Your First Cabaret Show: Putting it Together

by Anita Kallen

Getting started…

So you’ve attended a cabaret workshop or two, maybe done “Strut Your Stuff ”, and now you’re ready to tackle the ultimate challenge: your first solo show. Where to begin? In the immortal words of Oscar Hammerstein II, “start at the very beginning,” and in cabaret, that means choosing a theme for your show. If you already have a collection of songs you’re just itching to perform, you can start there and see if there is a common thread that would connect some of them for a show. It is often easier, though, to start with a theme that interests you, and keep an open mind about where it might lead.

Your show can be a tribute show with the music of a particular singer or songwriter, a thematic show exploring a certain topic, or a more abstract idea that’s broad enough to give you some entertaining musical avenues to explore through a one-hour show. In recent years, Davenport’s has presented shows paying tribute to the music of Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, Noel Coward, Judy Garland, Janis Ian, and many others. They’ve presented thematic shows about the music of WWII, songs from the movies, women songwriters, and music of the 60’s. And there have been “idea” shows with titles like That’s So Cliché, I Get a Kick Out of New, Better Two-Gether, and The Gay Divorcé. As long as you can find the songs to appropriately develop the theme in an entertaining fashion, almost anything goes.

However, you also need to take into account what you hope to do with the show. Is your goal simply to get a solo show under your belt, or do you want to be able to sell the show after its initial run? If the latter, the show has to be marketable to people who don’t know you. Presenters want a show that will appeal to as many people as possible, so they can make a profit by booking you for their venue. Thus, if your goal is to make money on the show and build an audience beyond just family and friends, you will want to select a theme with that in mind.

The next step is to line up a musical director. We are fortunate in the Chicago-area to have many fine musical di- rectors to choose from. Hourly rates vary, but are generally within the range of $40 to $60 per hour. (For specific names, check out the Talent Roster by Skill Sets page on the CCP website.)

Making progress…

Once you are making steady progress, you’ll want to explore potential venues and performance dates. If manage- ment is not familiar with you, you may be asked to come in for an audition or send in a demo. A short sample of the show – maybe a ballad, an uptempo and some patter – is all you’ll need. The idea is to assure the presenter that you have what it takes to bring in an audience for an hour of quality entertainment.

After you book your dates, most venues will send you a booking confirmation or contract with all the business de- tails, including performer’s compensation, setting cover charges, comps, and arrangements for the technical rehearsal.

It’s very valuable to have another set of eyes to check out the show, help with staging and lighting, tweak the script, and give you a perspective that neither you nor your MD can provide. If you decide to use a director, you should line up that person at least two months before the show, even if you don’t actually start to rehearse with them until a few weeks before opening night. You can find the names of potential directors on the Talent Roster by Skill Sets page on the CCP website. The cost seems to vary quite a bit, from $50/hour to $75/”session” (usually a run-through of the show). Others charge a lump sum per project. If you can’t afford a director and an MD, ask a more experienced performer if they will play director for a rehearsal run-thru in exchange for a comp to your show, or see if there’s something else you can barter.

Promote, promote and…yes, promote some more!

As soon as you have your performance date(s) confirmed, get your promotional postcards designed and printed.… the earlier the better! In the months leading up to your performances, you don’t want to miss opportunities to market your show.

If you don’t have the tools/skills to design your own, there are designers within the CCP community you can pay to do it. (See the Members Resources page of the CCP website). You can get your postcards printed economically at any number of places (e.g.,, As soon as you have postcards in hand, start passing them out and displaying a stack of them wherever you can: at your workplace, church, volunteer organizations, etc. Bring them with you everywhere, and hand them out to everyone.

Also consider sending a “Save the Date” email to alert people to your show date and encourage them to get it on their calendars. If you’ll be snail mailing postcards rather than just emailing them, get your mailing list/labels/postage set to go now. You’ll only get busier in the weeks to come!

Some venues (e.g. Davenport’s) suggest you provide laminated posters to be displayed in their windows. Using the same jpeg as the postcards, you can get them printed up and laminated at any local copy store. If Davenport’s is your venue, you’ll want to drop off your posters and postcards at least six weeks before the show.

Most venues have websites, and it’s in your best interest to get your show on their site as early as possible. Protocol for getting this accomplished varies from venue to venue. My recommendation is that you aim to do it two months before the show date(s). This listing is free advertising and a chance to bring in audience members who may not know you. Make the description fun and interesting. I had a large party come to my Cliché show simply because they reviewed the calendar listings on Davenport’s site and thought my show sounded like fun. The extra time and thought you put in can really pay off.

If you are not in the habit of attending open mic nights, now would be a very good time to start. These appearances give you a chance to promote your show to fellow cabaret artists, cabaret fans, and others who are visiting the open mic venue. Open mics also help you hone your performance skills for the big night.

Deadlines and details…

One month before show time, you should be mailing out postcards, setting up a Facebook Event page, and sending promotional emails to CCP’s fanlist and to your own contact list. You will also want to set up a CCP calendar event and schedule reminder emails through the CCP website. In order to have your postcard graphic show up on the CCP calendar, you will need to get a URL for your jpeg. You can do that easily at

If you would like critics to attend your show, you should send them a press release and invitation one month before the show date as well. Carla Gordon, the Midwest reviewer for Cabaret Scenes magazine, regularly reviews shows at Davenport’s. It’s always a risk, of course, as you don’t know if a reviewer will like the show, but if they do, a quote from a positive review can be used to promote future performances. You will need to supply the reviewer with a jpeg picture of yourself along with a complete song list for the show, including names of lyricists and composers.

Two weeks before the show, send out a second round of promotional emails, reminding people of the show and date. A third and last round, reminding people to make their reservations could be sent a few days before opening.

To prepare for your tech rehearsal, prepare a song/lighting chart listing each number and any patter between the numbers, noting whether it’s a ballad or uptempo, and where you’ll be on the stage when you sing it. Describing the mood of the song can also help the tech director to quickly determine appropriate lighting. Creating such a chart can facilitate an efficient tech rehearsal and make the tech director’s job much easier.

The night of the show, in addition to your music book and any props you are using, bring a copy of your song list to place strategically on the piano, and your “comp” list for the venue.

After your fantastically successful show, consider tipping your technical director for a job well done, and write a thank you email to any reviewers who attended. If they later write a review, (something they are not obligated to do), be sure to write again to thank them, regardless of the content. Even a less than positive review will teach you something important about performing in cabaret. If at all possible, write brief thank you emails to your audience members, and/ or post some quick thank you messages on Facebook.

It can get stressful as rehearsal/marketing time diminishes and the big day approaches. Try your best to keep it all in perspective and remember that your audience for a first show will be primarily friends and family members, and they’re going to love you no matter how that show goes. A first show is really a journey of discovery; you’ll be learning a great deal along the way, as much about yourself as about cabaret. Try to enjoy every minute of it and know that each successive show will teach you more, while giving you additional opportunities to improve your skills and build your audience.

−Anita Kallen

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