Barbara Motley has lived many past lives – she’s a small-town Texas native who would go on to work as a banker and in the corporate offices of Mignon Faget and Popeyes – but her turn as owner of the cabaret Le Chat Noir might be the role for which she’s best known. After 12 years of attracting national cabaret stars, grooming local performers in the art form (the theater would host master classes with visiting artists, and Motley encouraged locals to study at the Yale Cabaret Conference) and serving as home to New Orleans theater mainstays, Motley decided to call curtains. But with the help of actor Bryan Batt and his husband Tom Cianfichi, Motley is bringing actor and singer Liz Callaway to Le Petit Théâtre on Aug. 14-15 for what she hopes is the start of a regular cabaret series.
Q: What was the first cabaret show you saw? It was probably in the early (19)90s. It was in New York City at the cabaret room at the Algonquin Hotel, the Oak Room. It was a woman named Andrea Marcovicci. She was just glamorous – glamorous dress, big shiny grand piano, sort of the perfect cabaret show. I was mesmerized.
I don’t like a cacophony of anything – department stores make me nervous because there’s just too many things. I prefer readings of theater, people just sitting with scripts on chairs.
Cabaret is really just a vocalist and piano on a small stage. It’s very intimate, so you’re very close to them. It really is a complicated art form. It’s not just a song list; it’s not a music club kind of show. It really requires a script, a musical director and rehearsal. The performers have to go all the way to being well rehearsed, and then fall back so it seems as it’s just off the top of their heads and conversational.
I like the connection to the artist, and it’s simple – it’s the lyrics, the music and the voice. You can invest in any of those deeply enough that it touches you, and you get engaged. Every time I was in New York I would cabaret hop. Eventually when we opened Le Chat Noir, Andrea Marcovicci came down to perform.
Q: You’re not an artist yourself, are you? No. I knew from the beginning my primary job was the business, establishing the brand. The mission statement was really important: We’re going to build a space where the best artists want to be. It really worked beautifully, because it informed the hiring. We ended up with people working in the cabaret room as techs who love performing artists and who want to make the artists look good. I wanted (the national performers) to leave loving New Orleans and loving the cabaret, talking it up and wanting to come back.
It was a never a financial cash cow. When my husband decided to retire … we had hardly seen each other for 14 years, because I worked during the day and at night, and he worked during the day. It was time for a new stage and, economically, we still had a mortgage on the building and that’s not necessarily a good idea when you’re going into retirement. There was no one who could buy the building and take over the business; I felt very particular about the brand and what we’ve done, and I didn’t want to see it deteriorate. I said, I really think the best thing to do is throw a big party and call it quits, just declare victory.
Q: How did the Le Petit show come to be? Bryan (Batt) did his first cabaret show ever at Le Chat Noir, as a fundraiser for the city after Katrina. We always said, over a cocktail or something, that it would be fun to produce cabaret. Le Petit’s been through a lot – it’s 100 years old. But we finally said, we’ve been through a year with a new managing director and artistic director and we feel really good about the future of Le Petit. Now’s the time.
Le Petit is a lot bigger, and cabaret is inherently intimate.
It won’t be the same. It becomes a little more like a concert and a little less of a cabaret. What we’re going to try is seat a few people on stage in hopes that it will bump up the perception that you’re in a cabaret. We’re kind of operating on intuition here, but Liz would be great anywhere. Hopefully, if it works, what I’d like to do is have a cabaret season – several shows in a captive time, one after another or spread out through the year. If we can establish it, hopefully we can bring the local cabaret performers back.
Age: “There was a point in a woman’s life when people used to call a woman ‘handsome’ instead of pretty. So I say I’m on the handsome side of ingénue.” Occupation: Theater Producer Family: Husband, Biff Favorite movie: Edward Scissorhands, Hamlet (1948 version) Favorite book: The Goldfinch Favorite TV show: Netflix’s “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and “Grace and Frankie” Favorite New Orleans restaurant: Marcello’s or Commander’s Palace Favorite vacation spot: Paris or Taos
I was runner up to the Miss South Plains Miss America pageant, and I still have the trophy. For my talent I sang a bad version of “If They Could See Me Now.” I lost to a gymnast, third place was a girl who twirled batons and fourth was a girl who packed a suitcase. It was really small town.