Introducing The Infinite Creative, a newsletter for those who are creative, curious and constantly looking for opportunities to learn and grow. Read what I’m learning and thinking about when it comes to being more intentional, productive and impactful as a creative - one idea per day.
My guest on this episode, Ari Axelrod, discovered the life saving power of cabaret in 2015 and has been pursuing and championing the art form ever since.
As the Founder and Director of Bridging the Gap he empowers artists to explore and express their unique artistry using the skills of cabaret.
Hi Ari, and welcome to Studio Time.
Thank you, Matthew Carey. I'm honored to be here.
Now some of the people that are tuning in (well you don't really tune into a podcast) but some of the people that have downloaded this episode and put their earbuds in ready to listen probably already know who you are. But for those who don't, could you tell us a little bit about what you do?
Yeah, to all the people listening who know me -- Hi, I adore you. It's good to be in your ears. For the people who don't - Hello, nice to meet you. Thank you for letting me into your ears.
I'm Ari (rhymes with Safari not with Larry) and I'm a multi-hyphenate theater artist. I am a cabaret singer. I am a cabaret director. I'm a cabaret show doctor/consultant. I am a proud Jew. I am a dog owner of the most adorable and perfect dog named Leo named after Leonard Bernstein. and I'm somebody who tries to seek to make change in the world by helping others to see the inherent beauty that exists within themselves and helping people to feel seen, heard and validated. And I think one of the ways that I do that is via this cabaret stuff.
Ari, how long have you been doing the cabaret stuff?
Well, I was introduced to cabaret in July of 2015, the summer that I had brain surgery. So that was five years ago, I had no idea what it was before then I thought cabaret was, you know, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, fishnets and the burlesque movie with Christina Aguilera and Cher. I had no idea what it was. So five years later, I cannot believe the majority of my life's work is this thing that just five years ago, I had no idea what it was.
I found it fascinating when I started talking to people about cabaret a few years back now... People who didn't live in New York, but they were often American or Canadian. Their understanding of cabaret was it was a sort of adult entertainment. Yeah. So that sort of fits in with the burlesque idea a little bit more.
Absolutely. If we were to ask 50 different cabaret artists to define what cabaret is, we would have 50 different definitions. That is part of the beauty of it. It's really what you make of it.
If you look back to the Weimar cabaret in Berlin, and if we take the Cabaret movie as an example, it wasn't just the singing. There was also dancing, and the dancing was kind of provocative. There were certainly adult elements to it.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It's very true.
Now, this is a story that I imagine you've told many times, but I really think the story of your brain surgery speaks to why you're passionate about doing things with the time you have. So tell me what led to that surgery and what it meant for you.
I have told the story a lot and I never get tired of telling it, ever.
For a lot of my life I struggled with really bad dizziness, like room spinning, vertigo, horrible, horrible dizziness. Also difficulty focusing, difficulty sleeping, headaches, all of that stuff. I didn't really think anything of it at the time. And then when I was in college, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I woke up and felt like I slept on my neck wrong. I thought, “Oh, wow, that sucks. But it'll go away in a couple days.” Two weeks later, it was it was just getting worse. So I went to, different specialists and doctors, and everyone said, “Oh, it's probably just a pinched nerve. Don't worry about it, it's fine.” And then, a year later, I was sitting in class and all of a sudden, I couldn't see straight. I was actually watching the room spin, in a spiral vortex. It was horrible, horrible - the most disgusting feeling. I went to an urgent care in St. Louis, Missouri, and this man named Dr. Powers said, “You know, you've been here a lot…” The pain in my neck, had morphed into numbness. I couldn't feel the left side of my body., at all. You could take a safety pin and poke my neck and I wouldn't be able to feel it. So he said, You've been in here before for this dizziness that you're complaining about today. And also this numbness in the left side of your body. So I want to do a CT scan to rule out the brain. I don't think it's the brain. But I just want to rule it out. So did this CT scan and he came back and what was interesting is that I was there with a group of friends who had taken me from from school, they were all like, “Oh, he's being so over dramatic, he's a drama queen, which was the narrative of my entire life - that I was just over dramatic and embellished stories. So they told the nurse when I was in the CT scan, they're like, you know what, “He's fine. He does this. It's fine. It's really not that bad.” So the doctor came back with a pamphlet for everyone. And the pamphlet said Chiari malformation and he said you have an Arnold Chiari malformation. I can't help you with it You need to get an MRI and then see neurologist. he back of the pamphlet said that it was three types. Type one Chiari is treatable, type two Chiari leads to paralysis and type three is and I quote, “not compatible with life,” which I always thought was such a funny way to say that I was gonna die. It's like, ‘not compatible with life.’ What? Just say it leads to death? Let's not sugarcoat death, I don't know.
