Guides and Tips, Theatre

How to Make it Through Vocal Rest Successfully

If you’ve been experiencing serious voice problems, you may elect to go on or have an expert prescribe vocal rest. It’s exactly what it sounds like: resting the voice and resisting any urge to use it until the muscles have time to recover. Just like you need to rest an arm or leg after an injury, you need to rest your vocal folds and the other muscles involved in vocalizing if your voice starts to hurt. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of vocal rest, read my primer on the subject here to get a better understanding first.)

Vocal rest is a simple enough concept, but accomplishing it may prove daunting. Our society is not conducive to operating without a voice. You probably don’t realize how active your voice is throughout the day! Making it through days or even weeks without speaking is surprisingly difficult. A day at work or school typically requires a lot of talking, but even if you’re only resting at home, the urge to talk to friends, roommates, family, even pets or yourself can sometimes be overwhelming!

Operating daily in silence is not something most of us are used to. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some advice before you get started! 

If you’re embarking on a journey of vocal rest, here are some tips to help you stay silent and ensure a full recovery!

Find ways to stop yourself from vocalizing absent-mindedly.

Easier said than done! If you’re someone who likes to sing, hum, or talk to yourself, you’ll find that vocal rest can be very difficult to stick with. Keeping your brain and mouth busy are two key objectives: when your brain is occupied, you’ll be less likely to start vocalizing on autopilot, and even if that fails, keeping your mouth occupied will help stop autopilot from turning into a performance.

Here are a few tips for avoiding an accidental slip-up:

  • Try sucking on lozenges or hard candies, or chewing gum to keep the mouth and jaw busy.
  • Possibly rethink your music choices for the time being. Instead of listening to favorite songs, listen to albums you’ve never heard before. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of singing along to a song you know well, can hardly sing a piece you don’t know! Alternatively, ditch song altogether and try instrumental music or podcasts.
  • When listening to music, focus on the instruments behind the singer. Paying attention to the lyrics or sung melody may prove infectious. Listening intently to what’s happening in the music keeps your brain occupied with the interesting things the instruments are doing, and may help you understand the song better overall.
  • Consider silent singing. Instead of vocalizing, listen to a karaoke track of a song and sing the song in your mind. Imagine there’s a music player in your brain supplying the vocals– you should not be making any sound aloud! Try to get the rhythms and pitches as accurate as possible. This requires a lot of concentration, but can be almost as beneficial for learning or practicing a song as actually singing it aloud.

This may prove one of the most difficult parts of vocal rest. Stay mindful!

Explain what’s going on to friends and family.

Send out a mass text or email to coworkers, peers, teachers, and friends so everyone is in the loop. Let them know you have an injury that needs repair, requiring adequate rest— which can only happen with understanding from others! Remember that a vocal injury is nothing to be ashamed of, and anyone who shames you for needing to go on vocal rest not only doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but is also quite rude. (Vocal injuries are not necessarily the result of misusing the voice or of faulty technique. Typically they are the result of a “perfect storm” of bad conditions, including air moisture and quality, dehydration, illness, menstruation, stress, and possibly use, so there’s 0 reason for anyone to judge your technique or health.) 

Spread the message so others understand why you need to stay silent and can therefore work with and around your needs. Once people understand that it’s a health issue, most will happily work to assist in keeping you healthy. 

Use nonverbal methods of communication where possible.

Texts, emails, or handwritten notes can pick up slack where basic hand signals can’t quite do your thoughts justice. It may take you slightly longer to express yourself than you’re usually used to, but nonverbal communication is possible! If you want to be heard, you can use assistive apps on your phone to type messages and then read them out loud for you.

One of the very small halos of light around the horrible dark void that is COVID-19 is that it has become much easier to operate in society without having to interact with strangers. It’s much easier now to order groceries, meals, or other necessities online without ever having to speak. If you have errands that need done while you’re resting your voice, these options are a big help. 

If you know some form of sign language, this is a great time to use it! Unfortunately not everyone around you will be able to communicate in this way, but it can help in certain instances. 

If you absolutely must use your voice, use it with extreme caution.

If you’re in a position where you simply need to speak, try to choose your words efficiently and speak gently. Avoid whispering or shouting, as these are two extremes usages of the voice that are both stressful to your vocal folds. 

