BWW Interview: Deborah Stone of HERE I AM! at The Beach Cafe
Four years after dipping her toe in the waters of cabaret, Deborah Stone is wet, though no longer wet behind the ears. She is wet from the showers of applause and accolades from the colleagues she has come to call her cabaret family and from the fans who have begun to seek out her performances in clubs all over the city. A renaissance woman and well-rounded artist, Stone has a long history in the footlights. She has swapped out those footlights for a pin spot and her dance shoes for a microphone, as, show after show, she presents entertainments overflowing with sophistication, heart, and humor.
In her most personal show to date, Deborah Stone has announced HERE I AM! Working with a new director, the incomparable Lina Koutrakos, Stone comes into her own as the claim she has been staking comes to full-on fruition. No longer finding her voice as a cabaret artist, she has proven that these nightclubs are her artistic home, making a promise that she and her guitar will be here for her growing throng of fans, no matter what.
After playing a successful run at the downtown home of Alt Cabaret, Pangea, Here I Am! comes uptown to the cozy nook of The Beach Cafe for one delicious, intimate night of elegant and honest musical storytelling.
During the recent holiday madness, Deborah took out some time to get on the phone with me to discuss these last four years and what the whirlwind ride of success has all been like for her.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Deborah, your new show Here I Am! is getting a great response all around. What is your reaction to the feedback that you've been given?
Well, I'm excited and thrilled, and very pleased.
Much of a response that I've been aware of has been from other performers in the industry on social media. Have your colleagues approached you to share their thoughts about your show?
Yes, they have.
What's that like, having your fellow artists come up to you with such great feedback from your newest work of art.
It's gratifying, to say the least -- a wonderful feeling. I hold most of them in very high regard and so I'm very pleased and gratified that I've been sort of taken in and approved of by my peers.
Here I Am! is an incredible intimate journey into your life. Have you shared so personal a journey with your fans in the past?
Not to quite this depth, no.
And what prompted this particular intimate journey at this time?
My director Lina Koutrakos.
I know that the title of the show refers to a song in the show, but it clearly has a deeper meaning to you. Would you like to speak about that for me?
I'll tell you the way I found that song, If I may. I went into the magic of Google land and literally I wrote in "songs about here I am" because here I am was the statement I wanted to make and I wanted to find a song that would put that across. I found this one and I learned it.
So I'm very interested in why this statement, why at this time?
I am a woman of a certain age. I have had many lives in my life. This particular part of my life has been a new window, a new life that I never thought I would have. Three years ago, almost four years now, I did my very first show. It was January of 2016 -- the 10th of January, 2016 -- and that was the first time I did a cabaret show. Before that, I had been doing other things, dancing, acting, and singing. It was time for me. My shows up until this point have been letting people in just a little bit, not really opening up entirely because I was just getting my feet wet, just learning my way. I went in, totally eyes open, and not knowing anything really about the genre. It just felt like the right thing to do. I had to explore all those parts of me and all the talents that I did have and bring them together to start doing this. So when I met with Lina -- and she likes to encourage people to go deep, she doesn't let you skate over things! She takes down your life story and she'll move with it. So it was time for me to open up more. I had heard, peripherally, one or two people saying, "I wish she'd told us more about herself." And I know there's a fine line between opening up and giving too much information, going overboard. I wanted to make sure I didn't go over that boundary. So this was a particular time in my life where I needed to go deep and let people in a little bit more.
How does it feel being so open and vulnerable in a spotlight?
It's great. I don't feel particularly vulnerable. I don't feel that I'm sharing too much and I feel like I was doing it in a tasteful, accessible and understandable way. I thought I had stories that would interest people. Apparently I was right.
So for four years, you've been doing the freshmen and sophomore thing in cabaret. What, caused you to make the transition from playing characters and roles into going out on stage and being Deborah?
That's a very good question. I believe it was a gradual process. I would sing on stage in little productions that I was involved in as a straight actor. I'm a member of a theatrical organization called The Snarks, which is an amateur women's theatrical group, a club that has been in existence since 1909, and I did a lot of straight acting with them. And I got more and more to really like being on stage and exploring.
And creating these characters for The Snarks brought you to a place where you felt comfortable playing Deborah.