So I went to get an MRI, but you know, dealing with out of state insurance and being in a BFA conservatory program. So I had class from 830 in the morning until five o'clock at night with an hour for lunch, an hour and a half for dinner, and then rehearsals from seven to 11. And then started, you know, working on my schoolwork. So there was no time to go see a neurologist.
At my school if you had two unexcused or even if you have two excused absences, you were put on warning. And then at the end of the semester, once you're on warning, then your status is reviewed and if you get put on probation - which is the next thing - you are not allowed to participate in the season next year, or the next semester. Yep. So I was put on warning because I missed class to go get this MRI done. I finally saw a neurologist in February and the neurologist... this still makes me laugh. He looks at my images and said oh shit. “I can't help you. You have to see a neurosurgeon.” And I was like, “Listen, it's taken me from September until now in February to see you. How, how long do I have to wait to see this neurosurgeon?” And he told me, you'll see him this afternoon at 215 psych. Oh, so I knew that they probably saved a certain number of appointments for the day of if it's not good news, so I got lunch, came back, and I saw a neurosurgeon. And he said, let me break this down for you. You have an Arnold Chiari malformation, which essentially means at the base of the skull, there is a hole called the foramen magnum, where the brainstem and the spinal cord meet and your cerebellum, which is part of the brainstem is supposed to just sit on top of that hole, when the cerebellum protrudes into that hole, that is the Chiari malformation. So one to five millimeters of cerebellar protrusion, one to four millimeters is fine, they'll monitor the symptoms with pain meds and just kind of keeping an eye on it. He said “Once it gets to five millimeters of protrusion into that hole, that is when surgery becomes an option that's brought to the table.”
“Ari you don't have an option. five millimeters is worrisome. Yours is 30. If I showed your images, your MRIs, to a roomful of 100, of the world's top neurosurgeons that would be unanimous that you need surgery.”
So I was doing Last Five Years at the time in college. I asked my surgeon If I was your son, what would you do? And he said, “Well, today's Friday, so I’d make sure that you were on the operating table by Monday morning.”
And I asked my university... can I? I had to ask them for everything - I had to ask them if I could work. I said “Can I leave to have this brain surgery?” Which is so ridiculous looking back. Like I had to ask for permission for brain surgery?! And they said...there were six weeks left in the school year...they said “If you leave now you will have to redo your entire junior year with the class below you.”
And - my class size was 22 people, and I'd been with them for almost three years. You build an ensemble, so I really didn't want to go back and add another year of college. They added “But you'll also lose any scholarship that you have from the university because you have chosen to leave the school year early.” I couldn't afford to go to college without a scholarship, so I asked my surgeon if it was possible for me to wait. And he said “You are going to get surgery.” Basically my school year ended on May 9, I drove to Michigan where I'm from on the 10th and at 6am on May 11, I was on my way to the hospital.
It was supposed to be four hours long. It was twelve and a half. I think the hardest part was the waiting. I mean any surgery is terrifying, right? Like all anytime somebody that is not you, is entering your body to fix you while you are asleep? That is pretty traumatic and kind of invasive. When it's your brain, period.
It was really, really, really terrifying. And waiting is tension. On the one hand, I was so thrilled that I finally had an answer to all of these things that I had been struggling with my whole life physically, and was never validated for. Anytime I would say as a kid, “I'm feeling dizzy,” “My head hurts,” “I need help.“ I would be met with “Oh, you're fine.” My friend said at the doctor's office “Oh, you're just being dramatic, you're fine.” So I finally had - this incredibly validating thing - which was so helpful. But I was terrified. I didn't know if I was going to live, I didn't know if it was going to go wrong. I had no idea what was going to happen. And as soon as I woke up from the surgery, I remember feeling this bright white glow kind of hovering over my body. I remember thinking at that moment, “I'm fine. For the first time in my life, I'm fine.”
That surgery was on a Monday, by Tuesday night, I was just taking extra strength Tylenol. I was home by Thursday. Two weeks later, I was driving my car. A month later, I was in rehearsals for Into The Woods, and a month and a half later, I went to the Cabaret Conference.
