First light in Steamboat Springs as I sit at the window of my cabin -- yes, you jaded night-owls, Andrea Marcovicci is writing from a cabin in the woods at dawn. I hear birds of all sorts and a lonely train whistle howls down the valley. Long shadows outline the horse paddock, the little log-cabin main office, the studio where I'll be teaching, and the various outlying buildings and cabins that make up this glorious little corner of the world that is Perry-Mansfield.
This place was started in 1913 by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield as a theater and dance camp for young people, and that remains its primary function. But for one last week at the very end of August, the camp is ours to teach what we have titled: "The Art of Cabaret: Master Classes in Song Performance!" The "we" refers to Barry Kleinbort, a master writer/director and just about the best special material writer in the business and a terrific performer in his own right; Karen Mason: powerhouse star of cabarets and concert halls, Mamma Mia! and Sunset Boulevard, hilarious travel companion and compassionate cut-to-the-chase teacher; Chris Denny, the beyond brilliant arranger and accompanist who has worked with Karen and Julie Wilson and Brent Barrett for years, and taught at the O'Neill and Yale programs, and provides not only his musical skills, but a startlingly intuitive ability to analyze a song.
And there's my musical director, Shelly Markham, master arranger and gentle director, with a heart of gold, who brings 30 years of experience as a conductor, record producer and composer with an uncanny ability to tailor an act that is uniquely appropriate for an artist. Plus, he's such a funny man that I call him the "sit-down comic" because of the quips he provides from his place behind the piano.
Norma Jean Curley is pinch-hitting this year for David Gaines who has a temporary back problem, and although we will miss him, Norma brings her talents as vocal arranger, actress, accompanist, and as she calls it "sing-a-long leader." She will do our daily warm-ups, which will unify the group and get the blood going, and work with Barry throughout the day as pianist/arranger.
And me? I've come to love teaching. I give master classes very rarely throughout the year, but here, I can devote myself to nothing but these students, these open and willing hearts that wish to devote themselves to this art form to which I've given the last 25 years of my life.
Steamboat Springs is just one Main Street long, but quite charming, with lots of shops, restaurants, little boutiques, and art galleries. In the winter, it's devoted to skiers, but in the summer, there are plenty of hikers, bikers, and rafters. I even went down the river on an inner tube one year (hard to picture, but true). Last night, we teachers went to a lovely dinner in town and then shopped in the local Safeway. You haven't lived until you've seen Karen Mason and Andrea Marcovicci with dueling shopping carts. Then, we unpacked in our cabins to get ready for the arrival of our students.
The students hail from all over the country -- San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and more. Everyone sings on their first night, and, in so doing, gets to know each other. There are no criticisms, no judgments; this is only the beginning. The teachers will meet afterwards and develop groups for the students for the first rotations of classes. Our work at Perry Mansfield is done in three sessions a day with three sets of teachers: Shelly and myself; Karen and Chris; Barry and Norma. Each teacher has a different studio nestled in this bucolic atmosphere of trees, streams, and fields. The students travel from teacher to teacher until all of us have seen them and then the groups are shuffled and the process begins again. At night, there are discussion/lectures about arranging/musical direction; what to expect from an accompanist; how to put an act together/patter; the "business" aspect of cabaret; and most importantly, there are question/answer periods in which students get to pick our brains about anything that's on their minds about the craft of cabaret or how to interpret a song.
During the course of the week, the master teachers are also preparing for a Friday night concert -- open to the public -- in which we teach by example the craft we love and perhaps one of the greatest pleasures. And we are also constantly at work on the Saturday night show -- also open to the public -- that features the participants! On the last day, we'll have one-on-one sessions, during which each of us offers private time to answer the concerns of each student, and then it's off to the hot springs way up in the mountains for the much-needed unwind.
What is remarkable about what's happening here is that we are all of one mind; we may be six teachers, but we think alike. And what we provide is so much more than teaching. It's about peace, nature, getting away from pressure. Here in the woods, under the stars, with the smell of wood smoke in their nostrils, these artists can connect again to the reason they wanted to sing in the first place, that spiritual beauty inside them that is music, and leave some of the rest of the world behind for a week. I can't wait to hear the first song. I am, as the song goes, lucky to be me!
Auditions for next year's "The Art of Cabaret" will be held in New York City at ASCAP (One Lincoln Plaza) on Mondays, February 11 and April 14 from 11am to 2pm; in Los Angeles at ASCAP (7920 W. Sunset Boulevard) on Monday, March 10 from 11am to 2pm; and in Chicago, time and place to be determined. To get an application or for more information about Perry-Mansfield, visit www.perry-mansfield.org.