Ordinarily, it’s helpful to think of your vocal energy on any given day like a bucket of water— there’s only a limited amount of water in the bucket, and once it’s used up, it’s gone. While on vocal rest, your bucket is already gone. You have an emergency thimble should you absolutely need it. Don’t use up that thimble willy-nilly! 

If your doctor has expressly forbidden any vocalization, then forget what I’ve just said and avoid using the voice altogether!

Talk to your doctor about any special concerns.

A doctor who frequently works with singers will be every performer’s lifeline when something goes wrong with their instrument! If you have any serious performing aspirations, you should find a good fellowship-certified laryngologist or otolaryngologist to start building a professional relationship with ASAP. While resources on the internet like this article may be helpful (I sure hope this one is helpful), a doctor’s input will always be far more valuable!

If you have serious voice concerns, or if you’re unsure how to adapt a part of your life for vocal rest, ask your doctor about your options. They will be able to help you much more than any online resources can!

Be aware of what else could be damaging to your vocal folds.

Even if you’re not speaking or singing, other actions can put pressure on your vocal folds. Coughing and clearing your throat are big vocal stressors, so if you’re on vocal rest, you want to avoid these as much as possible. If you feel the urge to do either, try drinking water instead, or sucking on a hard candy. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to strain and tighten the throat during daily activities, including lifting heavy objects, stretching, playing certain wind instruments, or even straining in the bathroom. You’ll want to avoid these as you would avoid singing or talking. 

Also, if you haven’t figured it out yet, smoking is very bad for your voice. Your vocal injury may be an eye-opener when it comes to the need to quit. Smoking will undo any of the efforts you make during vocal rest, so it’s best to quit altogether. Easier said than done, of course, but it is crucial you avoid smoking at least until your voice has fully recovered, and make every effort to quit as quickly as possible so you don’t cause yourself further harm in the future. 

Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of rest, and eating plenty of good food.

Your body can only repair itself if you’ve taken care of your basic needs! Just as you wouldn’t expect to recover from a bad illness or bodily injury if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t expect your voice to get better without giving it what it needs to thrive. Even if you wouldn’t normally consider yourself an especially healthy person, now is a great time to fake it ‘till you make it. Act like you’ve got this healthy living thing down pat while you’re on vocal rest so you can recover. Afterwards, your less-than-desirable habits will be a little less high-stakes. 

Take note of the air quality in your home, workplace, and general environment.

Is the air you breathe daily very dry? Is it full of allergens or pollutants? If possible, you may want to take action to fix these problems. An air purifier and/or humidifier (or dehumidifier is moisture is a problem rather than a solution in your case) could help you in recovery, and might help maintain your health going forward. Dehydration can contribute to voice problems, so keeping the air at a comfortable level of humidity (around 50%) is beneficial. If you wake up with a very dry mouth, throat, eyes, or sinuses, that may be a sign your air is too dry or full of allergens.

Pro tip: The human nose is designed to help filter the air we breathe. If you have a habit of breathing through your mouth, you’re not letting the nose do its job and breathing allergens and pollutants right into the lungs! That’s a poor habit to kick ASAP.

Watch out for acid reflux. 

Acid reflux is a danger for the throat even when your voice is in good shape. When facing a voice injury, it poses an especial threat. Stomach acid creeping up the esophagus can irritate the throat and threaten recovery. As a singer, you should be taking steps to combat the causes of acid reflux already— but again, if this is an area where you typically struggle, vocal rest is a great time to simply play-act that you’ve gotten the healthy habits down. Avoid fatty and acidic foods, eat well before it’s time to sleep, and take antacid medications as needed. 

If vocal rest at work/school is impossible, consider taking some time off.

Though this of course isn’t possible for everyone, if you are able to take some sick or personal days to cover your rest period, you may find this to your advantage. Time off can also allow you extra time to sleep in and focus on health instead of other responsibilities! 

Remember what’s at stake.

You probably need no reminders, but it’s helpful to keep in mind what you’re going through all this hassle for. Stay mindful about the risks so you can reap the rewards! Failure to follow through with vocal rest can result in more serious injury that may require surgery to repair, or could permanently damage your voice. Don’t beat yourself up (excess stress is counterproductive for recovery), but keep your goals in mind when you’re struggling to make it work. 

