Backstage With... Steven Cupo

How did you come to direct cabaret shows?

Well, I wish I could say it was the inspiration of the DC Cabaret Network that set me on that path, but the Fates had it all play out quite differently.

In 1997, I did a musical at Source Theatre called "The Harvey Milk Show" with George Fulginiti-Shakar (who would eventually have an influence on me in the world of cabaret, but not at that juncture).


Jumping ahead a few years, through working with George, I was recommended to direct a music revue for the Catholic University Singers, which was going to be presented in Chicago for the Catholic Cardinals Conference. At that time, a dear friend and a very talented singer/actress, named Jane Pesci-Townsend, was teaching at the music theatre department at Catholic. All of the students in the revue were in her classes.


After Jane saw the work I did, she told me she was going to be presenting a cabaret at Signature Theatre and asked if I would consider helping her with the staging and be "an extra set of eyes". I loved Jane and was delighted to help. After that experience, a few other actors around town such as Sherri Edelen and Will Gartshore, who knew of my work, asked me to "help" them as well. Well, one thing led to another and soon I was known among my peers as a director of cabarets, with a fairly substantial resume to boot.

When does a performer need a director, and what kind of preparations should the performer make in advance?

I am a firm believer a performer always needs a director.  If, for no other reason, to make sure the overall vision the singer has is being presented as they would want it to be presented. As we all know, just as in normal life, how we perceive ourselves isn't always the same as how the "outside world" sees us. This is magnified to a greater degree on the stage.


A director will help create that vision. She or he can also assist the performer find a thematic "focus". So often, even the best of singers with the best of songs can't "build" an emotional arc into an evening without the assistance of another person. That "extra set of eyes" Jane spoke of, can really make or break the expressive success of a performance.  In addition, a true director helps the singer find the truth in each song; without which, it isn't truly cabaret.

Prepping in advance can mean finding songs that mean something to a performer. If a song is simply pretty, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be good material for the cabaret. The lyrics, in particular, need to MEAN something to the performer. Find A LOT of songs. It is easier to winnow material than it is to be "short-shrifted". The other VERY important thing is to find a music director that you can work with and, even more importantly, who is willing to work with you. That is not always the easiest notion to realize.

The singer/pianist relationship is just that ... a RELATIONSHIP. If the best of accompanists is rigid or doesn't understand you as a person, DON'T go there. It is important to take your time and do your research in order to find the person who best "clicks" with you.


One last thing, a cabaret performance is a marathon. You need to train for it just as you would any event. That means daily vocalizations/voice classes to build up vocal stamina. Breathing exercises also help. Never think, because you are a good singer, you can sustain an hour's worth of singing and talking without physical preparation. Doing it will make ALL the difference in the world.


Where will we next see and hear your work?

I have been very fortunate to have been quite busy in the past year directing several cabarets; at one point, two at once! SO I am winding my schedule down to balance out my previous commitments. I am directing one more show at Maggie's Cabaret on Connecticut Avenue NW on May 6th. It will be two "new" singers, Annie Elliott and Heidi Mayor, who are just now "dipping their toes" into the world of cabaret. I had taught them both in my cabaret class at The Theatre Lab, so it is exciting for me to see how they have developed.  

It has been so gratifying for me to help guide them down this artistic and revelatory path they are choosing. And, just as I've said, I teach a class on "creating your own cabaret " with my pal and fellow DC Cabaret Network Board Member, George Fulginiti-Shakar. Our next class is in the April/June session. And, of course, I host the monthly Open Mic at The Black Squirrel. We are taking a hiatus for February, but will be back on March 7th at 8:00pm. So come join us!