Catherine Alcorn and the art of cabaret

This is the second in an occasional series of in-depth conversations with people in the arts

CABARET is Kurt Weill and it’s the Moulin Rouge, it’s Barbara Cook at Café Carlyle, it’s the glamorous Ute Lemper, it’s the kamikaze stylings of Meow Meow and it’s Michael Feinstein at the piano singing from the great American songbook.

Cabaret is a dimly lit, insufficiently ventilated room crammed with too many people drunk on cheap wine and it’s a grand salon featuring a grande dame with a nifty backing band and a hefty minimum. It’s a chanteuse in a corner and it’s lines and lines of scantily clad dancers. It’s German, it’s French, it’s American, it can be anywhere and can be pretty much anything. It’s life, old chum.

The names coming to this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival illustrate nicely just how widely cabaret’s welcoming arms extend. The international contingent is headed by stars of Wicked on Broadway Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, one opening the festival and the other closing it. Former teen movie star Molly Ringwald (yes, she’s an accomplished jazz singer) will be there, as will American composer Adam Guettel, who happens to be the grandson of Richard Rodgers. The home team includes Paul Capsis, Phil Scott, Robyn Archer, Eddie Perfect with a new production of Shane Warne the Musical, Bernadette Robinson and the incomparable Meow Meow.

The festival’s artistic director Kate Ceberano has given herself a slot on the program too, teaming up with bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes of opera fame. This unlikely pair met and bonded when cast in Opera Australia’s South Pacific last year. They’ve astutely called their show called Meet Me in the Middle.

And also on the bill is Catherine Alcorn, a Sydneysider whose career is kind of just beginning but has been in the making for nearly three decades. She has wanted this moment so very badly, and for a long, long time.

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Her story is an inspiring one. On the personal level it’s a snapshot of what it can take to get traction as a performer. There’s also a bigger picture. Alcorn is creative director for a venue, Slide Lounge, which is one of the few places in Sydney where cabaret has a regular foothold. Alcorn – intense, voluble, insanely determined, warm and spirited – is particularly well placed, then, to discuss the joys and pitfalls of this unruly art form.

Alcorn’s new show is called Go Your Own Way and is inspired by the life and work of former Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie. After Adelaide Go Your Own Way will be seen at other festivals and, well, wherever Alcorn can get it seen.

In April Alcorn and I talked about what goes into making a career in cabaret.  It started, really, when she was 2 ½; she is now 31. This is an edited version of our conversation, which took place at Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, one afternoon.

The beginning:

MUM told me that I could always sing in tune. I used to watch The Wizard of Oz back to back. As soon as it finished I used to say, Mummy, more Wiz, more Wiz. I was 2½. She said I could sing along with all the words and I would sing in tune. At children’s birthday parties my parents would video kids in a circle singing. When it came to me, I would compose my own song. Butterflies Fly in the Springtime – that was for my 4th birthday party. I’ve still got it on tape.

It was just always there; always something I did and something I loved doing. [Schoolteacher] Mum was the choirmaster at school so it did come from my mother’s side. I know that my father can’t sing a note. He loves music, he’ll sing along, but he’s not musically adept.

I went to PLC [Pymble Ladies College] until I was in Year 5. Their productions are bigger than Ben-Hur.  I always had one of the leads because I was a good singer, always in the choir at school, took piano since I was five. I wish I had continued. I can still read music very well, but… I learned piano for about eight years but I don’t think the drive was really there. I was a really good swimmer, good at sport. I represented NSW in butterfly in trials. But I didn’t want it enough.

[After attending two other schools Alcorn completed her schooling at Barker College.] I wasn’t a problem child, but the feeling of the environment was very important to me. I was bullied at school a lot. Probably because I was loud. Or confident. I was always a very happy person, but sensitive. I think people can take advantage of that.

I’ve never shied away from having to lead. If we were ever put in group situations at school or at camp I would naturally want to instigate what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. That was always part of my personality.

I did Voice for my school certificate. When I went to Barker I chose Voice as my instrument for the HSC. That’s when I had to begin to train properly and I took up tuition under Dallas Watts, who I still train with today. It was classical training and we used to sing arias and musical theatre. I studied jazz vocally at Barker under another teacher. I was also doing guitar lesson intermittently. That helped with the jazz. Not so much pop. Pop was never a genre of mine; it was more musical-theatre based.

Then I went to Charles Sturt University [in Wagga Wagga]. It was a straight acting course, acting for the screen and stage, but they did have a voice component. It was just a shit-fight those three years. We went through so many changes of teacher.

A friend did some work in the Leagues club in Wagga Wagga, and encouraged Alcorn to sing there with her.

[LOCAL producer] Don Hillam saw us and said, I can make some money out of you girls. That was when I was 19. We called ourselves Double Platinum and for the next four years when I was in Wagga I did three or four gigs a week. It was great. From those gigs I ended up getting gigs with Don’s writing partner Peter Cox, who put on cabaret and dinner theatre shows around town, and that’s where I learned everything that I know. It wasn’t at uni. I rarely went to voice class after that.