Don’t forget to ease yourself back into singing GENTLY!

Once your prescribed period of vocal rest is over, that doesn’t mean your voice is necessarily fully recovered. Pay close attention to any signs of pain or fatigue as you resume vocalizing. Resume speaking and singing as if you’re an athlete going through physical therapy on an injured limb. Take it one step at a time, and don’t try to bite off more than you can chew!

Try warming up gently for 5-10 minutes on your first days off of vocal rest. If you notice any pain or fatigue, stop immediately. If you feel like you can keep going, then continue with caution, but don’t push it! You’ll need to adjust your concept of your vocal stamina, and it may take some time before you’re able to return to previous capabilities. This also goes for the tone and quality of your voice— you probably won’t sound exactly the same as before, and definitely not without some rehab! Take it slowly and don’t rush yourself, or else you may injure yourself all over again.

Final Thoughts

Vocal rest is a useful tool for performers, but it can be difficult to execute. Stay as silent as possible, and be mindful of your health. Now is the time to use every possible tool in your arsenal to make sure you come out healthy and happy!

I hope this article was helpful, though I ask you keep in mind that I’m not a doctor or voice expert– merely a hobbyist performer who loves to share her expertise where she can! This article shouldn’t replace medical advice. If you’re sincerely worried about a vocal injury, please refer to a doctor instead of this post!

If you have further questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments!

Theatre, Theatre 101 Series

Theatre 101 Series: Your Starter Guide to Building a Character

The Theatre 101 Series is a set of introductory articles meant to explain theatrical concepts and situations to young actors as well as adult theatrical newcomers. View the whole series here.

As you begin your rehearsal process, you’ll likely hear a lot about the importance of building a character. What exactly does this mean, and how should you go about it?

As always in theatre, this is a highly personal process, and I won’t pretend to have all of the answers. Nonetheless, hopefully this article gives you a solid starting point.

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Guides and Tips, Theatre

Do This, Not That: Tech Week Edition

As I’ve previously expressed on this blog, I love tech week. It’s a semi-sadistic challenge that I adore overcoming. Preparing for tech week and figuring out how to maximize my chances of survival gives me an admittedly silly thrill. If you’re anything like me, or just looking to help your chances of not dying before your show, this article should come in handy. Here are five common mistakes to avoid during tech week, and five alternatives to take instead that will keep you happy, healthy, and in better performing condition!

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Actor Life, Theatre

The Single Most Important Skill in Theatre: Knowing When to Get the F*ck Out of the Way

I’ve spent my fair share of time building sets and working run crew. When surrounded by fast-moving set pieces, people carrying heavy objects, and other moving parts that could easily hurt you and others, you learn very quickly the importance of getting the f*ck out of the way.

I’ve also done my fair share of performing, and I’ve even done a little directing. In time, I’ve discovered that knowing when it’s time to just get out of the way is in fact the most important skill any theatre artist can develop.

Physically, mentally, and emotionally, sometimes the most important thing you’ll do on stage is just f*cking move and let the others do the work they’re there to do.

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Guides and Tips, Theatre

How 3 Key Concepts From English Literature Class Will Make you a Better Actor

“Is theatre literature?” is a complicated question– some say yes and others vehemently disagree– but no one denies that theatre requires many of the same skills your English literature classes demand. After all, in many ways, analyzing a script is procedurally indistinguishable from analyzing a novel.

If you are looking to become a stronger actor capable of creating more compelling characters and scenes, you may want to start paying attention in English class.

Here are three key ideas from every literature syllabus that will help you become a better actor.

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Guides and Tips, Theatre

What Does Taking Care of Your Voice Actually Mean?

Performers hear about it all the time— the importance of “taking good care of your voice.” For actors and singers, the voice is a crucial part of making a living. Protecting it is therefore paramount. 

But what exactly is involved in “taking care” of a voice? That phrase can mean a lot of things, after all. One takes care of a baby much differently than one takes care of a car, for instance. If you throw around this phrase without understanding fully what it means, we’re likely to miss a few steps. Unfortunately, just as in taking care of a baby, missing a few steps when caring for your voice can turn dire. So what does “taking care of your voice” actually mean?

Taking care of your voice means…

Getting to know your voice

You cannot care for your voice if you do not understand what a voice is. Even worse, if you don’t know what your voice is. 