I think there's something about the body knowing… The body wants to be well. And for the first time in my life, at 21 years old, my body finally had the full capacity to be its complete healthy self. And I'm now never forget that feeling it was so fucking magical. Can I swear here? Am I allowed to swear?
I think the thing that my surgery gave me... It's my superpower. I'm so proud of this scar that I have in the back of my neck.
It was really hard when I was going through it, for obvious reasons. But when I look back on my surgery, I really only think about it fondly because it gave me so much. It shifted my perspective on everything. Now I understand what it is like to… we all know we're gonna die, but to have somebody tell you Yeah, we're all gonna die. And for you, you know, it might be on this date. I really try now to make the decision every day to live. Because to live is a verb. To be is a verb. I know I had forgotten before surgery, that it is something that you choose to do every single day. And so now since I've had surgery, I do not take any day for granted. And when I do, I feel it. And it's really something to live life being grateful for every single moment because there was a time when not every moment was guaranteed.
Ari the idea of your renewed sense of life, it strikes me that your body had spent years dealing with the pain and the stuff that was going on inside it. So that there was a certain part of your energy that was constantly dealing with that. And once that problem was removed, then suddenly you had all this extra energy that you had to find an outlet for. It was able to be used elsewhere. So I need to ask, did you end up waiting those six weeks and finishing out your program?
I did indeed. I really only have one regret in life, and it was waiting those six weeks. Because I was essentially telling myself that my time in college - that college, and doing it a certain way, was more important than my life. And there is nothing more important than your life. Period.
Yes. With the benefit of some time and some distance, surely there's no way that people in that program can justify expecting you to wait six weeks for a surgery that a specialist-specialist has said you need to have in days. How does that change your perspective on waiting for permission now?
I seek permission from people who I know have my best interests at heart. Other than that, I am my own best advocate. So I seek to give myself permission and validation and worth whenever I can, so that I am not dependent upon other people. I don't literally don't have to put my life in somebody else's hands. Perfect example: absolutely willing to put my life in the hands of my surgeon. He is somebody who I know has my best interests at heart. But I will not put my life in the hands of someone like the faculty at my alma mater, because clearly, they did not have my best interests at heart.
How do you determine that? Is it whether it's been proven over some period of time? How do you think about whether somebody has your best interests at heart - when you're speaking with them, and when you're deciding whether to take their counsel or not?
That is a fantastic question, and I don't know if I've ever actually answered this, certainly not publicly. So I'll be very honest, I'm an open book here.
Before I had surgery, I would do whatever it took to please people. I would morph my personality to please others. I would sacrifice parts of myself, my humanity, in order to get the approval from other people.
Since my surgery, I no longer do that. What I realized is, before, I had convinced myself that everybody had my best interest at heart. I told myself, “Oh I just trust easily.” But that was not true. I just gave, and shifted, and bent, and sacrificed parts of myself for the sake of other people.
Now, because I understand how precious life is (and if I ever forget, all I have to do is just touch the scar in the back of my neck and boy am I reminded) I've drawn very, very clear lines in the sand. If anybody crosses them for any reason, I will let them know. And I am also a very forgiving person, so I will let them know and then if they express remorse...because I think one of the most beautiful parts of humanity is people's ability to change and grow. But if that boundary is crossed a second time, that's it. It becomes clear to me that you do not have my best interests at heart and took advantage of my forgiveness. And then and then as painful as it is, I have no problem just kind of cutting the person out of my life.
However - because I believe people can change and grow - if there comes a time when someone like that reaches out to me and expresses immense remorse and shows that they've grown and changed, then I will obviously speak to their humanity and you know keep them at a distance. I'm willing to give anybody a chance. I believe that there is beauty in every single human being. Not necessarily goodness, but there is beauty in every single human being and it is our responsibility as citizens of humanity to find that beauty and reflect it back to other people, which is what we do as cabaret artists.
But if that generosity of spirit - if in that search of finding the beauty in somebody else - is taken advantage of, I will not bend anymore. It's too painful to bend, especially because I know my worth now. And I'm not willing to bend past a certain point for somebody who clearly is not willing to appreciate the fact that I'm bending for them.