I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t turn up for class but I was working with professionals … and I wanted to be where I felt good, and I felt good with those people. I played with incredible musicians who are some of Australia’s best talent, all of this in Wagga. They’re lifelong friends who see a future in the younger generations and love it and nurture them.

I did a dip. ed after my acting degree. I finished, I passed. [Laughs.] I was terribly frustrated. I never had an agent straight out of uni. We did all those showcases but I was never picked up by anyone. I just tried to engage myself in as much music as I could.

Like many young Australians, Alcorn headed for Europe soon after finishing university. She was away for four years, returning to Sydney in 2007. She taught music for a time in primary schools and then took a personal assistant position with Channel 9, working on Wide World of Sports.

I DID not know how to get where I wanted to be. I thought, if I’m around television people, who knows when I might end up on the other side of the camera. As it turns out I’m a lovely bubbly person but I’m a rubbish PA. [Big laugh.]

I had a good time. I was 27 and 28. I ended up segment producing but it got to the point where I was so internally frustrated that I was going to burst unless something big happened. That something big was quitting; saving up six months’ salary so that I could quit, produce a show and start performing.

In 2009 – I’d never been to Slide before – Peter Cox was here seeing a show he had written. I came and saw it, raced up to Coxy after the show, and said please write me something. And he said, of course, but what do you want? I said, well, people are always telling me I look like Kate Ceberano and he said, sweetheart, she’s still active. And the next thing I said was Bette [Midler]. And a few weeks later he had the script [for The Divine Miss Bette].

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

We opened it in Wagga for a Christmas season in 2009. In November 2010 I opened Bette here in Sydney. It was going to be a one-off. All of my friends in Sydney who hadn’t got to Wagga wanted to see it, so I did it at Slide and it was packed to the brimful. We had 120 people downstairs and 45 upstairs. It was like everyone I knew. It was incredible.

We ended up doing a monthly show here all of 2011 which is incredible for a cabaret show. It was calculated in a sense that I wanted Bette to relaunch me – well, it wasn’t a relaunch [laughing]; to launch me – as an artist. So I picked a character that people loved, a character that I knew was going to be impactful, which she is; the music is incredible, it spans 100 different genres – musical theatre, rock, jazz, torch songs. I was just so relieved. I’ve never felt more relief. We ended up performing shows to the middle of 2012.

Freelancing is a really risky think to do, but the harder you work the more you work. You always have [to think], where’s my next pay cheque going to come from, but that’s the sacrifice you need to make if you’re moving towards a goal.

The networking and risk-taking started to pay off.

BEFORE we did the show in Wagga I was working with a friend in my building who’s a cellist, and I was talking about the show. It was still in production. And he said, well the bloke who discovered [Midler] lives just around the corner. So I contacted Steve [Ostrow, who opened New York’s Continental Baths in 1968]. I said I know you’re a teacher, I want to get training again in preparation for the show.

He said, what kind of a show is it? I said it’s a Bette Midler show. He said [Alcorn puts on an American accent], “Oh, I remember Bette. I used to pay her 25 bucks a night to sing in my club. Now she’s making 100 million. Come around and I’ll tell you all about it.” We struck up a really great friendship, but it was a slow build until he saw I was really invested in my career and started to take a bit more interest in what I was doing. He separated from his wife after the Continental Baths closed and moved out here to work with the opera company. And he’s stayed ever since. He’s 80. Still teaches.

The Divine Miss Bette also got Alcorn a manager.

I’D never had an agent; never had a manager. I really don’t fit a specific mould at all. But I’ve always believed in my talent. Michael [Montgomery, of Warehouse 16] said, I have not seen talent like you in a very long time and I would love to talk. And I just felt this excitement come up through my body. And after about five minutes he said, can I represent you. I just said, yes. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps I should have. But my god, the relief. The show had done what I wanted it to do. Plus taken me around the country and to New Zealand.

It was a start – but I worked so hard. Those months I took off work I was learning how to build a website, building a website, making posters, all of those things. I did it all myself. That’s fine, I am proud of myself, but it was a huge amount of work. But I didn’t have any funding to do it any other way.

[Producer] Neil Gooding came to see the show too. It was very contrived. I emailed Neil and introduced myself. I saw he was auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Parramatta Riverside Theatre so I went to audition for that, and at my audition I invited him to the first show of Bette so he would come and see it and so then I would have a producer want to pick it up to help me. Because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the performance.

Before I could make it up to the dressing room after the first show in November 2010 I had a text message from Neil saying, I’d love to produce it any time you want. It just worked. It all fell into place. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Because the show was selling so well on a repeat basis I suppose Slide wanted to bring that energy and knowledge in to help their other shows. I came on as marketing manager in June 2011. Then six months later I stepped up as creative director.

