Singer’s Choice

posted by Craig Slaight, A.C.T. Young Conservatory Director

I believe that we don’t ask young people for their point of view often enough.

When you’re in the business of training young people in the arts, you had better listen keenly for their point of view, offer a platform for it to be heard, and nurture it unflaggingly. In recent years, this has become very important in our work in the A.C.T. Young Conservatory. And let me tell you, young people have unique and compelling points of view—about art, life, and their dangling future. Where our musical program here is concerned, we’re trying to provide dynamic training and offer a platform to young people’s view in the material that they work on. Case in point . . .

One day A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff mentioned that she felt that the main house on Geary Street needed to become more representative of all that we do at A.C.T., and challenged each of us on the artistic team to think of ways in which to do this. It gave me an instant jolt of an idea. I’ve long been a fan of the cabaret scene, especially in New York City, where on any given night you can see some of the truly great singer/actors in an intimate setting, crooning in many different musical styles. When A.C.T. resurrected the fallen Geary Theater after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the upper balcony was refashioned, creating a large room with exposed brick and beautiful iron beams. It was a quintessentially intimate space, complete with a kitchen/bar. From the day we reopened the theater, I’d had my eye on that room, and I didn’t keep it a secret. “I see cool lights, a small stage, and talented kids in this room, filling it with great vocals and personal patter. Oh, oh, and I see an audience having festive drinks.” Of course many people had an eye on that room, but I knew that we could help meet Carey’s challenge by presenting really wonderful young singer/actors to audiences of all ages. So I pushed. I came to Carey with my idea of having a special cabaret ensemble, comprised of some of our most talented young musical actors, that would perform in the Garret Room (as it came to be called) after the big show, in dress clothes, in programs showcasing some of the most interesting recent and past composers. She loved the idea, and the Young Conservatory Musical Cabaret Ensemble was born.

Candidates for the ensemble, 16 seriously gifted young singer/actors, audition each September for a full-season engagement presenting four different cabaret productions throughout the A.C.T. season, held on Saturdays and Sundays from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. Each of these cabarets takes on a different theme. In recent outings we’ve explored the blues of torch songs, rocked the room with comedic songs, and featured special popular composers like The Fab Four and many others. But the one that really gets me going is the one in which I let the young performers select their own program of songs. We call it “singer’s choice.” For this cabaret, the performers must select songs that are particularly meaningful to them—and they have to interact with the audience by talking about the music and why it means so much to them. In “singer’s choice” the entire event is guided by the burning desire of the performer to share, to communicate with an audience, in a small room—with a light, a pianist, and a microphone their only aids. It is always the most exciting cabaret for me as I see these young artists making choices, defining their taste, generously sharing with each other and the audience a piece of music that has come from such a personal place.

In these many years at A.C.T., I’ve seen such amazing things happen when you empower young people to take charge of their lives and ultimately find the artist that is within. Some of these young people are so talented that there is no question in my mind that we’ll hear much more from them as time passes. Others will find their lives taking different paths. But there is a truly glorious moment in the intimate Garret space when a teen, dressed for “something important” as we like to say, steps into a pool of light, lifts the microphone, and shares with those gathered something innately personal. Wow. That is a very positive hope for a better tomorrow.

I invite you to “come to the cabaret, old chum!”

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