There's something to be said for growing up, believing that it's important to give to other people. That is a very important thing to learn. But there is a guess, a way of giving that, like you indicated, doesn't have boundaries in place where it can be taken advantage of. Where you thought you were giving, you might actually discover that people are taking. This transfer of energy is going from you to somebody else, but it's not coming back again. Whereas there is a way to be giving in situations where that energy can be returned. It sounds like, there were parts of your experience at college that were unfortunate in many ways, but they have set you up for where you are now. So while you wouldn't put somebody else through them to get to this point, somehow you've found a way to make the most of it.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. This might not be a popular point of view, but a former Rabbi of mine gave an amazing D’var Torah or sermon. She said, “It says in the Torah, that we all receive the Torah from Mount Sinai, we just interpret it differently.” Essentially, what that means is, we all have humanity within us, our humanity just exists and breathes in a different way.
And she said, “It is our job as people” she said, specifically Jews, but I take it a step further. I believe it's our job as people “to appeal to the humanity in everyone. To assemble a table and say, ‘I might disagree with you, but I'm going to find the things that we have in common.’”
And she said, “However, there is a boundary. There are some people who slept in. There are some people who were not at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah, and they are the people that we do not appeal to.”
So there is a difference between somebody who is anti abortion or somebody who is pro life, and somebody who takes a semi automatic assault rifle and goes into a planned parenthood and kills everyone in the building. The first person, I might disagree with them, but that does not mean that they are a bad person. It is my job to find the things that we have in common to appeal to the humanity in both of us through empathy and shared values (if there are any), but at least a curiosity and a desire to seek to understand. They are a very different person than the person who shoots up the place. That is not a good person. That is not somebody who we need to spend our time finding the humanity in.
I think that something that is kind of lost is that we now in our in today's world we are so hell bent on celebrating the differences and all of the stuff that divides us when in reality we're all so similar. We breathe the same air and the best way to get somebody to hear your point of view is to appeal to their humanity. I just wish that we did that more than we are nowadays. And I believe that that is what happens in a cabaret room. That there is an appealing to a collective humanity. In the arts, not just in cabaret, but in the arts.
This may or may not be a long bow to draw, and I speak only with my limited understanding of this. But it seems to me that we're almost telling a story of how, in various ways, things were taken from you up until that point where you had the surgery, and you have this reset. Yet you have to move on. And if you're going to do it in a positive healing and growth filled way, you have to find a way to say, “I don't agree with what happened there, but I'm going to look for the ‘beauty in humanity’, as you said, and find ways to go on.” And as you talked about what you learned from the Rabbi I thought about how the Jewish people have, more than once, gone through times where things that should never have been taken from them were taken. I’m thinking specifically about the horror of the Holocaust. But as time passes, if you're going to continue, you have to find a way to, not shut that down, but acknowledge what has happened and what can you learn from it, in order to move forward? Who can you trust? Who can you offer your humanity and your empathy to? But who do you need to be wary of and say, “Okay, we're not going to have those boundaries crossed again, because that did not work out well last time.”
That's right. Esther Perel is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She has said, and I'm probably gonna butcher it, but essentially, she found that with her parents and her parents’ friends growing up, there were two groups of people - there were the people who merely survived the Holocaust and the people who chose to live again.
And I think there's something beautiful in that. I'll speak for myself when I was in college, going through my brain surgery journey - I was not nice. I wasn't nice to myself. I wasn't kind to the people around me. I was really angry, and lashed out at people. “If this has to happen to me, then that's not fair. It should happen to everyone.” So I was really just...not nice. I was not nice.
At the time, there was one person who pulled me aside. She was an adjunct faculty member who was there my freshman year and then again, my senior year. She pulled me aside and said, “What's going on with you?” And I said, “Nothing, I'm fine. Everything's fine.” She said, “You can't lie to me. What's going on?” I started telling her, and then it was an hour of us talking and at the end, she took my hand and she said, “I see you. I believe you. I hear you.”
And I lost it. I realized that the thing that I had missed my whole life, and certainly in that moment, was being seen, being heard, and being validated. So when there are people who aren't not acting kindly, now - another gift that my surgery gave me - I have no idea what they're going through, and it is not up to me to judge how they are behaving unless their behavior is hurtful and it is done deliberately (then that might be you know, a different story), but we never know the full extent of what people are going through. So my why, in Simon Sinek’s framework, my why statement is ‘to hold space with empathy, so that others feel seen, heard and validated.’
To me - that is all we can do. That is the bare minimum of what we do as people. To understand that people are going through things, we have no idea what they're going through, and we just have to hold space for them, and hear them, and see them, and validate their experience - not cast them aside. I'm sure that there were Holocaust survivors who were unkind. And I'm sure they had a lot of story to tell. Talk about, you know, having stuff taken from you.