So, despite having secured a manager and with a producer interested in her show, Alcorn took a desk job.

IT’S a really hard balance. [Groans.] There’s limited work in Australia. I have to survive, and I’d prefer to be surviving by working with other artists and producing shows, and being able to perform as well and do things like cabaret festivals, rather than working as a receptionist somewhere else. I’m current, being here. Not everyone gets a drop-in from Phil Scott on a Tuesday on his way to lunch.

More often than not it is a daily struggle for me balancing one or the other but my boss supports me in everything I do. He lets all of us here at Slide play with new ideas, try things out. He’s an incredible guy. I just wish, I just wish it was easier to fill a room night after night after night after night.

Would Alcorn give up the Slide job for full-time entertaining?

I THINK about it a lot. Is it pulling my focus? Is it keeping me in a holding yard? I would say probably yes. It’s really hard. It’s so hard. Sydney hasn’t grown up with a cabaret culture. The closest I came to going to cabaret shows was at the Basement and they were live music shows. It’s a cabaret setting, where you’re right there at tables like a jazz club, but seriously that is the only venue in Sydney that I remember growing up going to that resembled a cabaret feeling for me. That’s part of the problem. It’s never been part of Sydney’s culture. Strangely.

We’ve got a lot of international people calling us [at Slide] the cabaret venue to go to in Sydney and I think that’s because none of us here stop talking about it. You’ve got to blow your own trumpet.

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie

I WAS on a plane somewhere between Santiago and Lima – my brother got married to a Colombian girl so we were over there – and I was listening to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits. I remember seeing Fleetwood Mac when they toured a few years ago, and I remember thinking, it’s a shame that other woman isn’t here because I loved her stuff. I remember thinking that, and then I forgot about it.

But then I was listening to that song As Long as You Follow that she wrote. I was thinking, I’ve been doing Bette for so long. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I was [thinking], I want to play another rock chick. I was thinking, maybe Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, or something like that – who would be great as well – and then I thought, my god, Christine, the woman I’m listening to. Who was a completely confusing character. She’s now a recluse living in Kent who just walks her dogs; who decided this was not the life she wanted. How could you not want this life. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star forever!

A pitch to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was accepted.

SO I emailed [writer and actor] James Millar, who was then living in London, to ask are you interested in writing this show? My motto is, if you don’t ask you don’t get. We’re not besties or anything, but I knew him enough professionally to ask the question. And then my first choice of music director was Isaac Hayward, because he and I work together on everything, and as far as I’m concerned it’s such an important relationship with Isaac. He’s my musical soul mate. He may be only 21 but I’ll say something and he’ll just get it.

Then I asked Jason Langley if he would direct it. [Actress] Belinda Wollaston asked me if I’d ever been directed by Jason and I said no. And she said I had to be, he’s brilliant, and that stuck in my mind. He’s just a beautiful man.

I’m funding it. I’m producing it. That’s actually not true. Adelaide have commissioned it, and the fee that we have negotiated will fund the creation of the show, which is incredible. They invited me over to do the publicity week and the launch of the program with Eddie Perfect and Kate [Ceberano] and Paul Capsis and another local artist, an Adelaide girl. Out of everyone they could have chosen they asked me, and I was so grateful and thrilled and just lapped up being able to be the talent for one week instead of being the producer and organising everything. I’m so grateful. It’s the biggest cabaret festival in the world and I couldn’t be more honoured.

After Adelaide, everywhere else I take it, [including the] Melbourne Cabaret Festival, that will be at my own risk. Anything I do after Adelaide, which is only two shows, it will be self-funded and produced. That’s what you’ve got to do.

Does Christine McVie know about the show?

WE’VE tried to contact her, but I don’t think so. We’ve tried contacting Stevie Nicks’s management, because James [Millar] wanted to interview her. There’s only so much about Christine out there. We tried to contact Ken Caillat, who produced [the Fleetwood Mac hit record] Rumours and who wrote the book Making Rumours, but we never heard back from any of them. After we open the show it might be a different story, but you never know. We tried.

What is cabaret?

IN one word, intimacy. It’s about being right there with the artist and up close. Because cabaret has developed in so many different ways it’s not just about show tunes, it is seeing your favourite artist or an artist up close and personal. That’s the only real way I have come to know cabaret.  As a cabaret artist I get to say anything on stage I want to. I’m used to seeing reactions straight away and being able to feed off that. That’s what I love about an audience.

It’s the stories. Cabaret is a story. People love that and I maintain that Sydney loves cabaret. They just don’t know it yet.

 Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie, “The Other Woman” in Fleetwood Mac, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 15, 4pm and 10pm. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 26.  Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 27 & 28.

Alcorn performs The Divine Miss Bette at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre, July 23-28

Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 7-22.

Slide Cabaret Festival, June 21-July 4.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 26-July 7.

 

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