Musical Storytelling and the Art of Cabaret, with Fiona-Jane Weston

Today on the show we’re excited to be joined by one of London’s leading cabaret performers, Fiona-Jane Weston. Fiona-Jane has created and performed several highly-acclaimed cabaret shows in the UK and internationally, including “Wartime Women”, about the roles women have historically played in warfare and “Looking For Lansbury”, celebrating the life, heritage and career of actress Angela Lansbury.

Cabaret is a performing art that we’ve enjoyed but never really known a ton about and we were really curious to see what an expert like Fiona-Jane might be able to share, since it would likely channel musicality in a different form than that of a performing musician. It really lived up to that expectation, there were some really interesting ideas here that we haven’t talked about on the show before.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • What defines cabaret, and what makes for “good” cabaret
  • Story-telling through song, the importance of it both in cabaret and in music more generally, and
  • Connecting with your audience and what we can learn from the uniquely intimate environment of cabaret

Something that came out of our discussion that we weren’t expecting was why cabaret might be more accessible to you, or any passionate amateur musician, than you might have imagined…

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Fiona-Jane. Thank you for joining us today.

Fiona-Jane: Thank you for having me.

Christopher: I’m really excited to talk with you because I have enjoyed Cabaret as a lay person but it’s not something I know anything about in great depth and you are someone who knows about it in intimate detail. So I’m really excited to learn from you. I want to ask first, were you a Cabaret performer from day one? Did you leap onto the stage at age six singing Cabaret and show tunes or what was your earliest musical experience like?

Fiona-Jane: Probably it was a bit like that, actually if I’m really truthful. I certainly, as a little girl wanted to get up and entertain. And I wanted everyone in the house and all the dolls and all the teddies to be listening while I got up there and did my little bit with an umbrella. I remember doing a little dance and all the rest of it. I would also want to recite my poetry which I called at the age of four postery.

I think it was probably always in there and I do remember looking at old films on the television and seeing these lovely glamorous ladies in their long frocks in films set in the ’30s and ’40s in America. There would be tables and people would be drinking and this lady would come out and she would sing and she would address the audience and so on. I think I knew even then, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” (laughs)

Christopher: Amazing. And what did your early education look like for that? Were you someone who was just natural and went straight into shows and performing? Did you study acting or music along the way?

Fiona-Jane: I studied dancing quite early, actually, because I had a dance teacher come to my school. I just found her fascinating to watch. I don’t know, there was something in me that always lead into that direction although I didn’t receive any formal music training at all. Eventually I persuaded my parents to send me to dance lessons. The acting came very much later. In fact, even with ballet training it was clear that I didn’t really have the flexibility in my body to become a professional dancer, but what I was good at was the character roles and the sort of more fiery, Spanishy sort of roles or trying to express it in stories. Or little Red Riding Hood or something like that where I would be wanting to express an emotion. The acting came out of that recognizing that’s really probably where my talent particularly lay.

My parents were very against anything to do with that. They didn’t want me to go into anything of that type at all so I dutifully did my academic degree. I studied Asian Studies and I learned Mandarin. I wanted to specialize in my thesis the arts, the performing arts of China, particularly Communist China and how it was used for propaganda purposes. Then even further I wanted to look at the performing arts of the minority peoples and how they were trying to keep up their own identity in the face of, well I wouldn’t like to use the word oppression, but I mean, the Han people were very much in dominance. So even my university thesis at honors level was about the minority theaters.

So it was always there and although my parents tried desperately hard to keep me in the academic sphere of things in the end I think you just have to go where your heart’s set and it’s going to … Your natural instincts are going to take you there whether anybody likes it or not, including yourself, really. I kind of had a love hate relationship with the profession I was in.

Christopher: And so where did your heart lead you after university? You were feeling this draw, how did you pursue that?