So for me, I did. I had a lot taken from me, and I took a lot from myself during those years in college. I think the way that I give back, instead of relishing in the victimhood of being someone who had things taken, I try to give back by giving to other people the things that I felt I did not receive - either from myself, or from anybody else. I just feel like when in doubt, generosity is your North Star.
Yeah. Ari, who was the first person that really believed in you, as an artist?
There are three people that come to mind for different reasons. Great. The first one, her name is Marlene Inman. She is an incredible human being who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I'm from.
In seventh grade, I was the Baker in “Into The Woods,” and she was the music director. She saw something in me that I had no idea was there. She was the first person who didn't punish me for not being able to sit still or not being able to concentrate or being “extra.” She understood and helped me find a way to kind of put it into theater. Into art.
Actually I think it's just two people. The second person was Faith Prince,
After I had my surgery, when I did the Cabaret Conference I really wasn't supposed to do. I was supposed to be in a production of Oklahoma in Montana. But I backed out because I didn't know if I was going to live or not, and ended up recovering very quickly and had a summer free. So I did the Cabaret Conference and Faith, again, saw something in me that I didn't know was there and took me under her wing. She mentored me and she saw the diamond in the rough - the diamond being my artistry that I really did not believe was there. Certainly not at that time in my life. So cabaret saved my life in so many ways. But I don't know if I would still be a cabaret artist if Faith Prince had not been on the faculty at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference that year. She just - she saved me, when I didn't even know I needed to be saved. But boy did I.
I saw that you said in another interview that when you first got interested in singing and acting, it was really purely for the attention.
Hundred percent. Oh, yeah.
That makes sense. I mean, a lot of the things we do when we're really young, are to get attention. It strikes me, connecting the dots, that perhaps as you were getting older - going through the pain and the headaches that came with what ultimately led to your surgery - you said that people were discounting your concerns and not really believing them. You were having trouble getting attention for the things that were true. Maybe performing was your way of getting positive attention for stuff that you actually did make up.
Spot on. Have you been talking to my therapist? That is so unbelievably accurate. And I'll take it a step further. I've always struggled with validating myself, and seeking validation from other people. Because when I was growing up - in moments of crisis - I would say, “I'm dizzy, my head hurts and all of that stuff.”
That wasn't “ I've been having dizziness lately.”
It was “Right now I can't see because the room is spinning.”
Or “Right now, I can't think because my head is hurting so much.”
In these moments of crisis, my truths were met with, “You're just being overdramatic.” “You're just anxious.”
“Sit still for a while and just take a deep breath.”
I was a nuisance. I was bothersome to all of my teachers. All of them in elementary school, middle school and high school.
What I knew to be true to me, I would then share and it would be debunked. There was no attempt at seeing whether or not it was real or not. It's kind of like, if you poke a dog with a stick, it'll bark. My whole life I was being poked with a stick, and I would bark. Then I'd be met with “Well, why are you barking? There's no stick here. Why are you barking?”
Eventually that voice that I had. That truth. My truth that I needed to share - was dimmed almost to a point where there was no truth left in my body. So I craved being onstage because I got that external validation that gave me life. You are absolutely 1,000% correct, sir.
You talking about that reminded me of fake news, which of course for the last four years is a phrase we've been hearing a lot. For a lot of people, and I can speak for myself, there are probably times when I'll discount an inconvenient truth because if I was to accept it as true, I'd be compelled to take action, compelled to do something about it. So rather than sit with that discomfort - even though it's not the brave, even though it's not the good thing to do, sometimes I’ll take the easier option of telling myself “Oh, that's probably not actually the case.”
Okay, as you met Faith Prince, and you attended that Cabaret Conference, you were introduced to cabaret - without Christina Aguilera and without fishnets... or at least fishnets optional. What was it about cabaret that you fell in love with? What, for you, is the difference between music theater and cabaret and why you've chosen to focus on cabaret?
I'll start by saying that I love them both equally. And while I am absolutely a cabaret artist, I'm still very much a musical theater artist. For me, the American musical is a product of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom were told that they had to leave a place where they didn't belong, to come to a place where they didn't belong. And they created a place where they, and now we, get to belong. So, for me, to be a musical theater artist is so much more than just being able to be in musicals. It's about continuing the legacy of so many brilliant Jewish minds who created this thing. So I just want to say that music theater is my first love, and I will never give it up.
