BWW Interview: Lennie Watts' SINGNASIUM Molds Cabaret Singers
I've heard it said that cabaret is a dying art. I may have even said it myself during a younger, more cynical time in my life, sometime in the 90s. Each day, though, I look at the calendars of the cabarets and nightclubs, seeing what needs covering by the cabaret page at BWW, and I can say, unequivocally, that cabaret is neither dying nor dead - the art form is alive and well and filling the rooms of this city, and probably cities around the country, even the world. Maybe the person singing on Friday night is an award-winning actor creating work for themselves until their next role comes along. Perhaps the artist performing on Tuesday night is a young person, right out of school, looking for experience. There's a chance there is a midlife crisis happening to a frustrated performer looking to check something off their bucket list. Whatever the reason for a person's appearance on a cabaret stage, the nightclub community will welcome them and show them they belong.
But it's a new world for many of these emerging artists, and there is much to learn about making a life on the cabaret stages of New York City, from performance technique to writing a show, from marketing to music reading - and a lot of these artists could benefit from the knowledge amassed by the people who have gone before. Knowledge, though, doesn't trickle down, and it isn't just sitting online waiting to be discovered (though you can learn to do anything online, the sources may be a little or a lot dubious, with questionable results). Naturally, there are masterclasses, symposiums, lessons, all of which cost enormous sums of money and, let's be honest, nothing comes free. Teachers, coaches, guides all have a skill set that they are passing on, and in that "teach a man to fish" vein, the money paid to learn those skills becomes money earned when you begin to apply those skills, so it should be a pride, a joy, a privilege to pay these craftspeople to light the way, to act as your cabaret Yoda, to set you on the right path. If a person is lucky, though, there can be found places to learn where the class to tuition ratio is affordable, the teaching staff, reputable, and the classroom nearby.
Singnasium is the name of a non-profit organization dedicated to molding cabaret artists out of people with a dream. Created by cabaret industry staple Lennie Watts, Singnasium is (as the song would suggest) a Song Gym, where singing artists can learn, practice, fine-hone skills, brush up on skills, learn new techniques, and "learn to fish" and always in a safe space, a judgment-free zone, with guidance from actively employed members of the industry. Right here in New York City, there is a place to turn to, when you are ready to do your first nightclub act, whether right out of college or right out of retirement.
I recently reached out to Mr. Watts to ask him about the creation of the not-for-profit organization, and to learn what Singnasium is teaching people these days.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Lennie, you are the creator of the non-profit arts organization called Singnasium: Using one high-concept sentence, tell me what Singnasium is.
Singnasium is a safe place for singers of all levels to work, grow, and find their community.
What prompted you to create Singnasium?
I had been teaching for nearly 30 years - it just seemed like the next logical step. I saw a need for a place where people could go that was one-stop shopping, a place where people of all levels could stretch themselves, express themselves, and be a part of a community of like-minded individuals. I also knew so many wonderful, passionate artists who were able to share their knowledge, talent, and experience with others.
How long has Singnasium been around?
We are finishing our first full year of classes. We started the process in 2017.
If I were an artist looking for something to help with my career but didn't know about Singnasium, what keywords on a Google search would cause Singnasium to pop up?
We are actually working with someone now for optimization! Singing NYC, singing classes, Cabaret classes,
What is it that Singnasium offers that artists need?
So many things. Students get exposed to a great roster of teaching artists, all of whom are at the top of their game in their chosen fields. They get to work with wonderful musicians who are highly skilled, patient, and passionate about what they do. They get to work in group settings with other like-minded artists who then become their community. We are adding different classes and have a list of more to add in the near future. We try to cover all genres and styles of singing.
What kind of people have you seen come through Singnasium since you started the program?
Beginners, Broadway performers, retirees, people who stopped singing to raise a family or work in the corporate world, drag queens, Rabbis, award-winning cabaret artists, young people just out of college. We have a diverse and incredibly interesting student roster!
Tell me one of your favorite stories about what you've seen from a student or students at Singnasium.
I've seen people go from sitting scared in the back of the room to jumping up to sing first and then singing in front of an audience. I've had folks tell me that they never thought they would actually be able to perform in a show or an open mic - people who were able to make strides in other aspects of their lives because of the confidence they gained singing.
You have some really qualified instructors working with you, how do you manage to get people like Karen Mason to come work with your students?
I ask! I am fortunate enough to have a great group of folks that I have met and worked with over the years. When I tell them about what we are doing, they want to be a part of it.
Tell me, how would your career have differed, had a Singnasium existed when you were just starting out in cabaret?
This is a great question, and something I think about all the time. There really wasn't anything like this back then. I did go to school for musical theater, and at my last evaluation, before I graduated, I was told that I would never make it in theater. I strive to make Singnasium a supportive, encouraging place. We are very much interested in making people aware of what they bring to the table, not what they don't! I guess if I didn't have that happen I wouldn't be doing what I am doing now.
You already have a super successful career as a performer and director, what is it about teaching that appeals to you?
I love watching people make progress. I love watching people realize that they are singers and have something to offer as an artist. Confidence is a beautiful gift to give someone and watching that process is thrilling. I have become a much better performer since I have been teaching.
Lennie, do you sing every day?
I do! Especially now, because I'm working on a new show!
If you could bring one artist from The Great Beyond to give a master class to your students, who would choose?
Follow Singnasium on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @singnasium and visit their Website