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BWW Feature: Pandemic-Informed Art Is Acceptable, It's Valuable, And It's Just Fine

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When will the artists at the mic cease talking about the pandemic? When they are good and ready.

BWW Feature: Pandemic-Informed Art Is Acceptable, It's Valuable, And It's Just Fine A cabaret journalist wrote an article in which they made a passing but pointed remark about the pitfalls of seeing pandemic-themed club acts, particularly two within the same week. At first blush, the comment struck the tiniest of nerves in my brain, but as one day after another ticked away on the clock of my life, the sentiment continued to roll around inside of my head, like a metal ball inside of a steel drum, and I found myself awake at midnight last night, writing down the arguments I could make in favor of the artists of the cabaret community, indeed of any arts community, continuing to use their art in order to express that which they felt and feel regarding the last fifteen months of our collective existence.

The small venue performing art form is one based on making an intimate connection with the audience - that's the point of the small venue: the performer can see the people, sometimes all the people, in the room and there is any chance that, at any moment, they are going to have a personal connection with every single pair of eyes, every active mind, every beating heart in that room. That is why the audience chooses that small room, for the connection, because, honestly, once you have paid your cover and paid your food and drink minimum, you could have bought a discount ticket to a Broadway play, where there is a fourth wall and a substantial distance between you and the people on the stage. In a nightclub, the artist is a mere few feet from you, telling their story, a story you, apparently, were interested in hearing, and an artist with whom you, apparently, were interested in connecting.

On April 2nd, The Green Room 42 re-opened their cabaret room. On May 4th, Don't Tell Mama resumed performances in The Original Room. On June 17th, Feinstein's/54 Below unlocked the doors to the basement. On July 1st, Birdland eased back into action. Piano bars around the city have been welcoming their regulars back to the upright, and the West Bank Cafe added complimentary live music to their menu... and though this writer wasn't at every single event that has played during the last one hundred three days, it would not be difficult to list every actor who has stood before a microphone and mentioned briefly, discussed in detail, or built an act around the global pandemic of 2020 - all one would have to do is look at the log of articles I have written since going back to work. That would mean every single artist I have seen has mentioned the outbreak, including those ten-plus singers who appeared in "Celia Mei Rubin and Friends Sing Seth Bisen-Hersh" - that's ten people in a row, in ninety minutes, to get up on a stage and say how great is was to be back in front of an audience or how much they missed live performing or how rough the pandemic was on them or ... well, you get the idea. And it was alright. It was alright when Leanne Borghesi did an entire show about her fictionalized pandemic journey. It was alright when Robbie Rozelle revealed the result of quarantine at his house: depression and anxiety. It was alright when Nicole Henry alluded to an entire quarantine without any *ahem* companionship. It was alright when Jackie Theoharis told a room full of club-goers that her pandemic coping mechanism was a three-month-long bacchanal in the Greek Isles. It was alright when Susie Mosher introduced her quarantine pastime to the sold-out Birdland crowd: her son, Hudson, born three days before lockdown. It was alright. All of this was alright, and it's going to continue to be alright.

To the people who grow weary of pandemic prattle in cabaret creation, I might offer that all art is informed by the life experience of the artist involved in the act of storytelling. In her book JOURNAL, photographer Annabel Clark documents the battle her mother, Lynn Redgrave, had with breast cancer. Truman Capote, famously, documented the existence of a favorite relative in both THE GRASS HARP and A CHRISTMAS MEMORY. The litany of songs written about real-life people has been the subject of many lists on Google, Buzzfeed, and any number of online sites.

