Intimate Identities

For her cabaret, Emily Burns shares her amorous adventures.
Photo by Josh Loeser

Eager eyes of family, friends and retired professors fix on the stage to see six performers who prepare to recount their experiences. The Sunday evening at ASU’s Recital Hall in the Music Building proves to be a testament of the performers’ skills and openness.

This performance will be different from most. These performers must act as the person they might be most unfamiliar with: themselves.

The daunting duty of performers for the cabaret “Being Yourself On Purpose”: to devise and individually perform a 12 minute cabaret by choosing five songs that they connect personally with. With less than a week to prepare, each performer had only minutes to decide what their individual theme would be before meeting their cabaret coach.

“I had 20 minutes to think of what I was going to do,” says Emily Burns, a first year graduate student in music theatre and opera performance at the Herberger Institute.

Burns enrolled in ASU from Pittsburgh after having had recently completed her undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University. Upon arriving, she integrated herself into the music school by auditioning for “Being Yourself on Purpose.”

“Being yourself is one of the hardest things to do — on stage at least,” Burns says.

The auditions for this performance began with 30 people, who were then narrowed down to eight. Those who made the cut met with Joann Yeoman Tongret on Thursday, August 25, when the coaching began to get ready for the two-night performance on Sept. 1 and Sept. 2.

Tongret is a retired ASU professor that was brought in by the alumni of Emeritus College to team up with the School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and Arts to put on this cabaret.

The actress, director and choreographer specializes in cabaret and has performed and choreographed for companies such as New York’s Lincoln Center and the Royal Viking Cruise Ship Lines. She is now an adjunct instructor at Pace University directing in cabaret.

The performances for this show focus less on the sultry theme of Moulin Rouge, a well-known cabaret, and instead, focus more on the intimacy that cabarets exude.

“It’s a good escape from myself. I couldn’t really escape from myself doing cabaret,” Burns says. “I think I learned a lot about myself. I was real with it.”

Based on her three-month trip to Germany, Burns describes meeting someone at the right time in her life when she felt lost.

In cabaret, performers choose songs that speak out to the audience, and Burns wanted to share one thing in particular: in Germany, she fell in love.

The songs that told her story were “The Little Shop of Horrors,” which she sung in German, and “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.”

Confident in demeanor and tone, Burns is reminiscent of the sound of Judy Garland, singing a piece by the man who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlan. With a hint of an old jazz sound to her voice, she powerfully hits the higher notes.

Burns has fun with her performance, smiling and asking if the audience knows what language she is speaking in. She doesn’t stand still throughout the whole performance, moving her arms and doing a little jig at parts.

Burns's cabaret is the story of her finding love in happiness.
Photo by Josh Loeser

Her message: “That special person in your life can be happiness.”

Rudy Ramirez, a music theatre performance senior at the Herberger Institute, wants to be part of as many performances as possible so that he can learn new kinds of performance.

“It’s good to perform for a community you’re not use to performing for,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez also explains it tests him and the other students to grow and adapt to the unfamiliarity of showing their own character.

“The hardest part is to be yourself when as a performer you’ve hidden behind characters,” Tongret said. “I think it’s important to make a fool of yourself at least once.”

Standing at 5 feet 5 inches, Ramirez chose to tell the audience about his continual experiences with being type-casted as children’s parts. Being pushed into the same part is a common nuisance for actors in television, film and theatre though.

“Typecasting is a necessary evil that actors have to come across,” Ramirez says. “It’s pretty continuous for everybody that performs.”

Ramirez based his song choices on the repertoire of roles he could play, but he reworked their intentions.

He approaches the stage wearing grey, cuffed slacks and a horizontally striped sweater. Like a child, he carries around his precious blanket, unwilling to release it to Tongret before his performance.

Ramirez says the blanket symbolized his growth from being frustrated that he couldn’t figure out what he could do well. “I just want to be taken seriously,” Ramirez sings at one point.

At the end, he sheds his beloved blanket accepting that “Maybe… maybe I’m just different.”

Cabaret breaks the forth wall in performance arts and encourages performers to make the audience part of the performance. At the end of each set, the audience engages in the performer’s personal pieces, delving into the deeper meaning of their choices to perform about certain aspects of their life. Ramirez says it was nice to be challenged.

“Emeritus College professors that retired responded to the performers more keenly,” Ramirez says. “They were able to inform the performer of the quality of performance based on how they were being responded to by the audience.”

A few audience members ask Burns whether she is still with the love she met in Germany and if he was going to visit Arizona anytime soon. It is as if Burns is answering questions from family members who want to catch up with her and hear the details of her romance.

“It’s fun for the audience because they get to be a part of an actor’s life,” Burns says.

With such a unique theme, the cabaret transforms the self-assured vision of performers into people who are real and vulnerable.

A few of the performers for “Being Yourself On Purpose” are also part of Basement Collaborative Theatre, an underground ASU performing group (literally — they meet in the basement of the east wing of the Music Building). Last year, the group was started as a senior thesis project, and this year's council hopes to get the word out to students who wish to perform.

The kick-off event explained the presence of cabaret at ASU and was a chance for people to put a quick piece together. From Whitney Houston classics to a piece from the musical “Beauty and the Beast,” the question of the night was “Do you sing in the shower?”

“All the time. My neighbor’s probably hate me,” Music theatre performance major Melissa Modifer says, who performed at the event.

Students presented their songs for the night to pianists, Andrew Kust and Emily Kupitz, who is also the pianist at the “Being Yourself On Purpose” cabaret. Both are graduate students in music theatre performance.

Attendees of Basement Collaborative Theatre’s first event, the Singing in the Shower Cabaret, sat in black-cushioned chairs and newly waxed floors with water bottles and Chapstick, ready to perform in front of 27 audience members. A hat made its way around the room filled with the names of those brave enough to indulge in the intimacy of cabaret. They were anxious to hear their name called.

The event focused on students truly connecting with themselves, singing songs they normally wouldn't get the chance to.
Photo by Josh Loeser

“The event was open to all students who wanted to perform songs they love to sing when no one is listening,” Tommy Strausser says, who is an officer for the Basement Collaborative Theatre and one of the “Being Yourself on Purpose” performers. “(The event) gives them a chance to do songs that they wouldn’t normally get a chance to do.”

Opera performers are known to “park and bark,” or stand still and just belt out their number, but music theatre performers tend to overact, Burns says. Cabaret balances music and theatre, giving performers a chance to break out of their classical training.

“I think cabaret is a nice medium,” Burns said, “Any major that wants to perform should have to do a cabaret.”

At the end of “Being Yourself on Purpose,” the performers stand and bow in unison to an applauding audience, knowing that through each of their distinct, personal performances they not only entertained the audience members, but they also shared something memorable with them as well.

 

Reach the writer at cmeakem@asu.edu or via Twitter @katiemeakem


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