What a director can do for your cabaret, by Hugh Wooldridge


Hugh Wooldridge is an English theatre director, theatre and television producer, writer and stage lighting designer. He’s probably best known for directing the ‘Night of a 1000 Voices’ concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.  In this edition of Cabaret Secrets he shares stories of working with greats like Stephen Sondheim, John Standing, Cleo Laine, Judi Dench, Liz Robertson, Colm Wilkinson and many more.

All you need is love

According to Hugh, not everyone can be good at cabaret. What are they missing? “Love,” he tells me, “love of other people rather than love of self. A true cabaret artiste is actually giving a bit of themselves to the audience. I know many wonderful performers who should not be doing cabaret because they are so obsessed with self and self image.”

It all starts with the material

“The most important starting point for a cabaret is the material,” explained Hugh. “You have to choose songs that you enjoy singing and hope to God that someone else likes listening to them.”

Hugh likes to hear ‘story songs’ those with a beginning, middle and an end. “A cabaret,” he says, “is like an audition and an audition is like a cabaret. You have to get the audience’s attention very quickly and you have to take them on a journey. In a cabaret that lasts 45 or 90 minutes you have to have a beginning, middle and an end. You can’t just throw 12 songs up in the air and perform them, you have to shape it.”

“Some acts don’t need directing. It’s the audience that needs directing. Part of the job of a director is to decide where the audience should clap.”

Letting the material shine

I asked Hugh if musical theatre performs can make good cabaret artistes. He thinks they can. As far as he’s concerned it’s a bogus distinction, “There are good performers and there are bad performers. I think anyone can be a cabaret performer providing they realise what cabaret is. The real secret of a good cabaret performer is making the material shine rather than making themselves shine. If someone comes on and is all eyes and teeth and doesn’t engage the audience, people will walk out. A good performer takes the audience on an emotional journey, moves them and engages their brains. You need to make them laugh so you can make them cry. You want to make them cry so you can really make them laugh. Bad cabaret is like a lukewarm bath: you don’t mind being there but you’d rather not be! Good cabaret is a duet between the performer and the audience, where you’re peeling an onion and revealing more and more about yourself.

“Bad cabaret is like a lukewarm bath: you don’t mind being there but you’d rather not.”

If you’re creating your own show, Hugh says, “Think about who your audience is and build the show with them in mind. We are their servant – it’s not the other way around.”

Template, template, template

We talk a lot about using a template to structure the show. Hugh’s been using the same template for his shows since 1984 and is pretty protective about it. He reminded me of Kim Gavin who directs Take That. In Cabaret Secrets he revealed he’s also used the same template for years but no one has seemed to have noticed. It’s a framework and when you find one that works for you, hang on to it.

Don’t forget why you’re there

When Hugh was directing Smokey Joe’s Cafe he would often remind the cast exactly why they were there, “Nobody is owed a living. Remember the woman who has saved up her pension for six weeks to come see this show. The audience is why we do this. It’s fantastic if you enjoy what we’re doing but that’s a bonus. Ask yourself ‘How am I going to entertain these people, what would they like?’ Do that and you’ll have a happier time.

Recorded in London 7th May 2014

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