As Artistic Director for Belinda King Productions, Lisa Cottrell is responsible for the whole process of creating and presenting shows from beginning to end. She has created shows for Cunard Cruise Lines, The Yachts of Seabourn and numerous casinos and theatres.
“The people who need to hide behind a character, like an actor does, are the ones who struggle talking to an audience” Lisa Cottrell
She usually works with a large cast of singers and dancers. There is a huge difference between being a production singer in a show supported by a team of creatives and doing your own solo act. Musical theatre schools don't teach cabaret and as talented as many singers are they often lack stagecraft and the ability to talk to an audience as themselves. Being yourself, being authentic on stage doesn't come naturally to many people, especially when they've spent years training how to be someone else on stage. As Lisa says, “Most singers are not taught to speak. They are taught to sing and learn harmonies and move from A to B. Some are great at talking and some are dreadful. I always tell my singers not to talk at the audience but to communicate with them.
The hardest number to find
I'm a big advocate for using a template to create a cabaret show. Lisa does the same. Even though there are a lot more people on stage in her production shows, there is always a some kind of tried and tested structure.
Lisa says anyone can kind an opening number - the hardest one to find is the second. In my shows I like my second number to be medium tempo, to give me and the audience a chance to catch our breaths, settle down and check each other out. If Lisa opens with only the dancers on stage, she will use the second number to introduce the singers, but as she says, “I can't have them screaming their hearts out because they'll peak too soon. So I look for something 'in the middle' that introduces them on stage and allows the audience to have a good look and see who they are.”
For Lisa the second hardest number to find is the pre-finale, the one before the end or what she calls, “the eleven o'clock slot”. “Quite often the big ending is easy to find. The one before it, that sets it up, is more tricky. Again we don't want to peak too soon so I'll normally choose a big ballad, usually female, which has a big finish and then we hit them with a big finale.”
The obvious big ballad for me is My Way. Yes, it's over done but it still ticks a lot of boxes. It's emotional, connects with people, is well known, is powerful and rousing. It's not enough to sing a 'nice' ballad. It has to be powerful. Lisa calls these “anthemic songs”. Michael Bublé ended his Madison Square Gardens concert with “A Song for You” which does the same job: powerful, emotional, rousing.
Should solo acts work with a director?
Lisa thinks it's important to have a professional pair of eyes look at your show, “The worst thing you can do,” she says, “is just assume you've got it all right from the word go. How you perceive yourself is never how the audience does.”
If you know people who can give you notes, be sure to give them complete permission to be totally honest. Invite criticism. You can take it!
“I think performers have a responsibility to be as good as they can possibly be.” Lisa Cottrell
If you're not lucky enough to have a director on hand, video your show. Watching yourself back is a great way to learn.
Americans versus British
If you're planning to work on ships to international audiences bear in mind there are big differences between American and British audiences. Whereas British audiences tend to be polite, as Lisa says, “Americans bring a great sense of fun to a show.”
I've certainly noticed that where I would almost always get a standing ovation from an American audience, I hardly ever do from a British audience. The show is the same, the difference is cultural. If you don't get a standing ovation, don't take it personally.
Lisa's Top Tips
- Be yourself. Don't try and emulate any other singers. It's boring.
- Do your homework and research.
- Practise until you can practise no more.
- There are no shortcuts. At the end of the day it's you and a microphone and a lot of people watching you.
Recorded 31st August 2013 in London.