What Is The X factor?

Lesson 1

No one seems to know what it is or where it comes from. Apparently you either have it or you don’t and Simon Cowell’s made millions spotting it.

The ‘X’ factor. What is it? Why do you need it, and how can you get more of it?

Mark Shenton thinks there are some things you just can’t buy:

Great cabaret isn’t just about the voice (though for me it has to start with it) and selecting great material to showcase it, but about the rapport and intimacy that the artiste establishes with the audience. Part of that is personality - which you can’t buy, still less manufacture - but it’s also about sincerity and passion.

Artistic Director of the London Olympics, Kim Gavin, has worked with some of the biggest names in the business and thinks the ‘X’ Factor is very difficult to define. He told me:

The question is, do you want to watch them again? That’s the only way I could ever define it. So, do you want to watch Take That again? Yes, you do. Do you want to watch Boyzone again? No. The ‘X’ Factor is about much more than the music. It’s an atmosphere or a persona on stage. Even though Leona Lewis has one of the most amazing voices, she doesn’t relate to the audience. Yes, she sings brilliantly, but unless we get to know her and like her, it’s not enough. There has to be something that makes you interested to see her again.

The ‘X’ seems to mean different things to different people. For me, ‘X’ equals charisma.

My dictionary defines charisma as “Personal attractiveness or interestingness that allows you to influence others.” As performers it’s our job to influence the moods of hundreds or thousands of ‘others’ every time we walk on stage.

There are lots of talented people out there. They might know jaw-dropping illusions, juggle six balls with ease or sing like angels, but a performer without charisma is like a canvas without paint.

So how can you get more of it?

Your natural personality counts for a lot. You have to love to share and communicate. In other words, you need to be a bit of a show-off. For many people, including me, Bobby Short will always be one of the very best cabaret performers – a unique voice, great pianist, witty, and he knows how to pick a song. He explained his draw to the stage like this, “I wanted to perform for the same reason most people do – attention. I do have some talent, but really, I wanted attention. We all want to be noticed in some way, and so you perform, you’re noticed and you’re constantly loved.” 

Lennie Watts is an 8 time MAC, 5 time Backstage Bistro, and 3 time Nightlife Award winner. He’s been active in the New York cabaret scene for over 20 years and the only person to receive awards as an outstanding vocalist, director, producer, and booking manager. I think it’s safe to say he knows what he’s talking about. Here are his thoughts on what it takes to make it in cabaret:

Anyone with life experience, a point of view, and the ability to tell a story can learn the art of cabaret. All of the other skills can be easily taught. The person attempting cabaret just needs to be open and willing to put themselves in an incredibly vulnerable, yet truly satisfying position.

In response to the much vaunted “You either have it or you don’t” opinion, another MAC Award winner, Joan Jaffe says, “True, but if you only have it a little bit, with the proper guidance from the right people, there is hope.”

Conductor, arranger and musician John Wilson thinks it’s more than that though:

I’ve learned that the greatest artists have music inside them; that no amount of training or education can give an artiste that certain star quality, that special something that will move an audience and communicate something directly to them.

Even if you’re not brimming with that “certain star quality”, I do believe charisma can be developed. Stage presence comes in part from confidence and there’s no greater aid to confidence than experience. Marta Sanders, a New York cabaret artiste with over forty years in the business, told me, “The audience doesn’t want to worry about you. You must be in control so they can relax. Don’t show fear. Whatever happens, keep smiling.” The more you perform, the more confident you’ll become which allows your personality to shine through. Your performances will become more honest and sincere. 

Whether they paint, walk the high wire, or sing - honesty and sincerity are the cornerstones of all great artistes. People recognise it, respond to it and love them for it. If you find large groups of people terrifying, now might be a good time to take the nearest available exit and consider a different career path.

Building confidence

LBC Talk Radio host, Anthony Davis, reckons there are three stages to building real confidence. First, there’s that fearless, youthful confidence of the early 20s. These young people have only been told how wonderful they are and nothing’s ever happened to suggest otherwise. Next, as they see a little more of the world, suffer a few knocks and gain a little wisdom, they realise they might not know everything after all. Their confidence takes a dip, they become more questioning and less impetuous. Then begins the long, slow recovery to a new kind of confidence founded in experience, truth and knowledge. This is the foundation of every truly self-assured performer. You carry around a new inner confidence, and because you know you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to work so hard. Just standing still on stage, projecting your energy can be enough to own the room.

It took me twenty years of performing to get there. Luckily you don’t have to wait that long. Principal singer with the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, Iain Mackenzie, has two words of advice for anyone who wants a shortcut: “Be prepared”. Lisa Cottrell agrees. Her advice, “Be versatile, don’t take anything personally, and most importantly - be prepared.”