The thing that I love about cabaret is that you cannot hide. There is a brilliant cabaret music director named Dick Gallagher who passed away several years ago. I love his definition of cabaret. He said “Cabaret is the art of being yourself on purpose.”
I found it at a time where everything for me was tumultuous, and it gave me the opportunity to use my artistry, to be myself on purpose for the first time. To stop putting my shit aside and hide behind the veneer of the fourth wall and the character, and bust through both of those barriers. There is no character and there is no fourth wall. So to take music and make it specific for my life was the most healing thing that I could have found after I had surgery.
So I think that the time that I found it was really kind of extraordinary and really helped. But the thing that has kept me in it, is how I know that it saves people's lives. When it is done correctly - cabaret as I've come to know it - when it is generous, and generative and purpose driven. And the artist is an artist of immense integrity and they are sharing selflessly to the audience. It really can save someone's life.
I did my first show ‘Taking the Wheel’ in an out of town tryout in St. Louis, where I went to college, a year after I graduated. I went to my favorite restaurant and had my favorite breakfast at the counter. It's just an absurd order. Not on the menu. Just ridiculous.
Go on. Tell us. What is your favourite breakfast?
God, it's at the Southwest Diner. It is a breakfast burrito. Eggs Jonathan style, with both kinds of cheese on top, no sauce, bacon inside, potatoes well done. And a side of extra crispy bacon. It's ridiculous.
You really have learnt how to ask for what you need!
Oh, Matthew Carey. You get me. You really do.
So I was at this restaurant and I noticed that the person sitting next to me at the counter had ordered the same thing. So we started talking and I said, “You know I have an extra ticket to my shop tonight. If you want to come I'd love to have you.” And she said “You know what? I'll think about it.”
So the show comes, and she was there. After the show she came up to me just sobbing. I said “I'm so glad that you came. This is so amazing.” And the show was about my brain surgery. About taking the wheel on my life and really kind of choosing to live again and making the most of the time that we're given.
And I said “I'm so happy that you came. This is so amazing!” And she said “I wasn't supposed to be here tonight.” I said “I know. It's so wonderful!”
And she said, “No, you misunderstand me. I wasn't supposed to be here. At all. When we met at breakfast this morning, I had just come from the hospital from yet another round of chemotherapy. I went to my favorite restaurant and got my favorite meal. That was going to be my last meal. I was going to go home, and end it. But I decided on a whim to come to your show and to see you, standing there in your truth as a young person, talking about fighting and choosing to live again after beating it, inspired me to keep fighting.”
She reached out to me a couple years later, and said that she was in remission. So when I say that cabaret changes lives, I mean that in literal terms. When it is done from a place of generosity and selflessness, it can save someone's life. I have never forgotten that. I will never forget that. And I believe that it is the medicine that we need for this really broken world right now. Leonard Bernstein, my favorite quote. He said “This will be our response to violence to make music more intensely, more devotedly, and more beautifully than ever before.” And I've never felt that message ring true more than when I'm in a cabaret room with people who are doing real, true, generous, cabaret.
Real, true, generous cabaret. I love that phrase. You and I have each been to cabaret shows where it doesn't feel like that was the intention of the show.
The cabaret community is quite small. You've got a lot of experience with it in New York and I've encountered it both there and certainly here in Australia. Whenever you get a community that is fairly small, there can be an impetus or desire to draw in the ranks and protect what you have rather than practicing growing it. Y ou're somebody that has found cabaret, and you've been building your reputation and experiencing increasing success. An option for you would have been to hold that all to yourself and say, “I'm just going to build the biggest little cabaret empire for myself that I can. But what I know of you is that you've done the opposite. You've done what a lot of people wouldn't do. You’ve thrown open the curtains and said “This is what I've done. This is what I've learnt. I want to share it so more people can have the benefit of this experience. How did you make that decision, Ari and what has it led to?
Well, when I got to the city, I saw people doing things that they were calling cabarets. Come to my #cabaret on Instagram. I remember going and thinking “This is not what I learned cabaret to be.” It was people singing songs because they could. One show was literally called “Because I Can.” There were other shows, but that one really stood out to me.
And I just got so protective, and so angry, and so upset. Then I took a step back, and I realized there is no training program in New York for young people, specifically musical theater performers, to learn what it means to do true, generous cabaret. So I built it. It's called Bridging the Gap, and it's all about bridging the gap between musical theater and cabaret, and also between the song and the performer.