Fiona-Jane: I joined the Australian Diplomatic Corps in the Aid Department because I was living in Australia at the time. In Canberra at that time there was a strong amateur theater scene and I got involved with that. My first show was a musical and I was cast in the lead. I was terrified but I did it. And it went well, much to my great surprise at the time. Then that lead to this feeling of I’ve just got to do more and more. Then I started doing professional stuff as well and things started…

Well of course the two careers started to clash. Eventually one particularly insightful manager who was from England actually, he called me into his office and he said, “Look, I gave you an assignment which was way above your level and I confess it, I gave it to you because I was too lazy to do it myself. And I have to say that your historical and political analysis is second to none. Your finance section was a complete mess.” And I said, “Well, I never did say I could add up.” And he said, “Look, I have to tell you that you are a square peg in a round hole. You are never going to fit in here. You are never going to rise to the top here, not least because you’re female, but also because the way you think and the way you act and the way you respond to things. It’s just not going to work here. I think you should go and do what your heart is set on.”

Within three weeks I had packed up my bags and I had left Australia and I came to England in a pursuit of a theatrical career. That’s what I did. I had also in the meantime done some training, quite a lot of professional training in Australia, part time. Yeah, that’s how I did it.

Christopher: Wow, what a brave and romantic leap you took across the ocean.

Fiona-Jane: Well I don’t know if it felt that romantic at that time. I think I was just very dogged. I thought, well I’ve had enough training and experience by then to know that actually I did have something I could offer and I thought, well I’m just going to do it because I was miserable working in any other environment, really. So I though, well, okay, here it is. Here I go. That’s what I did. So I came back. I had family here, too.

Christopher: Tell us a little bit about that training you’d had along the way.

Fiona-Jane: I took singing lessons professionally. I took that very seriously. I kept doing a lot of performance, as much as I could get. Being as it was a small town and there weren’t that many people. There wasn’t such a big pool. If I’d been somewhere like Sydney it would have been much more difficult, I’m sure. The competition would have been just so much greater. But in Canberra then it was still very much a small town, although it’s the capital of Australia. It was the administrative center.

I had a lot of experience actually doing it. Plus I took the singing training, plus I took the acting training. The acting training didn’t cover music but it very much tapped into my instincts that were already there and gave me the technique I needed to be able to approach a character and tap into that creative element which enables you to improvise and to find where the character lies and also where the inner internal story is. That set me up in many ways for the approach that I’ve taken to things every since.

Although my initial degree was in modern asian studies it was very much based on history and politics and so on. Even that was all story telling. Even that was all about the history of how China became a Communist country. I learned Mandarin. I lived in China for a while and I became very interested in the women’s stories, particularly. I was very interested in women’s history anyway because of my training in Australia at school, really. Germaine Greer came from Queensland, who set up the whole women’s movement there and so on.

That was always in there. I think the whole package of history being a story, whether it’s his story or in more modern parlance we might say her story if we’re talking about women’s history. And wanting to tell stories and wanting to entertain, all of that, it all slotted in together. And that was really how it all began.

Christopher: Wonderful. There were a couple of things that I am particularly keen to dig into a little bit. One is what you just touched on, that you have a particular interest and ability in combining the historical viewpoint with the musical artistic creative output. We’ll circle back to that in a moment. The other thing you mentioned was that your training had helped you tap into the character and the story and the emotion that would bring the music to life in an effective way. That’s something I’d really like to hear more about because on this show we talk a lot about, I suppose, expressiveness in music and musically meaningful performances and what distinguishes a robotic player from one who really seems to have a gift for music and really wows the audience. I think you have a particularly interesting perspective on this because you come, maybe more from the acting side than the conservative musician side of things where the musician might be thinking in notes and scales and dynamics and very technical terms. You come in at it, I believe, more from the story telling perspective and the actor’s mind set.

Fiona-Jane: Yes. Yes. I think you tell a story in theater in so many ways. Everything has to tell that story for it to be a successful performance. Everybody does, whether it’s the lighting person, whether it’s the set designer, the costume, the director, obviously, the performers, the actors and the music, too. Even the music that doesn’t have words attached to it should be lending itself to that story.

Sometimes interestingly the melody that’s played underneath a tune that the singer might be singing might actually be contradicting what the singer is singing with words. You hear that very particularly in a lot of Sondheim’s music, but other’s, too, and that adds a very interesting age to it. For example, one example I can think of is In Buddy’s Eyes, which was from Follies. It’s not a song that I’ve sung but it’s a song I’ve listened too quite a lot. It starts off really quite sentimentally and she’s sort of saying, “Oh, my husband still really loves me. Even though I’m old, in his eyes I never get older. He will always be there for me,” and so on.

