Photo Credit: Sekou Luke
Doug Devita interviews Celia Berk on her new collaboration, and foray into Jazz.
Bistro, BroadwayWorld, MAC, and Margaret Whiting Award winning cabaret artist Celia Berk recently began a new collaboration with Sean Gough, a jazz pianist not usually associated with the cabaret world, bringing their show to The Beach Café recently, a show Berk describes as “different.”
Talking with Berk, who began her cabaret career a mere 5 years ago, the word “different” informs nearly everything we spoke about. When asked what makes this new show different, she instantly replied “the collaborator and the process.”
She continued “I kind of appeared in the cabaret world back in 2014 and had an album that then became the basis of a show that got me extraordinary attention that I didn’t expect, so I repeated it in exactly the same way in order to prove to myself it wasn’t a fluke: an album, and a show based on the album. And then I paused, and I said ‘I don’t want to keep doing the same thing the same way,’ so one of the things that’s different is there isn’t an album first, there is a collaboration first with somebody I’ve only started working with about a year ago, jazz pianist Sean Gough. Sean is not from the cabaret world, which isn’t a good or a bad, it’s just a different. We circled each other for a while, and I think each one of us would say we’re learning a lot from each other. And eventually there will be an album, although we have gone into the studio and recorded some of our rehearsal tracks. It dawned on me, unlike the last two times, I didn’t have something to send to people who want to hear what we sound like so we recorded two songs that we felt showed a little bit of the range of what we’re doing. So that’s what’s different: it’s just the process and the person. The main collaborator.”
And now that begs the question: working with a person who’s not from the cabaret world… What’s that like?
“Uhm… different. You can’t use shorthand about the process; I’m always asking him ‘I know this works in Cabaret, but if the whole point for me was to find someone who would bring a jazz sensibility, is this too structured from a cabaret standpoint?’, because I’m used to thinking ahead of time about what I’m going to say, which in cabaret the lingo is patter. I don’t think any jazz musician would say they that think about patter, they may think about how to introduce a song, so I’m always checking in with him about that. How do we send the right signals? But because [the show] this week [plays to] very much a cabaret kind of audience, we’ve defaulted to the things that work for me, and he’s been totally comfortable with it.”
And has it freed you up in any way, to thinking about different approaches?
“Yes. It’s really interesting because about three weeks ago I had to pull out an old program, with a musical director that I had worked with on my first two projects, Alex Rybeck, we went to do an hour in a senior’s residence, which is always a lovely experience. And we pulled out something I had done about a year ago… and I was in the midst of learning all this new material and I couldn’t remember anything. I just literally couldn’t remember it, it took a good week for it all to get back to the front of my head. But when I started to sing it, I realized I was singing differently, not just in terms of my phrasing, but Sean never plays the same thing twice. And that’s just a different way of orienting your ear. So I realized I was listening to Alex differently, and I was phrasing differently, and I think I’m a bit looser, and again, these aren’t better or worse, they’re just … different.”
I just love the intimacy of The Beach; as an audience member I feel so connected. What’s it like to perform that close to your audience at The Beach, as opposed to a room like the former Metropolitan Room, or Feinstein’s 54 Below, or The Beechman, which is a HUGE room for cabaret?
“I know, that’s what cabaret is really about, and most jazz clubs too. Again, in its different way. Yeah, well, the first difference is the lack of a stage at The Beach; you’re right at the level of everyone in their seats, so that’s a certain kind of intimacy, and one of the things I struggle with at the Beechman and 54 is I always feel very high up in those rooms; it’s hard not to look directly into the lights, and it’s difficult to make eye contact; The Metropolitan Room had the right height, I think, it was just a very long room and I so I learned how to pivot from side to side. I try to get things into my mind’s eye; I’ve been at those tables in The Beach as an audience member, and it’s a good reminder. Cabaret to me is a conversation, not a “show” in a classic sense, but it is more theatrical than jazz, and I’m not sure yet how much of jazz is a conversation with the audience. It’s certainly a conversation with the musicians. So that’s what I’ll discover over time.”
We always talk about triple threats, people sing, act, dance. But it’s so much more than that. For example, you’re working in advertising, a career choice we both have in common, and it’s a difficult, time consuming job; do you ever feel that that’s the triple threat? Having to juggle so many things in order to pursue our art?
“Uhm… I’m not sure I would have said it that way… I mean, the big question in my life, and we all have that unanswered question, right? About how your life goes? I started out majoring in theater, and I have my degree in theater, and I came in, looked around and thought ‘I don’t think I can live this life.” And the unanswered question all this time for me was ‘Did I make the right decision?’ because it turned out I really like to get up and go to work every day, and I’m very good at it, and one of the nice benefits of it has been a regular paycheck. And one of the more interesting things of the last five years or so is it’s turned out ‘I think this is what it was meant to be for me.’ I’ve sort of rejoined a world I kept in touch with tangentially, through friends I went to school with, or other people I knew who pursued this full time, and I have just the greatest respect for what that means. But I really think this is the way it was meant to be for me. And I think… I know that some people have said that when I come out and ‘quote’ take the stage ‘endquote’ or whatever you want to call it, there is something slightly different about me, that suggests a different life was led, or something, up until this moment. So it’s been more about pulling some of this stuff that’s buried deep in my brain back to the front of it. And I go “Oh my gosh, I remember this. I remember that. So I know how to do this.” But everything I thought I was going to do in life I just applied to my corporate world, and now I everything I know in the corporate world I’ve applied to picking up this part of my life, unexpectedly, and I just know how to do certain things. Like, I know how to market myself. Being clear and clean about how you’re positioning yourself, and not muddying the water if you’re on social media and all of that, and just being around social media and the people who do it for a living. I just think it was meant to be, that I’m ready for it now.”