promote your shows, interact with your followers, and network with other professionals.

Put it together and what have you got? The next generation of the Cabaret Artist’s Handbook.


About the author

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President –League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President –Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference’s Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called the Monday Morning Quote.



About the Author

Sherry Eaker has been the producer of the annual Bistro Awards since the awards’ inception in 1985. She is the former editor of "Back Stage" and, during her 30-year run, produced panel discussions and workshop events on an ongoing basis, including the programming for Back Stage’s annual Actorfest. She compiled and edited four editions of the "Back Stage Handbook for Performing Artists," and compiled and edited "The Cabaret Artists Handbook." She is a member of the National Theatre Conference and the American Theatre Critics Association (and produced eight of ATCA’s New York weekend conferences). She is an advisor to the boards of both the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and the Women in the Arts & Media Coalition.

2 thoughts on “The New Cabaret Artist’s Handbook (From the First Note to the Encore)”

  1. Shellen is totally on the money. Although I have created and perform a cabaret act and think I know something about the art form, I realize Shellen has a lot to offer. I’m looking forward to reading more of her articles.

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