Then as it goes on you realize that something’s not quite right here. There’s something in the accompaniment that suggest she’s either not speaking the truth or she’s denying the truth because she can’t face it. If you’re listening out for things like that that’s where you know that you’re on to something. You’re on to something. That’s where the performer, by clueing into things like that can use the dynamics, can also change the quality of their voice and change the way they’re looking at the character they’re talking to or moving. The body language should change too, just sort of to indicate, “Yeah, I’m saying all of these marvelous things, Yes, yes, yes, this is really true,” but underneath “I just … Actually, no I’m in love with you and always was. I’m not in love with my husband.” That’s really what she’s saying, really, underneath it. And the marriage has not been successful that she’s been living all these years.

Christopher: Interesting. Over those years when you were training you mentioned training had helped in some regard with this aspect of things. Were there any particular techniques or ideas that helped you figure out how to do that? I thing as you describe it people can understand the kind of thing you’re talking about, but it’s very different to get up on stage and take ownership of that role and figure that stuff out for yourself maybe.

Fiona-Jane: I don’t think I was trained in that. I don’t think so. I think that came simply from an awful lot of listening and an awful lot of thinking and wanting to portray the person. I was more intent on presenting the person I was trying to become then I was in anything else. But because it’s music you can’t just change the timing on it completely without any sense. You do need to be listening to where the music is taking you as well.
So rather than fight against that it’s a case of using it. But having said that, depending on the genre, particularly with Cabaret, and particularly with anything with anything jazz orientated, obviously, you can play with the rhythms and the tempo in order to express an idea in a different way as long as you don’t go completely out of sync with one another.

That sort of thing I learned through experience and also through working with musical directors who understood what I was trying to do and we were able to have that kind of conversation whereby they were to some extent able to follow me but also I was learning to listen to them. I think it’s about listening a lot and it’s about communication. I wouldn’t say that it came through any of my formal training at all. Certainly some acting through song workshops that I’ve attended. Some of this has been touched on. And particularly musical theater performers they often are looking for expressive ways to doing it. Incidentally, a lot of musical theater performers don’t read music or don’t read music very well. There’s something in the way in which we are taught to think like that. If you’re working with actors I would strongly recommend that if you can get the actors to think about motivations and feelings they will probably breathe at the right points in any case, even if they can’t read a note.

Christopher: That’s amazing. I think it’s such a valuable lens to think about all of this through because thinking now about the listener who maybe plays an instrument but doesn’t do any acting and doesn’t think in terms of theater. It’s such a powerful mind set shift to actually ask yourself, “What is this music trying to say?” Not just, “Am I playing the right notes at the right time and obeying the dynamic markings, but what am I trying to get across to the audience?”

I look back somewhat embarrassedly at when I was learning clarinet or saxophone and I was playing one of the movements from Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition and this is a work of music composed around visual art, around a painting. I literally never saw the painting. I worked for months on this piece and it never occurred to me, “I could go and find out what this was inspired by and what he was trying to conjure up.” Looking back that just seems ridiculous, but I think it’s so easy as musicians to get trapped in that bubble of dots on a page or just the notes and the technique. We forget that it is a storytelling art to a large extent or it can be and we should always be asking that question of, “What am I trying to convey or express?”

Fiona-Jane: Yes. I don’t think the musicians are the only ones who are guilty of that either. I think actually a lot of dancers are. It becomes such an exercise in gymnastic technique and that, it’s. There is a danger that you’re not going to move anybody, that you’re not … Cause really, a dancer too is telling a story through their movement and through their whole feeling and embodiment of the emotion of the time. I think it’s very important not to lose sight of that. There’s an audience out there. This isn’t an exercise in self-indulgence. It’s important to be able to do that. But also, to be fair, not all music is easily lent to doing that. Again, Stephen Sondheim is notoriously difficult. Everybody knows that you know, his rhythms are very, very tricky. And it’s often very fiddly. It can take a long time to learn his stuff. But I tell you what, actors, who have never read a note of music, adore doing his things.

