BWW Interviews: BENDING THREADS Cabaret Troupe Presents 'Legends'
On March 28, 2009, any number of other things may have happened, but for some cabaret fans, the date marks the first performance by the cabaret group BENDING THREADS. In an area where groups come and go, that they've stayed together performing for four years and are still going strong is a prime indication that something is working - as are their 2010 and 2011 nominations for Best Group and Best Musical Director from Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs.
Bending Threads is a group of two men and two women, Rejinald Woods, Westley Todd Holiday, Patrice Bell, and Kareen Foster. The first three were at college together at University of Central Florida, while Foster met Woods while they were working together at a Manhattan theatre.
The story has been told before but bears repeating: When Woods heard a Broadway producer comment that there seemed to be an insufficient pool of African-American talent available, Woods decided to put talented African-American performers like (and including) himself on stage by creating an act. By joining with his three friends, Woods was able to create an act. In keeping with the theme of African-American talent, they also decided to incorporate African-American literature, and their first show, "We Wear The Mask," was inspired by the work of author Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Does that restrict their audience reach?Holiday: Not at all. Poetry fuels our passion. Although we look at African-American poets as the basis for our message, that message reaches everyone.
Woods: When we do our annual holiday show, it's not just a Christmas show. We have to do Hanukkah numbers - we have a pretty big Jewish following.
Woods adds that all of the performers they work with are not necessarily African-American: For our holiday show and our annual BT And Friends show, we bring in other current performers, but we want to showcase people who are talented but don't get opportunities. We started because African-American performers don't always get noticed, but other talented people don't, either.
How did they choose the name "Bending Threads" for their group?
Woods: We were brainstorming at Starbucks. We thought of bending as being something different in our shows - that we were breaking the rules of traditional cabaret. And threads - the show is a tapestry, and each of us is contributing something different to the mix.
Kareen Foster, who also does studio and singer/songwriter work, is the one of the group not from University of Central Florida; she attended the musical theatre program at Westminster Choir College. That's been a training ground for many performers.
Foster: When I entered, Westminster had just started their musical theatre program. The theory I learned there was wonderful. It made me a stronger musician. My teacher was Christopher Arneson, and he was excellent.
The other woman in the group, Patrice Bell, has also worked in web series and with area theatre companies, but music is in her blood.
Bell: I'm a former violinist. But I hated to practice! Singing seemed easier... and here I am now! I did the web series SIX OF ONE. It wasn't big, but a lot of people remember it. You can find it on YouTube. I've done stuff for The Onion, too.
As for the seeds of the group, Bell looks back further than 2009: We met at college. Reji was the first other student I met. And Westley and I worked together in a lot of regional work in Florida. I saw a lot of the Broadway Palm.
Holiday works as a vocal coach as well as working 9 to 5 daily at the Hospital For Special Surgery, but also serves as the musical director for Bending Threads.
Holiday: I have a private studio; I do callback work for people with audition issues. But I also work full-time; I couldn't produce our shows if I didn't have a 9 to 5 job. But with the studio and the hospital, I see people - all kinds of them. It helps me know how to pitch our shows to regular people, not just to other people in the business.
Their current show, Legends, was just performed at the Underground Lounge on the Upper West Side. In it, each of the singers takes the songs of a specific African-American jazz giant - Holiday takes Duke Ellington, Bell takes Lena Horne, Foster sings Ella Fitzgerald, and Woods takes on the gender-bending, as well as the emotional, task of singing Billie Holiday.
Woods: I discovered Billie Holiday when I was 12. I had a cassette of her stuff. I've always wanted to be able to do some of her work. So this is my chance.
Foster: We want to develop this show more - make it longer, cover more material by these artists. "Legends" is a work in progress; all of our shows have developed and grown, and this one will, too.
Bell: It's a lot of fun to do this show. We're not doing impressions of these performers; we're just singing their songs ourselves. Each of us sings some of our individual legend's hits, but we also sing duets and there are some group numbers for all four of us.
Holiday: Putting this together was challenging, but we've loved doing it. Our inspiration was Langston Hughes' poem "Juke Box Love Song." It's recited at the beginning of the show, and a copy of it is in the program. "Take Harlem's heartbeat, make a drumbeat" - what these legends were doing was making a kind of people's music, and we're bringing that back to people now. You don't want this music to disappear.
Foster: This is a short show right now, but singing Ella's songs - there's so many others I could add. That's true for all of these greats.
Bending Threads currently performs two to four shows a year, but hopes to increase the number of performances of their shows. According to Woods, they're considering a manager for the act - they want to continue producing their own shows, but having someone else handle the bookings would relieve them of a burden, since each of them works elsewhere - Bell at Exhale day spa, Woods as an actor with Sight and Sound Theatre in Lancaster, PA.
More information about upcoming shows for Bending Threads can be found at their webpage, www.bendingthreads.com, as well as at their Facebook page.
Photo: M Rogers