I don't know that I was specifically playing characters. I just found that every time I was given the opportunity to sing, I wanted to sing more and more in front of people. I had sung ever since I was a kid but it wasn't my primary art. It wasn't what I did. It was just something I could do. I started to discover this material of the so-called American Songbook and find the reality of singing, the truth of a song. I would get up and sing something and realize "I liked doing this and I have to figure out a way to do it better." First I would do songs from a show... I did a lot of folk songs, I played my guitar, that sort of thing. Finally, after studying voice for a long time and finding that my voice lent itself well to this other material, and all my acting classes and the musical theater classes --- I thought anybody can get up and sing, but not everybody can tell the story. You have to tell the story. All these things started to percolate in my mind and everything came together. I decided that I wanted to sing these songs -- each song has a story. You have to identify why you're singing each song. There wasn't a particular time when I said, "Oh okay, I'm going to stop doing this and start doing this." This evolved. It was the next step.
And you are continuing to work as an actor?
I'm actually involved in a reading coming up. I'm also a member of The Lambs
The Lambs and The Snarks.
The Snarks, yes. They have a great and deep history, and it's all women. I got a great deal out of it. I hadn't ever really focused on doing straight acting but. I got involved with them and they started to cast me and I said, "Geez, I better learn my lines and I better be good!" So that was also a very gratifying exploration later in a life of getting away from being just a dancer to exploring the other ways of performing.
I've seen your show, so I know parts of your journey. You started as a dancer, you did musicals, and then you segued into saying lines, and now you've got the stage all to yourself every time you do your club act. So you've run the gamut in the business. What's it been like to test the waters in so many different corridors of the entertainment industry?
It's been thrilling. I don't seem to be afraid. What they say about women of a certain age is that more often than not, they become a lot more confident. I know what I can and what I -- not can't do, but things that might be my weaknesses or what I need to work on. I'm more willing to jump in and take a chance. And I'm amazed most of the time when I get up on stage. I always say fear is my driver. I better do this. I've got to do this. And I've learned a lot watching other performers -- what I should do, what is best to do and what is best not to do. I've learned a great deal from watching other people.
Of all the different areas of the business in which you've worked, what has been the most interesting of the jobs?
The first thing that comes to mind is when I was a little girl in The Metropolitan Opera Ballet and I was supering on the stage of the old Met Opera House from the time I was nine years old, with famous people that I didn't know were famous because I was just a kid in operas. I didn't know anything about them because I was just a kid sharing the stage with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker, all these amazing people on this major stage, just as a kid. That was interesting.
At nine you were onstage with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf?
They were doing Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss and they would use supernumeraries. They would take the little ballet students and they would put them in, they paid them three bucks or something a show. And they put you in the staging. You'd have to be the kids or the monsters or whatever they needed. And I was one of the little orphans and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was The Marschallin.
As a child in a dance school, you ended up working as a super and that led to a lifelong career in the business.
Yes, I would think it did.
If you had a young person in your life who looked up to you as a role model or a mentor and they told you they wanted to go into show business -- what would your advice to them be?
Oh my god. The business side is something I don't know a whole lot about... but if you have to really, really want to do it because you don't go into it for money right away, god knows we don't make money at it. If you have to dance, go dance. If you have to sing, go sing, and you'll find a way. I would just say be very, very sure that you really want to do it.
And clearly you have that need because you are still doing it.
I really do. I find that when I sing now, I don't think about anything else except for what I'm doing right at that moment, which is the most wonderful thing. They're always saying "Be present, be in the moment." It's absolutely true. I don't think about my mortality. I don't think about awful things that have happened in the past or what might happen in the next 10 minutes. I'm right there and this is a gift. It's this place that you go to of just being right there and telling the story. I find that it's just magic. It's magic.
You're very good at it.
Well, thank you very much
I have had an opportunity to see you in some group shows and see how you work with other people in their shows, like the Meg Flather Cabaret Sisterhood. I got a chance to see you play the guitar in that. So you're not only a vocal musician, but an instrument musician. How did that come into your life?