Writers write what they know, painters paint what they see, and performing artists share what they feel. Plentiful are the works of art born out of the personal experiences of the artists, experiences they have lived, battles they have won, triumphs they will remember, each one a personal badge of honor or emotional scar. If, though, an entire planet of artists goes through the same experience, that experience will define the artwork of the era in which the happening occurred. When Norm Lewis cried out, during his 54 Below Premieres virtual concert, "Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!" it was December. It is now July and Darnell White recently sang his song "A World Like That" about the experience of being black in America - not just in 2021, throughout history - but especially in 2021, when America has seen more senseless killing of black people than ever, because the killing is at the hands of people whose job it is to protect lives. Nobody has suggested that artists cease creating art informed by racism and bigotry; imagine a world without "Strange Fruit" or "A Change Is Gonna Come." No. That cannot exist. Ari Axelrod does an entire evening dedicated to his love of his favorite things: Broadway and Judaism - the show is so popular it has spawned a baby sister that will open during the upcoming season. The city of New York just came out of a month of celebrating Gay Pride, and nightclubs around the city had LGBTQIA+-themed shows - 54 Below did an entire month of programming based on Gay Pride. No one has belittled the abundance of gay stories on the stages of Manhattan, indeed, those shows have been lauded and celebrated. Throughout the coming year, there will (hopefully) be cabaret and club acts created specifically for Women's History Month, Black History Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, National Arab Heritage Month, and any other periods of observation that exist or need to be created along the way. The mere fact that people live to create art that honors so important a part of their lives as their genetic makeup is beautiful, for the art being created has value, and should be welcomed.

But life is more than who we are - life is what happens to us. And if art is going to reflect life, if experience is going to inform the work of the artists, then everyone must accept the artwork that is being made for the importance and quality of the artwork itself, not the art that came the week before, the day before, even the hour before. Each time a person walks into a cabaret theater, a nightclub, a dive bar, a comedy club, a piano bar, a burlesque, a drag bar or any other performing arts venue, it is not only a pleasure to leave behind the experience of the last show they saw, it is an obligation, even - no, especially - if the person walking into the room is a reviewer who is seeing several shows in one week.

The actor you are about to see has no idea what you saw before them. That singer has not been informed that, yesterday, you saw another performer who built an entire show around their pandemic experience. The only thing the storyteller you are about to see knows is that they have to go out there and give you their best, they have to tell you their story, they have to entertain you, they have to be a conduit for your emotions and your intellectual stimulation. When you judge a club act based on anything other than the club act itself, you disrespect the artist who is putting theirself on the line, and you do a disservice to yourself because you are depriving yourself of the full journey intended for your pleasure, for your illumination. You might just as well have stayed home and watched a rerun of Night Court, because your mind was already made up the moment you decided to see two similar shows in the same week. And let's be honest: there are show descriptions that tell you what you're seeing. There are websites, and postcards, and press releases, and news items that describe each show playing in each club. Heck, it's even in the titles. David Sabella: Pandemic Relief. Karen Mason: Vaccination' Rhythm. David LaMarr and Darnell White: Fully Vaccinated. If you have the feeling that you're tired of pandemic shows, chances are you probably shouldn't book yourself in to see these shows, especially two in one week.

The pandemic is still here. There are still people getting sick, there are still people dying, and there are still people processing their emotions, and there will be for some time to come - it's a foregone conclusion, and everybody loves a big, fat, forgone conclusion. The artists of the world use their artistry to comment on the times in which we live. Movies and TV shows and books told the story of September 11th, some of them as quickly as four weeks after it happened. Every hour-long medical drama on network television this last year has told the pandemic tale, in one way or another. It is our duty as observers of art - and we do have a job in the exchange between artist and audience - to allow them to create in the manner that, best, suits them. Once they have completed their creation, should we not judge the work on the work itself? Let us leave our baggage at home when we enter a nightclub, let us enter the room an empty vessel, a clean slate, an open mind. Let us make a present to the artists of the respect they deserve, and let us give ourselves the gift of the theatrical experience we warrant - one with no preconceived notions, no ready-made judgments, no intentions of disliking a work of art just because it is something that has been built upon a topic about which everyone else is already talking anyway.

Let us not waste our time in the theaters by walking in the door with our minds already made up; it's so much better to check the baggage at the door... or, better yet, to unpack it altogether.


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