And there’s a reason for that. The reason is, really, that he writes so well for a character. He’s actually thinking what the character is thinking. And therefore, these strange, odd little moments of pauses and rests that came in the middle of a line, are actually there for a dramatic reason. And I was taught, I mean, I’ve sung quite a lot of, quite a number of times now, “Worst Pies in London,” I only had one lesson to learn how to do that. Because I could only see this particular vocal coach for one lesson, for one hour. And what she did, was help me to sort of see what the character, well what that part of it I could work out for myself. Where the characters might have, what the character is feeling in different sections of the song. But in order to help me get some of these odd rhythms, she also got me to go “Mmm,” or clap or stamp my foot or do something where something strange was about to happen. So that I didn’t sing the notes where I thought I should be singing the notes. But rather, where that “Mmm”, do you see?

Try to think out those now. “Wait, what’s your rush, what’s your hurry? You gave me such a “gasp” fright, I thought you was a ghost, oh come in” So that “gasp” thought you were a ghost. You see? You’ve got to have that thing there. And I thought well actually if she’s thinking about a ghost, she might do that little intake of breath. And so by doing it in that mechanical way, she got me to speak it and put some kind of sound or intake of, loud intake of breath in where these strange pauses were. And then, by going over that and getting that into my body, I suddenly found all of the dramatic reasons to do it. And [inaudible 00:18:42] is brilliant for that, absolutely wonderful.

Christopher: So we’ve abandoned the poor, young, Fiona-Jane midway across the ocean on our way back to London. Where did things go from there, when you were returning to this, well maybe not returning to, but you were starting a fresh, a new, career direction for you and a new purpose in life?

Fiona-Jane: Well it took a few years to really kind of establish where I was really. Apart from anything else. Because I didn’t know London at all and so, it’s just trying to get settled. Although I did get a job within a year. In fact, it was within a few months after arriving here. I got a job at the theater, a children’s theater going around. And again, music was part of that as well. And then, I got a job in a cabaret. Oh not a cabaret, sorry. In a pantomime where I, oh this is cringe making but, I played the maid that got to marry the handsome prince. And in the meantime, the handsome prince and I actually became romantically entangled, off stage, as well as on. And then of course, I settled. And he was an actor as well. So that’s really where, obviously that then grounded me here. And I just took things as they came along.

I took as many classes as I could in professional theater because you can do that in London and in many places like City Lit. Where a professional level you could actually go in. And also, there was a marvelous singing teacher for actors that came in from America. His name was Chuck Culson. And he was fabulous. He would say to us, it was a bunch of actors because there were actors there who were terrified of singing. Terrified that they sang out of tune and all sorts of things. I loved it. They were scared of doing it, which is why they came to that class. And he would say things that would just liberate them. To be who they were. And we got to write down the words and to learn the words quite separately from the music. So that we could bring all our acting instincts to that, we liked to a piece of poetry. And then he would just say things like, “The audience don’t care if you had to splash this about 37 times before you got that line right. It doesn’t matter. Look, the audience don’t care and neither does Chuck.”
And I learned from that. It doesn’t matter how many times you had to learn to sing that song, as long as, when you get in there, you’re fine.

Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Wonderful. And at some point in this journey, cabaret entered the picture and became a real focus for you. How did that come to be?

Fiona-Jane: Well I got to an age where I was not getting the amount of work that I had been getting. And I wasn’t quite in the next age bracket so that I was in this kind of, slightly awkward in-between part. And I got very fed up with not getting any work. And so I went to become, I actually took my PGCE, I became a primary school teacher. And I realized within about 10 minutes that this was a bit of a mistake actually. Although I enjoyed teaching young children, I didn’t enjoy the restrictions of the whole system and so on. I just thought “Oh gosh now I can’t, this is not going to keep me satisfied at all.” And within a couple of years, I had to stop anyway, because I had become ill over something.

I had to stop for a while to get some sick leave. And in that time, I took that time to rethink what I was doing. And I took the exams to become a teacher in The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. The LAMDA exams to become a LAMDA teacher as well as do my ballet exam, teaching as well. And in the, in those, it’s changed now. But at that time, you had to choose an entire century of the drama and the prose and the poetry of a century. So you might be able to choose the Elizabethan era or the Greeks. And like an idiot, I chose 20th century because I thought all I know of the drama content already pretty well.