When I was 13, for some reason my mom got me a $10 guitar over at Klein's - there used to be a department store on Union Square called S. Klein On The Square. I don't know why, I must have had an inkling that I wanted to play, but it was a $10 guitar and I went and took folk guitar lessons at the Third Street Music Settlement (when it was on third street, it's since moved to 11th street.) I started taking folk guitar lessons, learning how to pluck and learning how to strum and singing songs. And I just took to it and I learned very quickly. That's how I've been, throughout. I take the tools and I run with them. I don't like to be in class for very long. And I said, "Okay, thank you, I know how to do this now." I stopped taking lessons and just went on by myself -- I'd play records and learn the songs from the records I had, I'd put the needle on and listen, take the needle off, write down the words, put the needle on, listen, take the needle off, write down the next words, and I would learn by ear the songs that I wanted to learn. I ended up playing in a restaurant on the weekends, a couple of weddings, stuff like that.
I'm so grateful for Google lyric search, but I do miss the days of putting the needle on, taking the needle off, putting the needle on, because you really learn the words of the song when you have to write them out longhand.
I do anyway because that's how you memorize things. I've re-setup my turntable and I have my many LPs that I do listen to once in a while.
It's a joy to slide that great big 12-inch disc out of the jacket, and hold the jacket in your hand, and buy records from the guy on the corner.
I remember the first record album I bought was the Beatles of course, but I think one of the second albums I bought was Cream, Disraeli Gears, for $2 at the Woolworth's on 23rd street. $2 and I still have that record.
Your first record album was a Beatles record. Which one?
The first one. Meet The Beatles.
Mine was the movie soundtrack to Hello Dolly.
Oh, I didn't go to musicals. I know nothing about musicals. I had no musicals in my background.
You're a pop singer.
I was a folk singer and I was a class trained classically to sing. I took classical lessons, but because I was a dancer. And then I got into jazz dance because I was a bigger girl and you know, that's another thing. The dancing ...I'm five, eight and a half, and I was never skinny-skinny (although I was and I didn't know it, you know, because dancers are crazy about their weight). But I remember my problem was because of my size -- I was a ballet dancer, but I'd go to ballet auditions and they'd say I was too modern simply because of the way I looked. And then I'd go to take a modern audition, they'd say, "Oh, you're too balletic." So I really couldn't fit in anywhere. And then I started studying jazz dance with Lynn Simonson and I had found my glory. I became a really good jazz dancer and I got work as a showgirl and I loved it. It was, again, finding a genre that worked for me that I could bring my talents to. So, that was an eye-opener.
You just mentioned how you were a showgirl. In Here I Am! you say that you had to let your mother know that you were performing topless and she was down with it. And you just mentioned that your mother went out and got you a guitar. It sounds like your mother was very supportive of your interest in the arts. What was that like?
I probably didn't realize how lucky I was because she was always there. And she was a musician as well. She was a hundred when she died. She was an artist, a textile designer, and a chamber musician. I still have her piano that she played. She was very supportive, always. She loved that I was a dancer and she loved to hear me sing. A fond memory I have: when she was well into her nineties, I would sit down in the kitchen, we have the Bose in the kitchen because she'd like to listen to the music in the kitchen, and I had my little accompaniments of Schubert lieder and Schumann and I put the little CD into the Bose and she'd sit there at the table and I would sing An Die Musik or something like that. And she would just close her eyes and listen to me sing. It's a precious memory, a very precious memory.
In my writeup of your show, I said that I'd love to see you play Auntie Mame, but it sounds like your mother was Auntie Mame.
(Laughing) That's an interesting point. I would LOVE to play Auntie Mame, are you kidding me?
You need to play her.
I've never seen the actual musical. I've only seen the movie, which I adore.
Because it's the BEST! What makes Lina Koutrakos your choice for a director to guide you through your nightly journey?
My friend Sue Matsuki had told me about her. And I get an inkling about something and I run with it. I didn't think it through, I just said, I gotta go, cause I needed another director. I said, let me just go talk to her and see, cause I need somebody with that energy and I decided to call her up. I told her who I was and she said let's meet for coffee. We sat there and it was like we'd known each other forever, we just connected. She said she loves to work with older women who have a tale to tell. They have a life, they have something to bring to the table. I felt very comfortable. I didn't feel intimidated by her at all and I understand she probably can be intimidating because she's very straight forward but I loved the way she worked and I connected with her. This is exactly the person I need at this point in my life. That's what I felt.