I always find that people don't believe that they need the class. If you don't know what cabaret is, not many people think, I could either take the cabaret class or I could take the film class with that casting director at whatever studio. But what I know to be true about my clients is the vast majority of them feel this overwhelming sense of coming home for the first time after experiencing cabaret. Always at the end of the first class and the entirety of the second class (it's a five week course) there is huge emotional release that happens because people are finally given permission to explore and express their artistry from a generous, selfless and truthful place. Which goes in complete opposition with what we are asked to do as musical theater performers in New York, as cogs in the machine.
I knew how much it had impacted my life. And I felt like, if it has impacted my life this much, there have got to be other people out there who it can also impact and I was right. It has continued to impact people.
You talk about how a community when it's small, it kind of turns in on itself? One of the things that I cannot stand about the cabaret community… I love them, they are some of the most wonderful people I've ever met. But I have heard, since I started cabaret, “Oh, you know, cabaret’s a dying art form. It's been dying since the 80s.”
That’s not funny. That is not a funny joke. I understand that even if it's not to be taken seriously, that's not funny for a couple of reasons.
One: I actually beat death. So don't tell me something's dying, when it's not.
Two: If you want people to be involved in this thing, by telling people that it's dying, you are excluding the people who have never participated in it before. Because who wants to, as a young person, get involved in an art form where the gatekeepers and the people who hold the torch say, “Yeah, it's dying.”
I've always hated that. So I try and inject as much life, vibrancy, humanity, and compassion into every single ounce of cabaret that I do. Whether it's teaching, whether it's directing, or whether it's as a performer. Because every single time somebody buys a ticket, anytime somebody books a show, anytime somebody sings into a microphone in a cabaret room, you are breathing life into an art form. So to say that it is dying is not only hurtful, it is also a lie. And I like to dispel the lie as often as I can.
Instead of seeing cabaret’s lifeless body and walking away, you're determined to resuscitate it.
That's right. That's right.
It also can't die. It can't, because having groups of people gather to share stories that are truthful to them - that is an ancient practice. Right now we call it cabaret. But people have been doing that for as long as people have been able to speak. So really it can't die. It's not gonna happen.
Especially when there's a revolution of young people who are taking part in this art form.
I like to think of cabaret as an ethos just as much as an art form. That it's a mindset that you can learn, and use in a room that's designated as a cabaret room, or you can use it elsewhere. There’s no denying that some famous cabaret rooms that had existed for decades have had to close their doors. There are venues that I visited on my first trip to New York in 2000 that have closed since then. But that doesn't mean that the ethos and art form is dying. It simply means that those venues closed. And the performers that used to perform there, and the way we used to present cabaret maybe needs to evolve.
Just because we're not using horses and carts as much doesn't mean that transport died. It just evolved to get people from place to place in different ways. If we want to continue to transport people though cabaret, we can choose to do it in different ways which might include new rooms or even zoom rooms, right?
Right. I did a show that I’d done at Birdland several times, and I’d taken around the United States. I did it on zoom and there were 73 people there, many of whom had never been able to see it because they were not in the cities that I brought it to, or in New York. There were people who were watching in Israel. Somebody was watching from hospice, and she died the next week. That was the last thing that she saw. Had I done it in person, she would not have been able to come.
But in this COVID time, it has been proven that cabaret can exist and thrive and shift to accommodate the world around it. We just have to let it. We have to usher it through.
Instead of thinking of it as a dying art form. I think maybe it was when we spoke last, Ari, you said to me that now we are in the midst of a perfect storm for the next golden age of cabaret? Can you speak to that?
Hell yeah. I think the work that I have done, and the work that a lot of my mentors have done, has really gotten young people excited about this way of expressing their artistry.
And right now, what we are capable of doing as artists - other than zoom readings, readings of musicals, or plays on zoom - what we are able to do right now, safely, is solo performance. Whether that's on zoom... Not only not only did I do my cabaret on zoom this summer, but I did it live and in person, to an audience full of people at a social distance wearing masks. I performed twice by the end of July, and got paid to do it. And that is what is going to come back, first. Cabaret. Solo performance is going to come back sooner than theatre. And if thought you didn't have a story to tell, because I hear that all the time.
“I don't have a story to tell.”
“Why would anyone come to my show?”
First of all, why wouldn't they? And second of all, as I said before, everybody's going through something. Everyone has a story to tell.