And my teacher did say to me, she said “Look, I understand why you might like the idea of taking the 20th century, but you do realize that was the one where everybody could read and write. And it’s a vast amount of work. And you do have a lot of gaps in your poetry and prose?” Well I still did it, like a fool. And I managed to get through it. But one of the parts of that exam, was after you had done your viva about all of the knowledge behind it, you then had to give a 20 minute presentation where you had to include a piece of poetry, a piece of drama and a piece of prose from that era. And you couldn’t include more than one piece.

But it all had to be linked in some way. That became the basis. I did that, a piece on 20th century woman. And the progression that women had made throughout that century. That then became the basis for my first one woman show. And I took the idea to a director, a good friend of mine. We worked on it, and I created this cabaret with him. And put it on at the Battersea Barge. Then not long after that, I got an opportunity to audition for Yale. Yale University, there was a cabaret intensive course going on there that was loosely related to the drama department there. And I got a scholarship, much to my great surprise. So I knew I had to go because there was no excuse then. I had to do it.

There were amazing people teaching us. I mean, just amazing people. Do you know the Rose? Amanda McBroom?

Christopher: No.

Fiona-Jane: Some say love it is a river … anyway it was one of the most famous songs of the time. Bette Midler had a big hit with it. The woman who wrote that, Amanda McBroom, was on the course. There was people that were very well known in America including Tony Award winners. People like Tovah Feldshuh and Sally Mayes and all sorts of very known people there. Teaching us. And they were, their whole intents and purpose was to get us to sing the songs, tell the story through the song and actually make the cabaret. To actually encourage us in how to make a cabaret happen. And I came away from that, realizing that I not only knew what I was talking about already with cabaret, but more to the point, I knew what I knew what I was talking about.

If that makes sense. Suddenly I had the confidence to realize I do know about this. This is actually always what I’ve been working towards. And then that started off a whole lot about the shows. I had all of this creativity going on. And I just, it’s been a game changer. It really has. From then, I’ve always had a project that I’ve been wanting to do. And perform. And it’s taken me all over the place. It’s taken, I do one on Wartime Women, looking at the roles women have played throughout warfare. It’s concentrating mainly on the great wars. And that’s taken me to Belgium and so on. And so, I still do plays, I still get work in the theater, but mostly, I concentrate on my cabaret career.

Christopher: Terrific. And I’m going to ask on behalf of maybe some of our listeners who aren’t familiar. What is cabaret? Before we talk more in depth about it.

Fiona-Jane: Oh, gosh, that is not an easy question to answer actually. Because it has so many meanings. It’s such a wide umbrella. On one end of the scale, you’ve got very much what I call the alternative scene with the burlesque. And circus training and so on. And more at the other end, and much more sort of, if you’d like it, more classical. What I would call song book cabaret, is people singing. And the important thing about that, is that unlike a concert, where there’s a distance between you and the audience, and unlike a musical where you are completely embodying a character, it is you singing to the audience and expressing your ideas and emotions. To the audience, breaking down what we might call the fourth wall. So in the theater you’ve got the three walls around you. The left, the right and behind you. And then there’s supposed to be an invisible, fourth wall between you and the audience.

So that if your a character, you’re staying in your living room. You’re not actually supposed to be aware of the audience out in front. In cabaret we break that completely down. And you are very much talking to the audience themselves. They are very much part of that. It’s a small, intimate setting. People are sitting around tables, drinking, ordering drinks from the bar. You can address people in the audience. I’ve been addressed from the stage. You know say “Oh, Fiona-Jane Weston is in” and they have a little chat and they come around. And you know, you can go around, have a little flirt with people and so on. Then you go back onto the stage and then you will sing something else that, either you are telling something through that. Not only through the songs, but hopefully, some kind of theme.

Not to the point where you get completely caught up in it, necessarily. But it’s, you’ve got so much more scope to take it in a new direction. So you might take a song, that was originally written for a show, perhaps. And then you can change it to suit that new occasion where it’s telling a different story. And you might want to express a different emotion through it and bring something very new to that. And sing it in your own voice, in your own way, because you are expressing another idea with that. And rather like when you go to an art gallery, you’re look at a painting but if it’s placed next to another painting, it will have a different aspect to it that you hadn’t thought of. Because of where it’s placed. So that’s a very long answer.