Developing an understanding of how the voice works is crucial, but even before you do that, it would benefit you to focus on getting to know your own voice. Your voice is a part of you, a complicated mixture of genes, anatomy, history, habits, culture, and education. You’ve been using it since you were born, so even without understanding the complicated workings of vocal anatomy and physiology, you know instinctively how your voice should feel and function. You know what feels natural for you, what feels uncomfortable, and what hurts. This is important feedback from your body that you should always listen to. 

Exercise your voice regularly and develop a sense of where your personal quirks, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses lie. How does your voice feel at its best? Where does your range naturally lie, and what color or sound does your voice naturally tend towards? How long can you sing before you feel fatigued? What warmup routine makes your voice feel best, and how does that change day by day? How do things like allergies, tiredness, stress, or emotions manifest in your voice? Do any foods or medications invoke any changes?

Spend mindful time exploring how your voice feels. This is a necessary baseline for any vocal training you wish to pursue. You must become tuned-in to the messages your voice sends you while singing. 

Listening to what your voice and body tell you

Once you understand how to listen to your voice, you must, of course, listen to your voice. 

It’s fairly easy to tell when a particular technique, practice, or situation isn’t working. Your body tells you! If something hurts or feels uncomfortable, try to avoid it. If your voice feels fatigued, listen to this message and give it a rest. 

If you were taking care of a particularly cute puppy, and they didn’t seem to like something, you’d probably avoid making them do or put up with that thing. Treat your voice with the same tenderness. 

Becoming a lifelong student of proper vocal technique

A professional well-versed in the best way to use the voice is a mandatory part of your voice’s care team. Think of them like the trainer for your particularly cute puppy: You want both your trainer and puppy to be well-trained and excellent at what they do!

Although everyone is naturally equipped with a voice, we often develop harmful habits in using it. These “blockages” are often hard to recognize on your own. Therefore, voice teachers and therapists are crucial to developing the voice. Learning the most efficient way to use your voice when speaking and singing is a must, and they can help you get there.

Vocal technique involves learning to coordinate the muscles in the body to breathe and create sound in a comfortable, unrestrained way. Mastering vocal technique will free your voice from damaging learned habits and behaviors. 

Many performers forget that there is more to vocal technique than singing. Learning to use your voice well while simply speaking and projecting on stage is also necessary. In addition to a singing teacher, look for an acting coach who can help you train your speaking voice. 

Using your voice properly in EVERY situation 

Remember that the voice is not only used in singing or projecting, and therefore vocal technique applies to more than just performance. In other words, you must care for your voice whenever it is used.

Take care of your voice in your daily life. Extremes like shouting and whispering are damaging. Avoid these and anything else that causes pain. This may mean altering habits at school or work. If you often end the day with a sore, fatigued throat, you are likely overusing your voice, or using it in injurious ways. This is a sign that voice training or therapy will be beneficial!

Understanding your limits

Imagine you lived a sedentary lifestyle and then suddenly decided to become a runner. You probably wouldn’t start by trying to run a 5k. In fact, you’d probably struggle to run more than a few minutes at a time to begin with. You’d simply have to understand that your abilities are limited by genes, experience, muscularity, and stamina. 

Training your voice is much the same. Regardless of what training you may have received, every performer has personal limits to contend with. For instance, if you don’t use your voice frequently, you’ll probably lack the stamina to sing for long periods. If you regularly sing and speak in the low parts of your range, it will likely take some time and exercise to strengthen the top parts of your range. If you normally sing in a “legit” style, you’ll need to spend some time learning the rules and techniques of a pop-rock style before becoming comfortable with it. 

You may be able to surpass all limits with training, but understanding where the limits are to begin with is necessary for reaching such a point. Respect your limits, and avoid pushing yourself to dangerous extremes! Otherwise, you’ll fatigue yourself and possibly injure yourself before you get very far.

Understanding the risks

An important part of taking care of your voice is understanding exactly what will happen if you don’t. 

Failure to preserve and protect your voice can result in strain and injury. Educate yourself about what vocal injuries look and feel like. Understand what causes them, what you can do to prevent them, and what options you have for treatment should they arise. 