Be prepared

So it seems the way to find more of the elusive ‘X’ Factor is through preparation. John Wilson told me the only thing worse than an arrogant singer is an unprepared singer. “There are those,” he says, “who simply don’t realise just how good you have to be to stand before an orchestra and an audience. I like to work with singers who are completely prepared, who rehearse efficiently and then go up umpteen notches in the show.”

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success” Alexander Graham Bell

There’s no substitute for painstaking preparation and really knowing your stuff. Prepare your voice by warming up properly, know what you’re going to say and when you intend to say it, make sure you’ve organised your music properly and everything is clear for the musicians, that you know your material backwards, your clothes are pressed and you understand your audience. The only reason I’m not terrified when I walk out on stage, is because I do everything possible to prepare myself. When the pressure’s on, I know exactly what I’m doing.

Even for a show I’ve performed many times, I spend hours getting ready, going over every detail. I stand on the stage and walk through every song to decide how I’ll use the space, when I’ll use the microphone stand, what the lights will be doing, when I’ll interact with the musicians and so on. I love spontaneity and surprises in my show but I’m always working from a secure foundation. Being on top of all the elements I can control means I’m free to worry about those I cannot. Will the band play well? Will my microphone work? How will the audience react? 

I learned early on what can happen if you don’t prepare. When I started out, I’d open my show with Frank Sinatra and close with Roy Orbison. I needed a quick way to change from a tuxedo to a black shirt, so asked my mother for help. She found a tuxedo jacket in Oxfam, sewed a shirt-front and bow tie inside, split open the back and added two velcro strips to join it back together. I had exactly 6 seconds in the blackout between My Way and Pretty Woman to make the change. All I had to do was rip the velcro apart and remove the jacket before the lights came back on. I’d have a new look and the audience would be suitably astonished. That night, as My Way finished, the lights went out. 6... 5... I leaned forward to split the velcro apart. It didn’t budge. 4... 3... The velcro was simply too strong. 2... 1... I panicked. Like Houdini in a water tank, I was on my knees, thrashing around, trying to escape from the jacket as though my life depended on it. And still nothing. I heard the unmistakable opening bars of Pretty Woman and the lights came up. Instead of a miraculous transformation from crooner to pop icon, the audience found me sitting on the floor, staring at them from the back of the stage, sweating and panic stricken. I was caught in the spotlight like an asylum escapee. After that, I made a promise to myself: rehearse everything.

Over the years I’ve had lots of things go wrong on stage. Scenery’s fallen on my head, I’ve forgotten lyrics and I’ve turned up in the wrong town. Thankfully I’ve survived (relatively) unharmed. The more experience you have, the more you learn to cope with anything that’s thrown at you, literally in some cases, and as your command of the stage grows, so does your confidence. 

A little charm goes a long way

If you charm an audience and they really like you, there isn’t much they won’t forgive. As long as you’re not phased when you miss a cue or introduce the wrong song, they’ll be behind you. In fact they’ll like you even more for being real. 

There are some pretty awful singers out there who wouldn’t last five minutes in a recording studio, but put them in front of a live audience where their charisma shines through, and they can do no wrong. I’ll never forget seeing one truly remarkable act. Unaware of his considerable vocal limitations he opened with the ambitious ‘This Is The Moment’, a song well out of his range, and gave us forty-five minutes of ‘belters’, each with limited success. It was enough to make his own mother wince. As he closed with ‘The Music of the Night’, complete with mask and a polyester cape, I sank in my chair out of shame for the poor man. The audience, however, had taken him to their hearts. As soon as he’d hit the last note they jumped to their feet, giving him a full standing ovation. I can still picture it now. The fella next to me cried, “This guy’s incredible. Amazing!” I was astonished and, in truth, fascinated. I spent days trying to figure out how he did it (I wanted some of that). Then I realised - charisma. Sure, he sang their favourite songs, but crucially, he was sincere, he was likeable and he was genuine. They didn’t care that he was flat, forgot his lyrics and his neck went red at the end of every song. They just liked him.

It works both ways

Audiences are not always so generous. It’s fascinating (and terrifying) to see how quickly they can turn on a performer. I once saw a comedian, on the old QE2, tell a crass joke that offended a large part of his audience. He knew instantly he’d made a mistake, but it was too late. His next routine landed flat. Hardly anyone laughed. A few people got up to leave. More followed. Soon there was a steady stream of people heading for the exit. The comic panicked. He lost his place. Beads of sweat began to appear. No one was applauding and people actually took their seats again just to watch the poor man suffer. It was an agonising lesson in how quickly the veneer of confidence can disappear. Anyone can make a mistake, but had he prepared properly and taken better notice of his audience, he might have avoided this untimely public death.

Painstaking preparation means more confidence and confidence is the corner stone of charisma. If you’re not quite there yet, fake it till you make it. Having actual talent helps, but as Kander and Ebb said, “Give them the old razzle dazzle and you’ll get away with murder.” 

Ready? Let’s get to work.

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