But that’s the sort of things you need to be thinking about if you’re going to put together a show yourself. It’s not just a case of this is a song by whoever and this is another song I like because I like it, I’m going to sing it. It, really ideally you want to have something a little bit more concrete in your reasoning for choosing the piece. And for singing it to the audience.

Christopher: I see.

Fiona-Jane: Does that help?

Christopher: It does. Wonderful description. And I think it really highlights what we were talking about before and the importance both from remembering you have an audience, and you need to connect with them. And this idea of weaving a story through your songs, I think it’s immediately clear now why cabaret connected with you so much. If those were the things you were feeling drawn too and feeling you were good at. So just a quick clarification, you mentioned another term people might have heard, which is “One Woman Show,” is cabaret always a solo endeavor where it’s one person presenting the entire performance? Or how does it work?

Fiona-Jane: It generally is but it doesn’t have to be at all. There are various ways you can do it. I mean there are duos that get up and do a piece together, as a duet together. Usually one, some sort of semi-comedic situation. You could effectively do it with a larger group, as well, depending on how it’s structured, really. As much as anything else. Certainly. I mean I have another form of the cabaret too, which is Fiona-Jane and West End Friends. And I run it rather like a chat show. So that I open the set with a couple of songs myself and then explain to the audience what the concept of that is. And I bring on guest artists. And they might be a West End performer, they might also be a musical director or a choreographer who might have something else to share. Some other perspective on the business. I will also, always have a cabaret singer, if I can.

And I’ll entertain them. I’ll give them a [inaudible 00:30:44], or a drink or a cocktail or something. We’ll sit down at the table and we’ll chat together about their projects and what they’re doing. And then they get up and do something. So they can show something of their work. And if it’s a musical director, who doesn’t want to sing, they might bring another guest artist. So everybody gets a chance to network. But then you might, I might have as many as seven or eight people at some point, joining me on stage. So it doesn’t have to be a solo thing. So if somebody is a bit afraid of doing that, join forces with somebody else who wants to do it. Get in a director, get someone else who can help you. Preferably somebody who understands the genre. But, it’s, you don’t have to be completely on your own.

Especially if you’re starting out and you’re not sure how to go about it. There are, there is help out there. And you don’t have to perform by yourself all the time.

Christopher: Wonderful. So I’d like to circle back to something I said I would come back to, which was that you are particularly able and known for weaving together historical themes or kind of, real life matter of fact issues. Like women in the 20th century, or you did one cabaret show on the history and maybe mythology of London. And I would love to hear more about that, because I think you touched on feeling drawn to do all of this. You said you were never short of projects now that you had found your medium.

I know that if I were feeling inspired to, say, put on a show about London, I would immediately feel very intimidated, because it’s such a big thing, and it’s something everyone’s going to have an opinion on. Compared to sitting in my bedroom and writing a love song out of nowhere, it can seem, I think, quite intimidating or quite overwhelming. I’d love to hear how you found your way into that, and any advice you’d have for someone who is feeling similarly inspired, but maybe can’t see the route from that inspiration to actually putting something together.

Fiona-Jane: The London show was, that was pretty vast actually, 2,000 years of London in less than two hours was, yeah. Yeah, there was a bit of pressure there. … so much written about and for the performing arts. All of the music hall material, for a start. You’ve also got Samuel Pepys’s diary. I used some of that. Not everybody can do spoken word, but I loved bringing in spoken word for mine. There is poetry written about London. There, all sorts of anecdotes people have had to say about it. Songs about London.

Find all of the things that you love about whatever it is that you want to talk about. Sift through it. Throw them all on the floor, and then move them about like a pack of cards. All right? Then decide, start to shape your show from that. There are various techniques that you can use to do that. You can look entirely at the…

I would always suggest that you start with the lyrics as much as anything else. Start with the lyrics, because you might find that you’ll see a story naturally emerging. Then shuffle your cards around again, and see where something comes from that. Then, think about where the musical highlights are, where the comedic highlights are, where you’re going to be doing something different. Are you going to be bringing on a guest artist? Then slowly, a shape will emerge.

Then you’ll have something far too long, and you’ll have to cut a million things out. The art, as with a lot of these things, is in what you keep in and what you cut out. It’s quite difficult. Sometimes it takes more than one performance for you to realize that, “You know what? That bit is still too long. I’m going to have to cut this or that,” or, “I might bring that bit back in that I thought I would cut.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment in front of people. Don’t be afraid to get in a test audience. Slowly, it will come together, but it will come together, and it will be the most satisfying thing you’ve ever done.