It’s especially useful to listen to the stories of performers who have injured their voices and made full recoveries! Too often performers are bombarded by worst-case scenarios and fear-mongering. Understanding what treatment and recovery look like is as important as understanding what leads to needing treatment. Natalie Weiss talks about her injury and recovery in this video from her YouTube channel, and here’s an excellent interview about Telly Leung’s survery and treatment. Here’s another great article about the realities of vocal injury on Broadway.

Learn about the risks not to scare yourself, but to understand that injuries happen and with the right intervention, recovery happens, too. 

If you want to learn more about vocal injury and recovery, I heartily recommend The Vocal Pitstop by Adam Rubin, which you can purchase (while benefitting an indie bookstore!) by using my affiliate link here!

Seeking medical intervention when you need it

If you believed your particularly cute puppy was getting sick, would you just hope it got better, or would you take it to the vet?

Don’t hesitate to seek out professional medical advice and intervention when it comes to your voice. It’s better to be safe than sorry! If you have pain, recognize a marked change in your sound, or if something just feels “off”, go to the doctor and see what’s up. 

If you understand the risks, you understand how important medical intervention can be. Don’t shy away from it, or you may ruin your voice beyond repair. 

Maintaining your performance health

Keep up with all the little habits your teachers and directors encourage— there’s a reason they’re encouraged. During the rehearsal process and performance, maintain adequate hydration, ensure you warm up and down properly, and take time to stretch. Avoid foods that might inhibit performance. Get enough sleep, while you’re at it. 

While performing, your body and voice are under a lot of duress. Therefore, it’s important to pay your health a little extra attention. The stress and strain of performing can easily make you more susceptible to injury, accident, or illness, so be diligent in your prevention efforts. 

Maintaining your full-body health

Your voice is not just limited to your vocal folds, nor only to your throat or lungs. Singing depends upon the work of many muscles and organs throughout your entire body. You simply cannot achieve your full performing potential if other health and lifestyle matters are holding you back. 

Basic health necessities are also basic necessities for success in performance. Eating properly, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep will have an impact on your performing capabilities. They’ll also help you avoid vocal injury and illness. When injury and illness arise, following up with medical intervention as needed is also important. 

Maintaining your mental health

Your voice is not just a product of your muscles. Your voice is a mechanism for communication and has evolved through millennia to suit that purpose. When you’re feeling stressed, tired, or upset, it’s no evolutionary mistake that it often comes through in your voice. 

It’s difficult to perform or sing well when your mental health and emotional faculties haven’t been properly cared for. Mental health problems can pose a real issue for the stamina and resiliency required in performing. Just as it’s important to have a team of health professionals and trainers to care for your developing voice, it’s important to have a team of friends, confidants, doctors, and therapists to see to your mental health. Once again, don’t resist professional intervention when you feel you need it. It can make a world of difference.

In summary

To summarize, taking care of your voice means getting to know your voice, listening to what your body and voice tell you, becoming a lifelong student of proper vocal technique, seeking and keeping up with excellent training, using your voice properly in EVERY situation, understanding your limits, understanding the risks, seeking medical intervention when you need it, maintaining your performance health, maintaining your full-body health, and maintaining your mental health.

Your voice is a complex entity that requires careful care and attention. Treat it well, and it will flourish!

Guides and Tips, Theatre

5 Apps That Will Help Improve Your Musicianship Skills

Do you wish to sight read or simply learn to read music better? Do you feel like you struggle to sing in tune, or feel like you don’t really understand exactly what singing “in tune” means? Do you feel that you’re an okay singer, but your lack of music comprehension is holding you back? If so, it’s time to consider practicing your musicianship skills. Don’t worry: it’s not as scary as it sounds.

“Musicianship skills” is an umbrella term that covers a lot of territory. Basically, it refers to everything that makes for a gifted musician: development of ear training skills, the ability to read music, a full understanding of your instrument and how to take care of it, the ability to accurately reproduce pitches you hear, or harmonize with them. These are highly desirable skills that make performers more versatile, independent, and ultimately, castable.

If you’re looking for ways to develop these skills, fear not: here are five apps you can download right now to help you get started.

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Analysis, Theatre

Performance as Falsehood and Sally Bowles’ Glorious Self-Destruction

“Leave your troubles outside. Life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here. Here, life is beautiful.”