Now - we're all living in a pandemic, and everyone's pandemic experience is different. Everyone's story has value and is worthy of being told. So, with solo performance being one of the only viable performing opportunities, and with everybody having a story that is worthy of being told, it makes sense to me that that creates the perfect storm for this new era. That it is not just going to be “Here is my show of Ella Fitzgerald songs because I love Ella,” but it's going to be that generous, selfless healing practice of sharing one's artistry in order to heal the world. The world needs a lot of healing right now, and the world needs its artists to express their artistry. And right now, I think the way that we can do that is solo performance and cabaret.
Yeah. You talked about your scar. On your website, you have a page of articles and thoughts you share called Scar Talk. One of the themes that you talk about there is justice. Justice is one of the things, the traumas, that our culture is trying to work its way through in this time. You talk about the cost of not speaking out and standing up for what we believe in today. You look at history, and suggest that if we don't stand up and speak out today, something else will happen tomorrow and we won’t necessarily like it. At some point, we have to take a stand. I think that cabaret, and the idea of a cabaret show gives people an opportunity to do that. They have permission to be themselves, to say and share the things that are important to them. Given your own history, how do you look at the ways you offer permission to the artists that you work with?
I tell people that they are not allowed to apologize in my class, unless they have hurt me or somebody that I love. As soon as they walk in the door, even if they are late and they say “Oh my god, I'm so sorry I'm late.” I say to them, “Don't you dare apologize. Let's try that again.” And they'll say, “You know what? Thank you for your patience.”
Instead of apologizing for taking up space, apologizing for life happening, why don't we just celebrate the fact that we are alive? So I give people I try to create a space where I give people permission to use their voice to say what they mean, mean what they say, and say it in the way that they want to say it and not apologize for it.
I also give people the opportunity to sing.
There's no type. There's no boxes. Cabaret takes away the boxes that the musical theater world puts us in, and society puts us in, and it obliterates them. So I tell people, “You can sing anything you want, as long as it is truthful to you.” If it celebrates your truth, you may sing it.
So I guess at the core of it all is just permission. It's permission to be yourself, permission to take up space, permission to celebrate your life, and to be truthful. The work that comes out of people when they have permission to create!
I believe there's a difference between believing that somebody can do something, and seeing if they can do something. I remember I was sitting in college auditions and for one school, the faculty gave a note that was essentially - it was conditional. The underlying energy was “I don't think they can do it, but let's just see.”
I went to another school and watched their faculty give a note. It was the same exact thing, trying to get to the same end result. But the note came from a place of “I believe that you can do it and I want you to do it. I want you to do it and I believe that you can do it.”
That was encouraging. That was creating a brave and safe space for people to take a risk, instead of the conditional fear that comes from “I don't know if you can do it, but let's see.” That really stuck with me and I've always tried to create a space where I not only believe that people can do it, but I want them to do it. I want them to do it, I believe that they can do it. And then giving them permission to be themselves when they do it.
Yeah. I could talk to you for hours. I have so many thoughts about cabaret. And what’s really fascinating to me, Ari, is that while you and I have grown up in different places, in slightly different times, and we've had different lived experiences... I think we share some of the same views on the world, and beliefs in certain things to do with with art. I have had a really strong passion for cabaret, which, I admit, had faded a bit in the last five or so years, but it’s all still so fresh for you. So talking to you, in some sense, is like speaking to myself, maybe 10 or 15 years back in time. It’s some weird podcast time travel.
Ah, Matthew, that is...
I'm all verklempt. That is really amazing. I'm very...
I'm very, very honored. And now you've rendered me speechless, which is nearly impossible.
I agree. I think we are very, very similar, not only in the fact that we love cabaret, but you're right, we do see the world very similarly. And I'm excited to continue cultivating this friendship with you, my friend. I think you and I could talk for hours about cabaret, and also everything under the sun.
So let's do it. Why not?
Absolutely. We’ll just let the tape roll. Everyone else could stop listening anytime they want. But let me put a button on this particular conversation by saying thank you for sharing your stories so openly. And you have permission to be a guest on studio time. Anytime you want to show up.
Thank you. Thank you for holding space for me to tell these stories. So vulnerably.
I really appreciate the fact that you found a way to create a space where you belonged. And I want to thank you for doing the same for others, helping them create a space where they feel like they belong because I think it's so important. Yeah. And now as much as ever to thank you, Ari.
You are so welcome. Thank you, Matthew.