Christopher: You touched on something that I don’t think we’ve talked about yet, which is that spoken word can be a feature of it. Cabaret is not just singing song after song, or at least not necessarily. Are there other things that people should keep in mind as what could be a part of their cabaret show?

Fiona-Jane: Yes. If you’re a good instrumentalist and you’ve got something you can do with that, do it. There is a chap in the States, in New York. I saw him. Can’t remember his name. I can’t tell you it, but he does a whole cabaret with his violin. He tells… In a way, he makes musical jokes with the violin. Again, if you’ve got a musical director with you, if you’ve got a pianist with you who is a bit of a showman, use that. Use that. If you can have some kind of rapport with the person who’s accompanying you, use that. Don’t let anybody just sit there.

If you’ve got other talents that you want to bring to the fore… A friend of mine is very, very good at comedic things. She brings in a lot of her comedic work to it. Use whatever you want to to express those, those aspects of yourself, because cabaret is about being you on stage, even if it’s a persona you’ve created. You’ve got that freedom to do that, and also it’s what people want. People want to connect with you. It’s much more personal than it would be if you were doing a concert that’s got a big distance between you. People want to feel somehow that they’ve got to know the essence of you by watching your show. Yes, anything that you have that’s a passion, that’s an interest, bring something of that in, definitely.

Christopher: That’s really cool.

Fiona-Jane: It’s a case of structuring it. Yeah.

Christopher: I think what has come across clearly to me that I was maybe not fully appreciative before is the careful thought and planning that goes into a good cabaret show. I think that’s maybe a little bit because that word is bandied about a lot. You alluded to there being this whole spectrum, but I think there are also probably a lot of things called cabaret that maybe are not really. For example, I’ve definitely come across cases where it’s really used to mean talent show. We’ll get a group of a dozen people. We’ll let them each do the song they know or the juggling act they can do. We’ll put it all together in one performance and call that a cabaret.

Fiona-Jane: Yeah.

Christopher: I think what’s really come across from hearing you talk about this is that it is much more intentional. The fact that there is a casual atmosphere by no means means that it’s a casual act that you threw together. There can be intense thought and planning and preparation that goes into it.

Fiona-Jane: Yes, yes, yeah. Also, I personally don’t like it if the performers themselves are too casual in the way they dress or… Depending on their act, I mean, obviously it may not always apply, but generally speaking, I think that when people come to a cabaret of this type, they want to see something glamorous. They want to see something that’s going to take them out of the world. It might be a girls’ night out. It might be very important to them. You might be taking your mother out for something. This would be a dress up occasion. It should be something that people really look forward to.

Don’t let your audience down. Don’t go in there dressing like you would to go to the shops. Really make the effort. This is a form of theater in its own way. Lift people out of where they are. That’s our job. That’s what we’re meant to do. That’s why we’re here. That’s what performance is all about. As my doctor once said to me, he said, “We don’t need any more accountants. We don’t need people like that. We need people like you who get up and entertain.” So get out and entertain. Be a star that shines.

Christopher: I love that what I just said somewhat disparagingly about talent shows, there is a kernel of truth there which you talked about, which is that it is an expression of yourself and your own abilities and your own passions. I think that makes it a very versatile art form. It’s not you having to force yourself into a certain role, or a whole work of music or theater, and doing it exactly as written. This is something that you craft yourself to match what you are naturally strongest at and passionate about.

Fiona-Jane: I have a couple of German friends who bring the most interesting perspective on their cabaret. They really do, because of course Germany has a very fine tradition of it with the Weimar. Watching what they can do with their pieces, and what they bring their own history and their own family history into that, is great. It really is. There’s so many things. Go to yourself. Go to your own story and see what you can bring out. That will be … People will find it interesting, because they’re interested in other people’s lives apart from their own.

Christopher: Well, I have to say it never occurred to me that cabaret could be as accessible a form of expression as you have made it sound. This sounds like something that anyone who’s done a bit of singing, or done a bit of music, and has a passion for a particular topic could put together themselves. Are there any caveats or any pointers you’d give to someone who’s been listening to this and feeling super excited about maybe putting a cabaret together themselves?

