Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Try this… type “cabaret” into your device, and see what you get.
Thanks to predictive text, your cabaret will become a “cabinet.”
Or perhaps a mellow “cabernet.”
Sharron Matthews has been crowned Canada’s Cabaret Queen, and despite the runaway success of her cabaret Girl Crush this year, the continued absence of “cabaret” from e-lexicons is a clear sign that many of us need a refresher from her.
Fortunately, Ms Matthews is happy to oblige. Unapologetically Me: Sharron’s Cabaret for Kids has just launched the Young People’s Theatre‘s (YPT) new season. Ms Matthews is currently performing the world premiere of this cabaret that she has created with and for young people. And in our conversation, she opens with an explanation that device dictionaries should heed: “Cabaret is a musical art form that is intimate, interactive and fluid. Cabaret is storytelling with music and audience participation.”
In Unapologetically Me, the story originates in Ms Matthews’ childhood. After starting school, she quickly realized that she was different from the other students. Rather than being encouraged to feel proud of her uniqueness, she was called hurtful names, which she overheard being exchanged in tête-à-tête stage whispers by thoughtless girls. This name-calling gave birth to anxiety and even shame: the young Ms Matthews believed that she had to hide her true self in order to be accepted by her peers.
Ms Matthews’ experience will ring familiar to many adults and children. Brushing off taunts and jeers requires a resilience that many need time and support to develop. This is especially true for young people, who are often too consumed by the pressures of figuring out who they are to feel comfortable in their own skins. (In fact, the emphasis placed by Ontario boards of education on character education, diversity, and students’ mental health and well-being implies that the burden of conformity and the pain of exclusion are as acute as ever.)
What better way to raise such relevant coming-of-age topics than a cabaret, which Ms Matthews describes as dialogic by nature? “The show changes depending upon the audience, and the audience is an integral part of the show,” offers Ms Matthews. This reciprocity makes cabaret the perfect vehicle for an artistic dialogue with kids and is the precise reason she chose to create one specifically for children.
Unapologetically Me is a funny, fast-paced hour of pop, rock and funk: “The music I have chosen is anthemic and/or easily repeated…so the songs, with their familiarity and ease, bring you RIGHT into the story and the show.” And that story interweaves tales of how Ms Matthews faced her fears, overcame anxiety and learned to accept – and celebrate – herself. Put it all together, and the impressionable ‘tween set will find “There is music they know, stories that they recognize and a forum for them to be heard AND seen.” In Ms Matthews’ skilled hands, the familiar music, like “Shake It Off” and “Uptown Funk” and the relatable stories prompt an unselfconscious urge to sing along, making Unapologetically Me at once a collective and a personal experience that resonates long after the show.
Audiences of Unapologetically Me–young and old alike–are reaping the rewards of Ms Matthews’ skilled and studied career. Though this cabaret will mark the first time that some youngsters are introduced to her, others will already know of her through parents familiar with her work. She has broken significant ground in creating a cabaret culture in Canada with her cabarets Sharron Matthews Superstar: World Domination Tour 2010 and Sharron Matthews Superstar: Gold, which, along with Girl Crush, have earned national and international acclaim. In fact, she is rightly celebrated as a pioneer for her contributions to the art form itself. Her 3-cabaret residency at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (which culminated in her acclaimed 2016 cabaret Full Dark) marked the first-ever such residency in the country. After 11 years of cabaret development and appeals for grants, Ms Matthews’s perseverance paid off in another landmark result: in 2013, she received the very first grants (8 in total) for cabaret projects, validating cabaret as a fundable art form in Canada.
In addition to cabarets, she creates and tours solo shows, and works steadily in movies: she just completed principal filming on the feature film Buckout Road, and many remember her as Joan the secretary in Mean Girls. She will also appear on the detective drama Frankie Drake Mysteries, which premieres on CBC this November. Her stage career is equally prolific, with roles such as the Wicked Witch in YPT’s The Wizard of Oz, for which she was nominated for a Dora Award, and Maisie in YPT’s 2011 production of Seussical.
And we haven’t even gotten to the work Ms Matthews also does as a writer and recording artist!
So clearly, Ms Matthews is extraordinarily talented . . . and extraordinarily busy! Given her range of experiences and interests, she chooses to devote herself to cabaret for two abiding reasons. First, it affords the freedom to “play ANY part you want. You are not confined to the parts that you are hired to play or that are written for stage. I think that we, as humans, are much more complicated and interesting than a character written for stage or film.” Second, as the name of her YPT cabaret makes abundantly clear, it has helped her to become more who she truly is. In Ms Matthews’ experience, cabaret helps all artists to find and develop their artistic voice. “In this art form, all these years later, I continue to grow and learn,” she says, before admitting a third – and uniquely Canadian – reason to favour cabaret: it is an excellent art form for promotion here in Canada because it is inexpensive to tour and put up. “And,” she adds, “you have to rely on your own wits and instincts to perform and produce it…which builds more exciting and self-reliant artists.”
Her 20-plus years of cabaret know-how have taught her that the key ingredients for connecting with diverse audiences are methodical preparation, responsive listening and trusting her instincts. Even so, Unapologetically Me took 3 years to develop and has undergone various workshops with students to guide it towards its current form. In fact, after a couple of false starts, it wasn’t until the second-last workshop that she was certain, “this is the format!” Hitting upon the one that worked was “like a key in a lock…it all fell into place.” And now “the real work of performing…begins,” she smiles.
So thanks to Ms Matthews, we have gained an appreciation for cabaret in general, and Unapologetically Me in particular. And we understand that every cabaret – and every performance of every cabaret – is unique, with a character and personality that emerge upon contact with its audience. So perhaps we have come full-circle: since “cabaret” defies standard definition, is that why it –maybe rightfully– eludes the e-dictionary on our devices?
Perhaps. And certainly, the best way to understand cabaret is to experience cabaret. So let’s capitalize on that gap in the e-dictionary, and consider “cabaret” to be more verb than noun. And let’s accept that undoubtedly, unequivocally, undeniably, nobody can cabaret like Sharron Matthews!
Straight from Sharron Matthews
1.What’s the best advice you received from a student during the development of Unapologetically Me?
The best advice I got was in a roundabout way. During my THIRD last workshop an audience member asked why there wasn’t costumes and props…and she told me I might need those things. When she told me that, I knew that I had not gone deep enough or created something that was engaging all by itself…which is what cabaret is really about.
2. What songs did you consider for Unapologetically Me that didn’t ended up in it?
I was considering a song by Canada’s Amanda Marshall called, “Everyone Has A Story” and also “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey (it seemed a bit too on the nose).
3. What songs did you love as a child and still love now?
I love musical cast albums. Almost any musical cast album. They are still my favourite thing to listen to EVEN though all my shows are pop music.
4. What was your favourite book to read as a young person?
My favourite books to read when I was a young girl was anything written by Judy Blume. They really centred around the young female experience…the challenges, the joys and the heartaches.
5. What songs will you not sing, even though you love them?
I will try to sing any and all songs. Sometimes songs just don’t work on a different voice…but I will ALWAYS try them all!
6. Who is your favourite cabaret artist? Why?
My favourite cabaret artist? That is hard…because I never really had an example of a cabaret artist to follow…so I love many artists that I consider cabaret artists…who many not think they are one.
To name a few.
News You Can Use
What: Unapologetically Me: Sharron’s Cabaret for Kids, created, produced and performed by Sharron Matthews
Who: Audiences 9-11 years of age
When: On stage until Oct 21, 2017; running time is approximately 50 minutes
Where: Young People’s Theatre, in the Studio, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Information and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.ca and 416.862.2222 x2
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya