BWW Feature: At Home With Joan Darragh
Easily one of the most interesting members of the cabaret community, Joan Darragh made a big splash in 2019 with her solo show THE INVIGORATED INGENUE. Not only did she have one of the best show titles of the year (maybe any year) and unforgettable show art by Helene Blumfield, Joan put together a heck of a good show that had people talking and flocking to Don't Tell Mama to see her return to the stage. People had missed Joan and she and Team Darragh had created a picture perfect return to the business. Now fully entrenched in the world of cabaret once more, Darragh's new chapter (of so many rich and fascinating chapters) had an immediate hiatus with the Coronavirus quarantine. Not only invigorated but optimistic, the ingenue has spent the weeks since spreading joy, hope, and photos of her culinary exploits all over her social media.
I reached out to Ms. Darragh to ask if she would spend some time chatting with Broadway World Cabaret and she said yes. Sadly, we had to do the interview digitally, but an in-person one would have been so much nicer, as it would have included food.
This digital interview is reproduced as received.
Name: Joan Darragh
First Cabaret Show : Big Girls Don't Cry, 1991, The Singer's Forum
Most recent Cabaret Show: The Invigorated Ingenue, 2019, Don't Tell Mama
Website and social media handles: Instagram: joandarragh; Facebook: Joan Darragh; www.joandarragh.com (under revision); The Invigorated Ingenue website launch date Fall 2020
Joan, you made a rather well-publicized return to the stage last year with "The Invigorated Ingenue." How long had you been off the stage?
About fifteen years until my comeback in 2019.
In 1991, I braved my first show - it was a duo, Big Girl's Don't Cry. At the end of the show, we held a funeral and buried Barbie.
Until this past year, my last fully-crafted cabaret show was a religious allegory. But what a romp it was! In The Annunciation: The Second Generation, I married Elvis in a dream sequence.
After some major fully-staged productions, I did other less elaborate showcases while weaning off of my addiction to costumes and props. There were a few at Don't Tell Mama with Terri Lynn Paul, back when the restaurant was the "front room" performance space.
Until my 2019, MAC-club debut, I certainly had my moment in the spotlight but not legit theater or cabaret. The first decade of the new millennium was spent winding down my 25-year career as an art-museum planner at the Brooklyn Museum. During my museum period, I often did a lot of public speaking, media interviews and promotional presentations, produced a small documentary film, and even built a theater. There was a real kinship between my day job and cabaret. The intimacy of boardroom pitches to patrons is much like cabaret-truthful storytelling with a lot of passion.
Upon my museum retirement in 2008, I was asked to teach arts administration at Baruch College-just another performance gig.
Tell me about your work as an actor and why you left it.
I never saw myself as an actor. I didn't have those dreams as a kid being in a Broadway show. I always excelled in the visual arts. I didn't even know I could sing. I was in the chorus in high school because I had a white blouse and a navy-blue pleated skirt. I just sang whatever note the person next to me was singing.
But, in 1959, when I saw my first Broadway musical--"Take Me Along" starring Jackie Gleason--I fell in love with the magic of musical theater. I may have left the theater humming the tunes, but--oh! the sets and costumes left me breathless; at thirteen, I knew I was going to become a set designer.
Never considering that I would be on the stage myself--out front-- I was drawn to behind the scenes. I never became that set designer, but stayed with the visual arts. Low and behold, my very first job at the Brooklyn Museum was to produce a major theatrical production including eight, musically-themed tableaux vivant performances.
Looking back, theater definitely was to be a part of me--to be fulfilled later in life. I had quite a history lesson in early Broadway. My father worked backstage for Flo Ziegfeld. He worked on the original production of Show Boat, and my aunt was a rehearsal accompanist for Ziegfeld. As a child, I was regaled with stories of those years. They both worked on many of the Follies, Music In The Air, The Great Waltz, and they even went out to Hollywood and worked on early film musicals. I have a trunk full of autographed photographs from those productions. They hung with celebrities like Ruth Etting, Marilyn Miller, Ina Claire, Adele Astaire (Fred's sister) and a few notable mobsters. It was prohibition and the stories were exciting.
Most of my theater and cabaret experience began in 1990. My day job had become very demanding-more about process and less about content; I needed a creative outlet. I found it at the Singers Forum working with Phil Campanella. It was during a recession, and the joy of my museum work was clouded by layoffs and economic pressures. A friend said to me, "come on, you've always wanted to sing..." (doesn't everyone-secretly?) "...I know this place where everybody hugs. And it's all very supportive." I was terrified to take a singing class, but I decided to bravely make the commitment; I signed up for 14 weeks of classes and was hooked. Working with Phil Campanella was 15 years of sheer delight. He so shared my sense of comedy, and the two of us camped it up. We did many, many shows. I took every workshop I could. Voraciously studying the craft of cabaret, I rediscovered my creative soul at the Singer's Forum.
During this time, I was also doing some publishing, two professional publications that were academically dry. During my interstitial procrastinations to entertain myself from the process of academic writing, I started writing stories. During htat dalliance I gave birth to my most elaborate one-woman, costumed and propped show. It poured out of me; the flow was incredible. Why I'm Still Single: A Grimm Tale With A Happy Ending became the true confessions of Snow White--camped to the hilt.
Those years were so thrilling and expensive as self-production is. I did the shows as benefits for the Singers Forum.
After all the elaborate shows, I set my sites on doing house parties. In 1999, Phil and I did one called Romance In the Late 20th Century. It was for one of those elite, secret societies of Brooklyn Heights. I actually got paid $1500 to perform; I felt I had made the big time. A promising start, but my day job kept getting in my way.
That 15-year frolic came to an abrupt end with Phil's sudden death. My flirtation with writing, designing, producing, performing came to a close. Working with Phil, I learned a new way to love. That symbiotic and extremely close relationship with the person behind the piano. The endless encouragement and support that I got from this lovely man was so stunning; it was a tragic loss. On the day of his memorial after the eulogies, I went to the Singers Forum and took a class with Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock. I knew I had to sing; but after, I never went back.
Fast forward 12 years. I was inspired by my friend Wendy Russell's success with Those Girls and confessed my desire to maybe sing again. Wendy got me in touch with Lennie Watts. And a new story began. I had no intention of producing another cabaret show. I thought perhaps building my repertoire and doing some open mics might suit me. I had hit my seventieth birthday and was ready to romp again. Only this time I was not going to go broke self-producing.
What was the experience like, going back to it after some time off?
It was fascinating. I felt much at ease. At first, I was only doing class workshops. But then an old friend, who had a uke-open-mic night up in the back room of a college dive bar in Hamilton Heights, invited me to sing with them. It was quite the experience and just what I needed to get back on stage. To call it a stage is a challenge. It was the size of a small, NYC-apartment's bathtub, accommodating three musicians, all with mics and amped. I fell in love with the audience--what a pleasure-they were right there with you looking like they had been bathing in granola on the UWS since 1968. Their passion for the ukulele and vintage popular songs was charming. I loved it. It was so free and easy; I felt this is where I belong. Singing the kind of music that is easy and appeals to one's culture and spirit.
I had found the joy again. I love the process as much as the performance, sometimes even more. I'm a trained historian; I love the research. Older music really appeals. I'm a lover of music from the first half of the 20th century and early Broadway, especially from the shows that my father worked on. I discovered a lot about the early American musical/review and vaudeville. And of course, my more sophisticated taste, when present, tends to lean towards the American songbook; but my true love is music from 1946 to 1964. Those World War II songs that I was listening to prenatally in 1945-46 call to me as well as early rock and roll from my developing American Bandstand years. My interest in popular music died with the British Invasion.
So, my awkward and somewhat questionable taste was a challenge in coming back to today's cabaret. But considering since the average age of my audience is close to my own, it worked.
I don't think I would've found the joy again without the duo of Lennie Watts and Steven Ray Watkins. Being in their workshop and pushing me to take it seriously was challenging. I didn't want to be serious. I just wanted to entertain. Simply with joy. Not so simple, the joy ended up a show of 27 songs arranged into 16 numbers, for I refused to sing anything longer than 32 bars.
I loved every bit of the process. I loved the story. Because it's my story. And each show is a chapter.
I don't see myself as a singer first. I see myself as a writer, storyteller, set designer/ costumer, performer, somewhat of a comedian and lastly a singer.
I think the best part of returning was getting to know new people. And I have come to admire the storytellers I've met along the way. I am humbled by the raconteurial skills of Rian Keating, Marge Helenchild, Lena Moy Bergen and Debbie Zecher to name a few. Their biographical narrations have inspired, and the experience of getting to know them and the entire MAC community feels like one huge embrace.
You've been an active presence on social media, always upbeat and spreading happiness. Is that your usual persona, or has your optimism grown in response to the current situation in which we are all living?
I think it is both. I've always been an upbeat instigator of fun. I love to entertain. My 450- sf, Upper Eastside, walk-up used to hold up to 15-but in those days we were young enough to sit on the floor. Now at my age, if I can get two-and-a-half people in for dinner, it's a squeeze.
My mother was Danish, and a few years ago I learned of the Danish phenomenon hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) defined by Oxford dictionary as "a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being." and suddenly my genetically enhanced personality had specific definition. I love to create warm comfortable scenes. I rarely worry. Relatively little stress-except when preparing a show. I've lived a long and purposeful life. No complaints, but I feel I'm just getting started.
Now in the time of the COVID plague, I need to create a purpose-everyday. Of course, there is this serious undercurrent of stress. It's exhausting. But as performers we have the advantage. For me, while mopping the kitchen floor, I can just throw on some jewels and pretend that I'm ready for my closeup. I live alone and sometimes I make elaborate dinners just for me. I set a pretty table and sometimes dress for dinner, but I do miss my lady's maid.
How did you develop the concept behind "The Invigorated Ingenue?"
I had no intention of producing another cabaret show. Self-production, ha! I thought that was behind me. But I wanted to play with music again. Researching songs, digging out the old repertoire and putting a fresh face on it, and maybe try a few open mics. Short upbeat songs and novelty numbers really appeal to me. I love to celebrate the ordinary and craft it into something other.
I thoroughly enjoy the labor of joyfully taking someone's lyrics and interpreting them. Comedy appeals and comes easy for me. I almost never sing a ballad. I'm not interested in refined vocal production, but the true voice, which comes from our culture and spirit. It's not about the instrument; for me, it's all in the story.
After almost a year with Lennie, I started easing into the idea of putting a show together. I was 73; the stock market was flourishing; if not now, when could I afford to go broke again? The brilliant Steven Ray Watkins was the accompanist in Lennie's workshop and the Lennie/Steven duo is addictive. I was hooked.
I needed to write the story first and then interpolate the songs into the prose. That took a while. The setup comes first for me. Because I was making a comeback, as it were, I knew it would have to be about how I was feeling in my seventies. I remembered approaching my 70th birthday relishing the decade to come (who'da thought it would come to a grinding halt halfway through). The show had to be about being pleased with the woman I was, am and will be.
My hair has always been a notable feature. And I love being blonde-blondes do have more fun. At first, I was going to call the show "Born Again Blonde" and tell my story around the evolution of my hairstyles. While that was taking shape, I started getting in touch with my post-adolescent striving to achieve "cute". As a teenager, as much as I attempted cuteness--never felt it--never felt attractive. I had to grow up fast and had a lot of responsibility at an early age.
Suddenly at 70,. a woman of my vintage, with a now culturally celebrated body type was in vogue. I was adorable. And, I had finally gotten my Gidget on. I was definitely ready to be the ingenue that I never was. And the music of my youth was calling to me. While working on my pony-tail number--Jimmy Clayton's "Venus In Blue Jeans", I remembered being twelve and sitting on my stoop all summer waiting for Fabian to walk down the sidewalk, discover me and ask me to go steady. The problem was he wasn't going to notice me if I didn't have a ponytail. That ponytail longing sparked such a vivid memory. It ignited the flow once again to write. While writing the narrative, the songs started to fall into place. Great songs are for someone else to sing. My song choices come from colorful memories--simply stunning images that turn into prose.. The songs then become punctuation for the story. I am not a fan of long unedited patter. That isn't what I do-at least I hope not. I want to create a picture. The visual turns into a chronicle punctuated with ditties. The jukebox in my head was going full throttle for this show.
Now what was I to do with it? The Invigorated Ingenue was born. A rebirth so to speak --an episode of mirth and memory about growing up in the land of gingham and the blondes: Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Gidget and the Breck Shampoo Girl. It was my version of an Eisenhower-era American Dream. I also felt the need to defend my brand of feminism. I am one tough broad when I have to be and have the creds to prove it, but I also love being a girly girl.
Well, I did it! Thanks to the brilliant direction of Lennie Watts and the amazing arrangements of Steven Ray Watkins. And perhaps it was Helane Blumfield 's magical photography and design that made me feel more beautiful than I ever thought I could. Maybe it was Sydney Myer's "The Talk". And certainly, the response from those who came to see it was the reward. I regret not being able to do the encore show, which was to be on April 25, 2020. That date unremarkably came and went.
But in retrospect, there is an advantage. I'm not done crafting this show. Three performances are merely a dress rehearsal with a couple of previews. The effort invested needs nurturing and refinement. What better time than now?
The Invigorated Ingenue was more than a show title; it has become my brand. After refining this chapter and considering this extended hiatus, the next chapter will probably be The Invigorated Ingenue at 80.
You are quite the cook - what's your favorite thing to make in the kitchen?
I've always loved cooking and baking. I love watching TV food porn and consider myself a food slut. Visually, my dishes and table settings end up looking like still lifes.
Baking is the most satisfying past time. It puts you into a Zen-like zone. And it's exciting, you never quite sure how it's going to turn out. In the beginning of the shut down, I was acquiring baking supplies as if I were running a supply line for the French underground during World War II.
The love of baking is definitely inherited. My mother's cookies were infamous-in fact her commercial baking venture is part of my show. Baking cookies for me is not a choice but a calling.
I bake for all occasions, and now the cookies too have become part of my brand. I baked a special batch for the last photo shoot with Helane Blumfield. We were shooting in black-and-white. So, I had to bake cookies that were graphic; the contrast had to work. During the shoot, it was hard to get the crew to stop eating the props. That photo shoot was as much fun as doing the show.
I'd love to learn more about the work that you do at Baruch.
In 2008 after I retired from the Brooklyn Museum, I started teaching at Baruch College. They asked me to teach a required course called "Introduction to Arts Administration" at the undergraduate level. Usually taught at the graduate level, it's really more of an advanced subject. To teach an introductory version to 20-somethings majoring in Management of Musical Enterprise who need to learn first why there's an "s" at the end of art, was very challenging.
Over a 14-week semester, I cover, dance, theater, music (both popular and classical) and the visual arts. It is all about behind the scenes-jobs. Mostly, I focus on the economic impact of the arts on NYC-once again jobs.
At first, they're sometimes disappointed when they discover this former museum professional is going to teach a course that they hoped will get them a job in the music industry. It was a real experiment, but I created a dynamic, workshop-style course utilizing my varied background. I have not only been on the stage, but I've built a 460-seat theater, have a rare specialty in producing tableau vivant ; have many years of cabaret experience (which in itself provides a virtual PhD in self-production and an insight into the business of small room management).
Twelve years of teaching has taught me so much, and the students keep me young. When I first started teaching, I had heard of Jay Z but really didn't know who he was. I quickly brought myself up to speed. Now I am often challenged by students to explain contemporary issues. A few years ago, I spent some time analyzing the antisemitic implications of Nicki Minaj's lyric video "Only".
I teach from current events and have them work in small groups. We study organizations that operate venues both large and small from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Madison Square Garden to Lincoln Center and 54 Below. We begin the semester with a back-of-the-house introduction to a modern dance company; mid semester we wander through the vagaries of intellectual property; and we end with my favorite topic, censorship and its impact on the business of culture. We sum up with an art-museum treasure hunt and often an added picnic in Central Park, where we learn about the economics and civil rights of busking
This Spring 2020 semester was devastating. I cover so much in 14 weeks and the current-event-driven curriculum left me monographically confronted with only one news story--closure. How do you close down? How and when will you re-open? Plunging into "Distant Learning" and the struggle to Zoom-engage, has seriously left me reconsidering my options for the fall.
You've been having fun with fashion at home, sharing photos of yourself in fun outfits and such - but I have also noticed that you won't even go hiking without a string of pearls. Tell me about your passion for fashion.
I think I've been in costume my entire life. Major influencers were my Ginny Doll, Brenda Starr, Katy Keane, and Doris Day. My early training, which was too soon for Barbie, began with Ginny; she had tons of outfits. In the early 1950s, one could only dream of having all these lovely, put-together costumes with lots of matching accessories.
I also was a huge fan of Brenda Starr and read the newspaper comic strip every day for years. I've been searching the comic strip's archive to find the episodes where Brenda inherits a wealthy dowager's huge New York apartment along with her endless closets filled with glorious gowns, coats and smart daytime wear all accompanied by matching shoes, hats, scarves, gloves and jewels. My dream was to have such a closet filled with hat and shoe boxes from all the glamorous stores.
Katy Keene comics were also a passion; I had all her comic books; in fact, I'm sure I still have one or two. She died out about 1960, but Katy was a fashion sensation and often wore those late-1950s hostess pajamas-the ones with the floor-length split skirt billowing over capri pants; they left me enthralled. (I'm sure I've had a past life as a drag queen). At the back of every one of her comic books were cutout, paper-doll outfits, which she had worn in the episode.
I couldn't have been more than ten years old when these fashion idols influenced me.
But my incurable passion for matching accessories I truly owe to Doris Day's put-together ensembles in her "what-will-she-wear-next?" movies.
In high school, I made all my own clothes and was mad about gingham. I grew up in the suburbs. When you went into the City your mother made you wear white gloves You would never go into town "undressed". You always wore a hat and gloves. God forbid, if you wore anything as vulgar as sneakers; "they" would know you had arrived on the LIRR.
"Accessories are my life"-so true. I don't know who said that first-probably Barbie; but I wish I had. Today, I have a fabulous vintage, rhinestoned, costume jewelry collection. All sorted and stored by color of stone in a 15-drawer taboret. My bandboxed hat collection is in off-site storage; there's just so much you can fit into 450 urban square feet. I have traveled extensively to exotic places and while in India and Nepal a few years ago I made a killing acquiring the most beautiful pashminas. In 2016 to celebrate my 70th birthday, I took a 90-day, five-country, UK coastline trek. Along the way to conserve luggage space, my wardrobe development was limited to building up my glove collection, which was greatly enhanced by cashmere finds in Scotland and wools from Northern Ireland's Co.Donegal. My last trip to Paris landed me in a landmark Hermes scarf sale.
It has taken a lifetime to almost achieve my Brenda Starr-wardrobe dream.
Regrettably, no wealthy dowager has left me the fancy apartment. But as I remain incarcerated in the time of COVID-19, I amuse myself by wearing my best daytime pajamas and of course never ever without appropriate earrings.
How do you see the cabaret community moving forward after the surreal experience of the year 2020?
The year 2020? Convulsed by a perfect storm of civil unrest, a pandemic and an unemployment rate soaring over 20%, the nation has been strangled. Yet, although dependent on voice and breath, cabaret has not been silenced--a harsh metaphor indeed.
The struggle is the solution. When you have something to fight against you gain strength. You eloquently made this point in your recent article "Cabaret and Concerts in The Time of Coronavirus." This period is not on hold; it is time for incubation, growth, and action.
The economic model of the live, intimate room has collapsed-for now. The time will come again when some are selling sausages and beer while the performers pay to entertain. But as evidenced by your coverage of synchronistic and asynchronistic performances, the sturdy and devoted cabaret community is charting new territory online and is very much alive.
Post- pandemic Innovation and reimagining are now also charged with both civil responsibility and full-ranging temperament. More than ever we have something to say; let the brave voices soar! More risk will be appreciated!
Joan, who is helping you eat all the amazing food you've been cooking and showing on Facebook?
I am; my waistline will testify. The baked goods are shared with my downstairs neighbors who are always looking out for me. I am somewhat disciplined in wrapping individual portions of baked goods and freezing them. But I have given in to what I refer to as COVID-permission. Time to snap out of it.
I am so looking forward to when I can cook for others again.
All photos provided by Joan Darragh. Black and whites by Helane Blumfield.