Q&A: Penny Fuller

An actor for all seasons—and all stages, Fuller shines this month as teacher and performer at the O'Neill Theater Center's Cabaret and Performance Conference.


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So, what is the goal of the conference? I mean, it's only two weeks long.

Survive!Barry and I work from about 9:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. It's exhausting, but it's wonderfull because the world could be falling apart and we won't know. We teach for two hours in the morning and again in the afternoon, and then we run what we call the relay race. The four different musical directors are in four different spaces with the fellows [students], and Barry and I run between them, giving our critiques and helping along with each one. Then we go home and get ready for the show we're going to watch, then we do the show and start the open mic. Then we go to a celebration of the evening at the pub, Blue Gene's.

How many fellows are going to participate this year?

Seven. They perform two nights—the first, which is the first Saturday night of the conference, they do two songs each. The following Thursday, they do three songs each. Then on Saturday, which is the finale, all the participants do one song, including the faculty and guest artists. It's our big gala. The fellows can also perform at the open mics. They get the chance to do a lot of performing.

When the fellows come into the conference each year, do they have shows in the works? Where are they in terms of cabaret experience?

It varies. Some people don't have a show yet. Some people just want to learn how to improve communication through singing. For instance last year, a wonderful actress who i worked with in Dividing the Estate—Maggie Lacey— who's never been a singer, but plays the guitar, was a fellow. I told her, "You can do one song with the guitar, then you have to throw it away." She would hide behind it. And she put together this piece that was just delicious. We have an actress coming this year, Leanne Cox, who's a fabulous performer, but wants to work on performing in song and put some kind of show together, because she's always asked to perform at benefits. It's really such a broad spectrum of people, we have only one cabaret performer coming. And they all learn from each other. The one thing about this is, you can learn so much by watching. Because there's so much you can do with what you observe that you don't receive when you're just being coached in a room. It's such a sandbox we're all in, that the environment is totally loving and supportive—it's almost icky.

The O'Neill website notes that part of the goal of the conference is to keep cabaret exciting in the 21st century. How has cabaret changed in the new millennium?

[Breaks for phone call] I told you about Barry's and my timing—that was Barry. I asked him how cabaret's changed and he said, "That's easy. Cabaret used to be sets of songs, and people would come and it was part of the ambience. Now, they're much more like shows—evening's of something, with a theme and context."

So you said your role in the conference is to help with the development of songs . . .?

In the performance of those songs. One year, we had a former fellow come up and spent an evening where we taught in front of the audience, to show them what we do. They were amazed to see what went into it. It sounds airy fairy, but it isn't . . . Singing is a very powerful mode of expression. It's scary, it's so powerful. So cabaret is a way to harness that power—we try to yeach how to harness that power, so it has some artfulness in it. It's like . . . you have your persona and you have the real person, and they're kind of split, and we try to bring the two together so the performance becomes more powerful. It's hard to explain.

Every year I bring this book—now Michael has his own copy—with Billy Collins' poem, called "Nightclub." You should look that up—it's just fabulous. And it's kind of what we do. There's a theme every year; I forget what it is this year. But one year it was, "The Song Is You." In a way, that's what we're talking about every year. In a play, you might portray Joan of Arc. In cabaret, when you say "I," you really mean "I." "I" might be a character too, but not in the same way.

Q&A: Penny Fuller

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