This line is one of the first in Cabaret. In the final scene of the show, it is mirrored derisively, dripping with bitter irony. “Where are your troubles now?” The Emcee asks. “Forgotten? I told you so!” At this point, the lives of every character in the show have been made worse; the nazis are rising to power, our characters’ dreams and relationships have been ruined, and we can assume that more than one will soon be dead, or else suffer immensely otherwise. 

The message here is obvious: Ignoring your troubles leads to ruin. Don’t let yourself be distracted by singing and dancing and theatre— You must face reality. If we pretend our problems don’t exist, we will inevitably have to face them regardless. By the time that confrontation comes, we will be unprepared, and the problems might be too large to circumvent.

This is the main idea of the show. I’m not breaking any new ground by talking about it. However, this theme goes deeper than the events of the musical— it’s written into every single song, too. 

I’ll explain that in a moment. First, though, let’s talk about Sally Bowles.

Right before the COVID quarantine started I saw a local production of Cabaret that made some unique choices with the script. Some I enjoyed, others I wasn’t a fan of. One that immediately struck me as odd was the way the actress playing Sally decided to perform the titular song “Cabaret.” She decided to break down in tears towards the climax of the song, and perform it as though Sally is hurting, regretful of the decisions she has made. 

At the time, this choice simply felt wrong to methough I struggled to express why. Why shouldn’t an actress interpret her character’s inner life as she sees fit? There wasn’t anything in the script I could think of that directly stated that Sally shouldn’t be crying here. The actress humanized the character— isn’t that something to which most performers strive, anyway?

I returned to analyzing this scene many times, as the show is one of my favorites, as well as the song itself. My knee-jerk reaction was to say that Sally should not be sad during this song, but angry— violent, obstinate, and frothing in her own stubborn madness. She’s digging in her heels and deciding that she’s going to die on her terms— in a storm of drugs and liquor and passion— and no one else can change this trajectory. 

But is that just my interpretation? Why couldn’t someone else interpret this scene differently? Is my interpretation really “correct”? 

In unrelated Cabaret musings, I often wondered who exactly was writing these songs Sally sang in her performances at the Kit Kat Klub. That feels like a silly question to ask of a musical— like, it’s a musical, do you usually worry whether or not the characters came up with what they’re singing on the spot?— But context makes this situation different. “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” and “Cabaret” are all expressly in-universe performances. They are introduced by the emcee and performed to an on-stage audience as well as the real, live audience. Did Sally write these? Are any of the words she says truthful? Did she ever actually have a friend named Elsie, and did she really tell her mother she was living in a convent? Or are these just pieces of a song, as unreal to Sally as they are to the actress portraying her? 

Regardless of whether the events are real, the fact that these songs are a performance imply she isn’t talking about or reflecting on her real thoughts. To illustrate my point, compare “Don’t Tell Mama” to something like “The Wizard and I” from Wicked. In the latter song, the main character is singing as an act of introspection, reflecting on her feelings and emotions. She’s not singing to anyone, and it’s presented as though she is discovering her feelings as she’s singing about them. The song is expressly internal, and we, the audience, are merely peeking in on this reflective process.

“Don’t Tell Mama” or “Mein Herr” are different. These are not at all Sally monologuing her thoughts to herself and by voyeuristic extension the audience. She’s very clearly addressing an audience, and she’s presenting a story or information rather than personal thoughts or feelings. Maybe some personal feelings are involved, but analyzing her own thoughts or emotions is not Sally’s primary purpose. It can’t be, because first and foremost, this is a presumably scripted performance. 

But if our primary reasoning for deciding whether or not something is a “performance” comes down to whether the character is addressing an audience and if they are relating information or a story to that audience rather than reflecting on personal feelings… then by that definition, basically every song in the show is a performance.

Let’s examine this song by song.

“Wilkommen” is clearly addressed to the audience. The Emcee is certainly not monologuing his feelings, he’s just explaining things to us. We get the sensation, again, that this is a scripted performance, and while he might personally identify with or reject any ideas presented by his script, that isn’t his primary goal. His primary goal is to reach us. 

“So What” doesn’t seem like a performance at first blush, but under our definition, it is. Think carefully: Fraulein Schneider is addressing Cliff directly throughout the entirety of the song. She’s not introspectively, internally reflecting on her feelings— she doesn’t have to. Nothing that she’s saying is new to her. She is already intimately familiar with the thoughts she’s expressing to him— this song represents her established worldview. There’s no in-the-moment, personal discovery here. She’s explaining the story of her life and how she feels about it to her audience. In that regard, she’s performing.

As previously mentioned, “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” are in-universe performances.

“Perfectly Marvelous” also meets the same criteria as previous songs. Like in “So What,” at no point does Sally step outside of addressing Cliff to think about her own emotions— she merely addresses Cliff. We get the sense that she’s coming up with the song in the moment, but none of this is introspective or really about her feelings at all. It’s another performance. 

“Two Ladies” is addressed to us as well, and is pretty clearly a “performance” rather than anything genuine. This is the case for most of the Emcee’s songs. 

“It Couldn’t Please Me More” seems to stretch our definition slightly by virtue of being a duet, wherein the audiences are also the performers, performing to an audience who is performing back to them. Yet, again, there is no introspection in this song. Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are not internally considering their feelings, they are merely expressing them to their audience. 

“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a strange bird as well. According to the script, it’s a pre-recorded voice singing a propaganda song from a radio. Occasionally the pre-recording is forgone in performance, the director deciding to have a cast member sing it live. Regardless, by virtue of being propaganda, there’s no introspection here. The audience varies somewhat depending on your interpretation and the production you see— it may be us, whomever is listening to the radio, or the state of Germany as a whole— it’s hard to say with complete certainty. Nonetheless, it fits our definition of a performance, since it is directed to someone and is not a personal, emotional exploration. 

After this is “Money”, another audience-addressing performance by the Emcee, “Married,” another odd performance-duet as in “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me (Reprise),” which is another in-universe performance at Fraulein Shneider and Herr Shultz’s engagement party. “Married (Reprise),” same as “Married”; “If you could see her,” same as “Money”; “What would you do,” same as “So What?”; “I Don’t Care Much” same as “Money” (though admittedly there is room this time for debate whether this is an audience-addressed performance or a Klub performance); and “Cabaret” same as “Mein Herr” and “Don’t Tell Mama.” The finale is also addressed to us, same as “Wilkommen.”

Did you notice I skipped one? 

“Maybe This Time” is the ONLY exception to our rule. It’s possible different directors’ interpretations can muddy this fact. In some productions, this song is not a performance. Sally Bowles is not singing to anyone, and she’s reflecting on her own emotions. There’s no “performing” here, because the song is genuine, personal, and private. In other productions, Sally is given a microphone and this song is performed to us, as if this were another Klub performance. In this instance, the song would be a performance, and the actual meaning of the words to Sally becomes accordingly unclear. If this is only a performance, we have no reason to believe she is thinking or feeling what she is singing. 

However, given that at this point Sally is no longer performing in the Klub, the decision to present this scene as a Klub performance complete with a microphone feels poorly justified by the script. One could argue that she is addressing us, the audience, in a sort of theater of her own mind, but this is never done by any character in the show besides the Emcee, who is given free rein to break the fourth wall as he sees fit. (Remember, though the song “Cabaret” is sung directly toward the audience, it is technically framed by the Emcee’s introduction as a return performance at the Kit Kat Klub.) Ultimately, the script seems to encourage an interpretation which renders this song a personal, emotional exploration rather than a performance, because it gives Sally a genuine reason (for the time being) to stay with Cliff and hold off on an abortion. If this is merely a performance, then her motives for these decisions are unclear. 

One could argue that her reason for staying with Cliff is purely monetary and parasitic— he’s the one renting the apartment in which she currently lives and he’s spending the money he earns from smuggling on their dating life. However, Sally makes it pretty clear that she should have no problem finding another man to support her, and she lives a relatively nomadic lifestyle in this way. Just before “Maybe This Time,” she is about to pack her suitcase and leave. She mentions that she has never lived with another man this long and that she has dozens of offers to stay elsewhere. “Maybe This Time” must be her changing her mind about leaving Cliff— an introspective journey of personal, emotional discovery that expresses genuine thoughts— or she would simply leave when the “performance” that does not and cannot express her actual feelings is over. 

So what does this mean? Why does it matter that every song, barring one exception, is a performance?

Remember what the show’s message about performing is. 

Cabaret is, for the first hour or so, all about performance. It’s all dancing girls and sex appeal and funny comic songs. “We have no troubles here,” it says, and convinces you of that by encouraging you to be lulled to figurative sleep by the pure, hedonistic beauty of it all. (Cliff expresses this very same sentiment at the very end of the show, having also been lulled into a figurative sleep.) But all of this show biz is simply there to distract you from what’s really going on— Hitler is rising to power, and our friends are in danger. As the Emcee caustically repeats his remarks about forgetting your troubles from “Wilkommen” during the finale, he illustrates the efficacy of the concept of performance as distraction, and the show ends as a reminder to resist such distractions and stay awake to what is happening around you. Life is not just a cabaret, old chum— look out.

The idea, then, is that performance is meant to distract, confuse, and obfuscate. That’s what the first hour of the show is— hiding from the audience the upcoming tragedy by presenting us with what appears at first blush to be a sexy, comic love story. As the characters perform to us and each other, they are all hiding from their reality. They don’t stop to truly reflect and think about what’s happening— they’re merely performing.

This is what I mentioned earlier— how the show secretly reinforces its own theme, without our noticing at all.

But what does this mean for Sally Bowles and “Cabaret”? Does this affect how this song should be interpreted? Does it make one interpretation “right” over another?

If performance in this show is primarily meant to obfuscate, mislead, and ignore reality, then we can assume that no one is ever really singing their actual, real feelings. They might more or less agree with the words they sing, but we’re not getting a complete image of their thoughts, not really. They are catering, in some way or another, to their audience, and attempting primarily to captivate this audience. If this captivation requires bending the truth behind the words, so be it.

When Sally is singing “Cabaret,” we have no reason to believe any of what she is singing is true. We, the audience, can at this point tell that life is not just a cabaret, and that Sally is wrong.

But while we have no reason to believe Sally’s story about Elsie is real, we do have reason to believe that she thinks that “life is a cabaret.” After all, she says roughly as much multiple times— not in song, but dialogue. The dialogue in this show, in contrast to the songs, generally is about emotions and feelings, and while not all of it is trustworthy, the characters are seemingly far more forthright in their dialogue than their “performances”. After all, the show is relating the idea that the allure of pretty singing and sexy dancing women is a diversion from reality: quiet moments where two characters discuss their feelings on an abortion is not a fun performance the show would deride as deceit. Remember, it is only in dialogue that the rise of the third reich is ever directly addressed. Spoken word in Cabaret is not meant to distract from reality— in fact, it is the means the Emcee uses to express the main idea of the show to us during the finale. 

In act two, scene four, Sally notes that she believes politics have nothing to do with she and Cliff. Cliff prepares to flee the country, and Sally is confused, reminding him that they love their lives in Berlin. She doesn’t understand. She thinks nothing truly bad can happen. She really believes it. 

So even if “Cabaret” is merely a scripted performance— a song written by a stranger that has nothing expressly to do with Sally or her life at all— we know she identifies with the words she is singing. 

And keep in mind, Sally is the only character to ever show her true feelings in a song. It seems she lacks the practice at performing and hiding her feelings in ways other characters have mastered. 

So while “Cabaret” is a performance, Sally is expressing true feelings. She believes what she is singing. Whether or not the story is real, it’s all real enough to Sally. We have enough evidence to believe that she really means she wants to die like her “friend” Elsie, a prostitute apparently known for her drug and alcohol habits. And we can believe she has really “made her mind up” that life is simply one big party— “only” a cabaret— and nothing more important worth preserving. She is fully willing to stake her life on the song’s message. 

Therefore, Sally can’t be regretful during this song. Her confidence in her choices has not been shaken. She believes she is in the right. She is not seeing the futility of ignoring the world’s problems— she is adamantly, and, as far as we can tell, genuinely stating that she does not believe they exist at all. 

This song is not Sally Bowles coming to a new realization. “Cabaret” is Sally declaring plainly what she has already decided. She would not be upset. She would be obstinate, angry, and confident in the way that can only stem from deciding the problems of the world are not her own. As I proposed at the start of this essay, she is digging in her heels and declaring that no one will alter her course. This is Sally Bowles specifically selecting self-destruction right before our eyes. 

After all, though she is singing truthfully, she is merely performing. And as Cabaret tells us, in performance, you are not accepting reality— you are ignoring it.