Connecting Up Close
French chanteuse Edith Piaf was arguably the most popular of early cabaret singers.
Today she might be considered the “first lady” of local cabaret, but Barbara Motley knew she was courting trouble nine years ago when she opened Le Chat Noir Cabaret Theater in the Warehouse District.
At the time, the word “cabaret” conjured one of two images – either an upscale strip club or the 1972 film that starred Liza Minnelli.
“I got a lot of advice from everyone who said, ‘Call it a theater!’ ”Motley says. Friends warned her that audiences might get the wrong impression from the seemingly tawdry term.
Motley embraced the challenge and made it her mission to rehabilitate the genre by educating local audiences about the fine art of cabaret. Now, Le Chat is the epicenter of the city’s small, but active cabaret community.
The theater hosts several home-grown cabaret shows a season and annually brings in national cabaret luminaries such as Karen Akers, Anna Bergman and Andrea Marcovicci. Motley’s enthusiasm for the genre helped the city become one of the regional audition sites for the Cabaret Conference at Yale University, a summer training program for up-and-coming cabaret performers.
“Barbara Motley has essentially brought real, world-class cabaret to New Orleans,” says Amy Alvarez, a graduate of the Yale program who has performed and produced two original cabaret shows at Le Chat with musical director Jefferson Turner. “It’s such a gift to have this beautiful venue that nationally known performers feel like they can come to and perform.”
Le Chat is a throwback to the nightclubs of yesteryear. With a name taken from a famous French cabaret called Chat Noir (black cat), the club features a classic-looking streetside bar and lounge that opens onto the theater lobby; inside, everyone has a good view of the stage from seats at small tables or cushioned seating that lines the back wall. The theater seats about 130 patrons.
Motley says authentic cabaret has as much to do with the venue as it does the performance. Cabaret is meant for a small, intimate setting where the audience is close enough to connect with the performer.
“The first thing that called itself a cabaret was actually something that artists just gathered to do in a café in Paris,” Motley says. “They would lock the doors at midnight, and they would just get drunk and perform for each other.”
That was back in the late 1880s, when the genre began as an artists’ movement protesting efforts by the bourgeoisie to control the arts. It evolved to include the wildly popular French singer Edith Piaf, and it took root in Germany as a more satirical form of entertainment. When it jumped to America during the emergence of jazz, it took on more of the attributes commonly associated with cabaret today, namely a singer, an accompanist and a repertoire of music from The Great American Songbook.
“It’s still about the music that was written at the turn of the 20th century up to 1945,” Motley says. “That’s still the predominance of what you hear in cabaret anywhere across the country.”
What, technically, is cabaret? Some, like Motley, have a stricter definition than others. For her, it’s about a singer and his or her accompanist and, perhaps, one or two other musicians under the guidance of a director performing music that tells a story and connects with the audience. There’s no “third wall” in cabaret, as performers speak directly to the audience.
Motley is a purist. While a huge fan of their work, she doesn’t consider some of the character-driven musical revues by such icons as Ricky Graham or drag artist Jeff Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman) as cabaret, even though both perform regularly at Le Chat. “If the singer plays a character, I’m not sure that that is a cabaret show,” she says.
Alvarez thinks the genre is big enough to include show’s like Graham’s because the shows capitalize on “the intimacy of the setting” and audience connection.
“The essence of cabaret really is taking music and making it very personal and making it your own,” she says.
Anais St. John, another graduate of the Yale program who has headlined and created original cabaret at Le Chat, says there are too few venues in the city to apply a strict definition of cabaret. She uses elements of it in her weekly Saturday night jazz show at the Polo Lounge at Windsor Court Hotel.
“I give a little bit of cabaret no matter where I am,” St. John says. “Since the city doesn’t have more”than one official cabaret place, people make cabaret where they make cabaret. (It) is within the person and not necessarily the venue.”
Some venues, like the Bombay Club, regularly host singers on weekends for the dinner shift, and a few clubs around town occasionally host concert revues they call cabaret. Motley admits there isn’t much traditional cabaret in New Orleans compared to larger cities like New York or Chicago. To make up for the lack of local exposure to the genre, she nurtures talent by hosting master classes with visiting performers. Most are eager to share advice with local artists, Motley says.
She also encourages local performers to audition for the Yale cabaret program. If they’re accepted, they can learn how to stage their own shows once they come back to New Orleans, injecting new vigor into the local cabaret scene.
That’s what St. John did when she attended the program in 2004 and again in 2007. “When you come out of Yale, you come back with so much information. You are inspired by so many of the students and the teachers,” she says. “I just came out of Yale ready to go to work.”
St. John came up with the idea for her sultry blues review “No Reservations” at the conference. In a twist on the usual path of new shows, her show debuted at Le Chat late last year, and then she turned the tables and took it to New York. •