And how many shows have you done together?
Well, this is the first show we've ever done together.
What was it like?
I absolutely loved it! To have to do subtext for just about every word you say is a wonderful way to start. Then just go up there and roll with it. You know it's like when you learn your technique as a ballet dancer, you don't go up there thinking about tendus and plies. You learn the thing and you go out there and you do it! So I valued her input terrifically. It made me a better person. Made me a better person.
Lena is a master at breaking it down. She really digs deep.
But it's not too much. It's just what it needs to be, just enough to get you there and make you realize even more how important it is.
Do you still go to ballet class?
I don't. I've got very bad knees. I'm going to need new ones at some point. I do work out every day. I do my jazz dance warm-up and I go to the gym and I do the elliptical. I keep myself as fit as I can at this point. I taught for a very long time. When I came back to New York, I couldn't get any work as a fitness instructor. It broke my heart. I think the tides were changing as far as the types of fitness instructors they were looking for at that time. I miss it a lot, but I still love to dance and do it on my own.
As a fitness instructor, do you do any private work?
I haven't, maybe that's something I should explore it.
You should look into it. There are a lot of fitness instructors in this particular industry. Dawn Derow is one.
I could rent a studio and I've thought about it. Trust me.
Well, this is the conversation that you and I should probably have. We'll have a pot of tea and talk about fitness for the people of a certain age. And that's my next point of conversation. You've mentioned a couple of times that you are a woman of a certain age.
There are a lot of women in cabaret, as you say, of a certain age. What's the experience like for you?
What's the experience like being in the cabaret world at this age?
Well thank god, I think it's one of the few things you can still do. Like Lina says, you have something to bring to the stage, you have stories, you have a life. I also think that I have the goods to back it up if I may say. I'm fortunate enough, I can sing, I can move, all these things I've learned and I've worked on... I feel that I have a strong product to bring to the stage.
And you have a wealth of interesting stories.
I think we all do. And you don't realize it until you start telling it to somebody else.
We are living in times of incredible change. Do you see any of those changes from the world around us filtering into the world of cabaret,
Kicking and screaming. I think we're trying desperately to not let them come in. I think our, in my estimation, our job is to entertain people, and it's to move people, and it's not to... if I want to sing protest songs, that's a whole other story. I'm not doing that. I know most of the people that I work with or know, they're not doing that. They're trying to bring entertainment, pleasure, joy, emotion onto the stage and leave the rest outside. That's, in my opinion, that's what we're doing. That's what I like to do.
So as you said earlier, four years ago, you entered the nightclub world - how did the community welcome you?
Very well. I felt I was gracefully accepted. It's sort of starting with a small circle and expanding out. I felt that whatever I did, I was learning. I was trying to get better. I didn't know what I was doing for a while really. But I had a grace about it and I wasn't pushing myself to force myself on anybody because I knew very well that I was new, that even though I was older, I was new. I had to find out how you worked at. Luckily I was able to gently come into that world and graciously and gently be accepted and appreciated, little by little, and that was fine. That was fine with me.
What were your freshman shows like?
The first one was called "The Good, The Bad, And The Lovely" and I particularly liked that name. It was just telling people, sort of saying "These are songs I love to sing" and I found a thread or a reason to sing them. I was exploring just beautiful songs that I love to sing, and characters! The second show I did was called "Exactly Where I Belong." The third one was "Still Exactly Where I Belong" where I took stuff from all the previous shows. I was making a statement: I'm doing this now and I really like it and I really want you to like me. Putting myself out there. It seems like it was so long ago, but it really wasn't.
It's an interesting point of view because four years seems like nothing. And yet it feels like a longer journey.
It really does. I was just wanting people to hear me and see me because, I guess, overall my life as a performer, I wasn't quite enough for this dancing, or I was not accepted, or the choreographer thought I learned slowly... but once I learned something, I remembered it. It was just that I always felt like I was catching up. So I really wanted to make a mark. I really wanted to prove myself. I want it to be good at this.
Here I Am! plays The Beach Cafe on January 11th at 9:30 pm. For information and tickets please visit their website.
Find Deborah Stone online at her website.
All photos of Deborah Stone by Eric Stephen Jacobs.