Sharing the Swing
Ann Hampton Callaway on the cabaret as playground
In November 2001, Austin Cabaret Theatre got off to a wonderfully auspicious start because producer Stuart Moulton brought to town an artist who could share. During a pair of intoxicating performances at Scottish Rite Theatre, Ann Hampton Callaway shared an uncommon ardor for the form of cabaret, for the masterpieces of the Great American Songbook. She shared a voice that is at once lush and zestful, passionate yet playful. And she shared, most generously, a winning and witty sense of humor.
Small wonder, then, that Callaway is back for a return engagement in ACT's second season. This weekend, she'll be sharing all the qualities that endeared her to Austinites a year ago, but this time she'll be sharing even more. Callaway is spending the week working with a select group of local singers, sharing her insights into the form of cabaret and ways in which they might find their own place in it, and then she'll be literally sharing the Scottish Rite stage with them Friday and Saturday nights. In a call from the road, we discussed her upcoming visit, the essence of cabaret, what lessons she's learned of late, and what she hopes to pass on to aspiring singers.
Austin Chronicle: You'll be working with local singers and having them perform along with you. Is that something you do fairly regularly?
Ann Hampton Callaway: No, this is the first time that I will ever have done this. Last year I did a master class in Austin, and it was very exciting, because, in a matter of five minutes, each singer I worked with had these astonishing transformations. I thought, "There's a lot of talent here. There's a lot of heart here. It's exciting to sort of merge worlds here."
Cabaret as an art form is still a question mark to a lot of people. I'm interested in teaching people the possibilities of cabaret and my approach and some of the traditional approaches to inhabiting a song, because I think this is a national tradition that needs to have a little bit more guidance to flourish. And because I live in New York and travel around the country and record and work with some wonderful people, I can be a bit of an inspiration in a place that has a lot of talent. Austin is a very reputable music town, but this particular art form is still getting on its feet, so it seems like a great opportunity to encourage people, to share ideas, to learn from each other, and present the local talent.
AC:We have had a cabaret scene flare up here from time to time, and there haven't always been venues that could support it, but the people who adore the music and feel so passionately about singing it never go away. You can serve as that point of inspiration ...
AHC: And as someone who can help create community. I've always had an instinct to bring people together. Perhaps it comes from having a father who was a reporter and brought the stories of the world into our family and into our home, from a first-hand perspective. I've always felt like people from anywhere in the world were part of my family. So when I share my love of music with people wherever I go, I have such a strong instinct to widen the family and bring people together.
So often artists suffer from isolation. They don't feel supported, and a lot of singers suffer from a scarcity mentality where they think, "There's only room for one or two good singers in a town," and that's so not true. It's like Paris in the 1920s. Why did art flourish in that time? One of the reasons is because there was community, and people hung out together and exchanged ideas, and they created a movement in art that changed the world and changed what people thought was possible in art. I think that's important in music as well -- to create an exchange of ideas and thoughts and inspirations, so people can do their best work and feel supported and generate excitement for something that deserves attention.
AC:Tony Bennett compares the Golden Age of Music to the period of Impressionism. No matter how far we may have moved from Impressionism as a movement in art, people still look back at the artwork created then and see something unparalleled there. And for him, the songs that were produced by Irving Berlin and the Gershwins and Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter and the other great songwriters of that day will live on for their extraordinary talent and craftsmanship.
AHC: My other theory about why such beautiful songwriting happened then is that there was a sense of fragility and impermanence -- you know, the two world wars, people didn't know what was going to happen next. Were they going to see their lover again? Were they going to have enough money to live? "How are we going to go on?" There was a sense of high stakes, and the need for beauty and the need for reassurance and the need to express love because maybe this is our only moment to share it had a much more passionate quality of urgency than in today's world. Though we're returning to more of that sense of not knowing what is going to happen next.
AC: You were here a year ago, and it was such a profound thing at that time to see people turning to art and music and culture at a time when they felt such uncertainty.
AHC: I think people realize in times of trouble how necessary art is. We take it for granted, and sometimes we entertain ourselves to death, but when we are forced through a human and spiritual crisis, one of the most powerful ways that we can connect with each other is through music and art and theatre.
AC:What can you tell us about the work you'll be doing with the singers this week?
AHC: I'm very excited that it's multigenerational: some teenagers and some adults. Some people have been professional singers, and some are aspiring singers, so I'll be working with people from various backgrounds, and I think that will make for a much more interesting presentation.
Sometimes singing a song is like moving into an apartment or a home. How are you going to make yourself at home in that? How are you going to decorate it? Are you going to paint it light, or are you going to paint it dark? Are you going to keep it spacious, or are you going to stuff it with all your personality? Are you going to go with the time it was built, or are you going to go against it? How do you express yourself within the bones and shape and space of the house? Are you going to change the walls; are you going to take out the bathroom; are you going to redo the kitchen? That's really what we do with songs.
One thing I noticed about Richard Rodgers -- and it made me think about the whole American Songbook -- is we take his songs for granted. When I was a kid, I thought "Doe, a Deer" was something that just existed like a tree outside my window. It was just a part of nature. I didn't think that someone actually wrote it. People sing it, and they know it, and they don't realize that these songs taught us how we are. They taught us what we expect out of love. They taught us to dream. They gave us ideas about what romance could be like if we were lucky and even gave us beautiful ways to feel sad about losing love. These songs became our context for how we live our love lives. So I think it's very important to step back from time to time [and look at these songs].
Mabel Mercer was one of the main teachers of this for me. She said, "If you're a good singer, you're going to take one of these songs that's a cliché, that's been done a million times, and you are going to sing that song as if it was the first time it was ever sung, as if you were the first person to discover these words and inhabit this world that the song creates." The more familiar the song, the bigger the challenge. It helps you to look at the song with brand-new eyes and to look at yourself with brand-new eyes.
AC:Do you find that less experienced singers have difficulty accepting that idea that they can take such a familiar song and make it fresh?
AHC: I think people are comfortable with the idea, but I don't think people necessarily have the tools, and that's one of the things that I'm going to work on with the singers in Austin this week: to give them some tools, to give them some choices, some ways of thinking about the songs, the freedom to try some different things. So often the world that we live in expects immediate results; you have to be perfect. You don't get the freedom to try things, make a fool out of yourself, and then learn from those things. So before everyone gets onstage, I'm going to have them, in a very safe environment, try some things that will give them a sense of possibility and sense of discovery of what these songs can be and a sense of playfulness. Not to appear to disrespect what the songwriter intended, but to find that there is a playground and that you can go on the swing and you can go on the slide and you can go on the teeter-totter. And then, when you've tried all these things, then you can really find what resonated for you: When did you feel that you came alive? When you sing a song, you should feel like, "Oh my god, that's the next song. I can't wait to sing that song."
Ann Hampton Callaway performs Friday and Saturday, November 1-2, at Scottish Rite Theatre, 18th & Lavaca. Call 453-ACTS for tickets and information.