Fiona-Jane: I would say definitely try. Definitely go for it, because I think people get a lot of pleasure from it. Keep an eye on where you’re going to perform it. Remember, by and large, the space that you have physically is likely to be very small. Don’t put in a whole great big dance number that requires a big stage, because you ain’t going to have the room. By all means, if you’re a dancer and you want to show that, you can. There are people who do that, but just member how small and tight the space is going to be, so a lot of your expression has to be made within that space.

Remember that you are including people in the audience. If some rooms are very strangely set up, and it’s difficult to connect with everybody in that audience, practice that in your rehearsals. I do think it’s a good idea to work with a director if you can. Work with somebody who is good at sitting out the front and be able to see where things might improve.

Watch the structure of your work. Remember, this is a long show. If you’re doing it on your own, make sure you’re vocally ready for it, because actually you can’t take a break in a way that you could if you’re in a musical where you might be offstage for … minutes. No, you’re not going to be offstage for 10 minutes, apart from if you set an interval. Even then, that probably means you’ve got a longer show. Your technicality still has to be there. You can’t let that all go to pieces just because you want to be expressive. You’re being more expressive if you’ve got the technique behind you.

Christopher: Great advice. You seem to be someone who not only has a real passion for cabaret and producing your own shows, but also I think you clearly have a kind of advocate spirit in you. You want to encourage people to get involved in this. What are you up to these days? What is Fiona-Jane Weston working on, and what’s coming next?

Fiona-Jane: I’m about to do a version of Fiona-Jane and West End Friends in a private club in the city. That’s going to be in the next couple of weeks. Later in the year, because of Remembrance Sunday coming up again, I’m doing a big charity gala and the Charing Cross Theater, which I’m co-producing with a lady from Belgium, where there’s going to be all sorts of stars from the West End involved in it as well. That’s going to be the proceeds of which will go to people like combat stress, and the British Legion, and so on. That’s on October the 28th.

Then I hope to do some more of Wartime Women, because it’s always such a fun show to do as well, both in Belgium and in London. I also hope to revive another show I’ve done on the actress Angela Lansbury. I’ve got a whole big show on her. That would be nice to be able to bring that out.

Also, I hope to launch some kind of consultancy for people who want to do cabaret, or want to do their own one woman shows or one man shows, even if it doesn’t involve music. If I can be of help to anybody, they’re welcome to contact me. That would be absolutely fine. Get hold of me through my work site.

Christopher: Wonderful. I’m sure it’s clear from listening to this conversation that you would have a wealth of experience and wisdom to share with someone who is at that beginner stage, or even further along in their cabaret journey. Where’s the best place for people to go to learn all about your upcoming shows, and to get in touch if they’d like to, for help with cabaret?

Fiona-Jane: Okay. Go to It’s all one word. FionaJaneWeston. It takes forever to type. Then at the bottom of each page, there is a contact page there. There’s also a little envelope. If you press that … I hope it works. You should be able to get up a form where you can sign up to my newsletter list. That’s where you will know where I’m performing and when. Also, somewhere around all of that is an email address for you. In fact, the email address is the same. It’s just Contact me there, and I’ll be delighted to hear from you, because I’d love to know what you’re doing, what your projects are, and what floats your boat, what makes you want to do a cabaret.

Christopher: Wonderful. Thank you. Well, it really has opened my eyes and my mind to what cabaret involves and what it can involve. I am absolutely in no position to run off and produce a cabaret, but I can’t help but feel that I want to right now. You clearly have a-

Fiona-Jane: I’ll get you there.

Christopher: Maybe after this conversation we’ll turn off the recorder, and we can talk some cabaret ideas. It’s been really genuinely inspiring, and I think also enlightening. Whether or not someone’s going away from this wanting to produce a cabaret, there is clearly a ton that any musician can learn from the world of theater and from the world of cabaret. Just a very big thank you, Fiona-Jane, for joining us today and sharing some of your insights on this.

Fiona-Jane: Thank you very much. I’ve loved it. Thank you so much.

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The post Musical Storytelling and the Art of Cabaret, with Fiona-Jane Weston appeared first on Musical U.