Sarah-Louise Young: Cabaret in Character

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Sarah-Louise Young

Cabaret in Character

By Fiona Coffey for Cabaret Scenes

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Sarah-Louise Young’s gift for developing memorable comedy characters has secured her place as one of London’s most successful and musically versatile cabaret performers. Ranked as one of Time Out’s Top 10 Cabaret Acts and voted Best Musical Variety Act in the London Cabaret Awards, Young’s reputation was established through Cabaret Whore, a series of four internationally acclaimed shows running from 2009 to 2012. In these shows, Young introduced audiences to much-loved creations such as “La Poule Plombée” – a tortured French chanteuse; “Sammy Mavis Junior” – billed as a Country ‘n’ Western porn star cum philosopher and “Bernie St Clair,” an Off-Off-Off Broadway diva.   Seven comedy characters were developed in all, complete with their own original songs. These creations are a showcase for Young’s considerable talents as a singer and lyricist and her musical partnership with pianist and composer, Michael Roulston.

The potential of working in character was an early discovery for Young. “I’d started performing as myself about 15 years ago. I remember very clearly the first time I ever tried to string four songs together, holding the audience’s attention between them, and it felt like the biggest step I’d ever taken in my performing life. I realized it wasn’t just about having material.  It was about how I was on stage, what kind of world I was inviting the audience into.”

sarah louise imagesCreating a character proved to be a turning point. “I found that my natural persona, when I got under pressure, was to be a bit brusque and schoolmarmish. I though, ‘This is awful, I don’t like who this person is on stage.’ So I came up with Sammy Mavis Junior. She’s actually quite rude, but because she’s got a sweetness about her, I could say things as her that I couldn’t say as myself. She softened my edges.” The impact was immediate. “As soon as I stepped out in a wig and in a costume, half the work was being done for me. The visual image was so clear, the audience had already decided who I was and how I was likely to act, and I found it immensely liberating. I wasn’t worried about what to say. I had a lens through which to view the world which informed me.”

Subsequently, Young started to develop shows where she played herself in the first half, and Sammy Mavis in the second, occasionally acting as her own agent after the show, asking the bookers whether they liked “the American” and whether they would have her back. The positive response encouraged her to create more characters, including La Poule Plombée, Loretta the Librarian, and Eastern European performance artist Kasia. Cabaret Whore was born.

Young’s engagement with character in cabaret is unusual because it is both broad and deep. Unlike other artists who may develop a single alter ego or stage persona, she has developed several completely distinctive characters who frequently appear in the course of a single show. And rather than signaling a change from one character to another using one or two props on stage, Young goes for complete transformation, out of the audience’s sight. “It satisfies the actor bit in me, as well as the cabaret person – my ego loves the fact that I can play three different characters and some people don’t realize it’s the same person.” And when we dissect each of her characters, it is as if we are talking about people in her circle of friends. Young clearly wants her characters to be seen, loved and understood by audiences as whole personalities, not just vehicles for a comic turn. If they are victims, they are also survivors. If they are imperious, we can see their blind spots. Of Sammy Mavis she says, “I quite like the mixture in Sammy of being sexy, but also being a bit of a goof, a bit of a clown. I didn’t want to make her stupid, that doesn’t interest me.”

The process of creating a character is more intuitive than planned. “You put on a mask and wig and it suggests to you a voice, or there’s something about that item of clothing, or a piece of music that makes you walk in a certain way. I don’t intellectualize it.” Inspiration can come at any time. Young created Bernie St. Clair after seeing an American woman performing at the Leicester Square Theatre. “She was so emotional, and so happy to be there, even though she was doing the show in the basement, she felt it was The Palladium. At one point she said, ‘I’ve been so long getting here and I’m just ready for my somewhere-over-the-rainbow” moment.’ This line alone was sufficient inspiration. It was just this idea of a person whose view of her world was not quite how everybody else saw it and I thought, ‘That’s an in.'”

Accidents can also play an important part in shaping character. “The very first time I did La Poule, I put the dress on back to front and had no time to change it. Had I worn the dress the correct way it would have revealed quite a lot of cleavage, but it ended up cutting me off at the neck. It made her much more stern than I had intended.” Bernie’s character also evolved as a result of a quick change. “I hadn’t had time to put one of my earrings on and my shoulder pad was out of my dress. Suddenly that became part of the act. Bernie talks to the shoulder pad like it’s a little chick. Her drunkenness came from me being in a bit of blind panic.
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It’s joyful when things like that happen.”

sarah louise imagesOnce characters are “launched,” Young pays great attention to their evolving relationship with the audience. In discussing Bernie, she recalls, “The first few times we did her, I thought, ‘Why don’t people like her?’ I realised the focus of her angst and victimhood was the audience, which meant they were being cast in a role of people who had let her down or not supported her. Not very pleasant for them. So we created an ungrateful, money-grabbing, backstabbing daughter for her, off-stage. That changed everything. It meant that the audience was her ally rather than her aggressor.” Young’s conclusion is that “From the inside I have to love my characters, flawed as they are, and from the outside, the audience has to find something that they warm to or relate to, even if they wouldn’t necessarily pick them as friends in real life!”

I was struck by the psychological insight that Young brings to her work and how it informs her craft. Our conversation frequently wandered quite naturally into themes of personal psychology and human development — a shared interest — and something that Young is comfortable to explore quite openly. “There may be something in playing with all these characters that I get to inhabit the extreme versions of myself. Because they are giant creatures— and I think if you present a heightened or magnified form of behavior to an audience, they will see themselves in it, but they will feel safe because they’re not quite as mad or as big as that.”

Sarah-Louise Young’s portfolio of work extends way beyond the Cabaret Whore characters and her website testifies to the enormous range of projects and collaborations in her fifteen-year career. She continues to find new audiences for her work through the international hit show, Julie, Madly Deeply, and her appearances in Showstoppers—the first full-length improvised musical in London’s West End, currently playing to rave reviews. In the past two years, she has also directed highly successful shows for cabaret artists Lynn Ruth Miller, Nicky Gayner and the Miss-Leading Ladies — Ria Jones and Ceri Dupree. And as one half of the duo Roulston and Young, Young performs with Michael Roulston as “herself,” or at least a version of herself. Alongside these newer ventures, the characters created for Cabaret Whore live on. They form part of other variety shows throughout the capital. They are hired separately to host events, and La Poule Plombée will have her own full-length show at the Edinburgh Festival next year.
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sarah louise imagesBy her own admission, Young is “confusing to casting directors because I do lots of different things, and it’s only been recently that people have been starting to join the dots.” One senses that a restless energy, and search for variety, fuels her creative life. At the same time, she acknowledges particular personal as well as professional rewards from developing character-based cabaret. “It’s been a lovely kind of circle. I’m no longer frightened of being me on stage. There was a playfulness that the characters allowed me to have that I hadn’t given myself permission to own as Sarah-Louise Young the person. Some people say they have characters because they have to hide who they are. I actually think I’ve found who I am through doing character work.”

This suggests that the insights from Sarah-Louise Young’s engagement with character might apply to any cabaret artist developing any kind of cabaret performance. Whether it involves a complete physical transformation, or simply donning a little black dress to sing “Cry Me a River,” the message from Young’s work is clear: All artists must explore and take charge of the stage persona they projects,as well as the audience’s relationship to the version of themselves they choose to show.


Fiona Coffey

Fiona Coffey joins our review team as a cabaret enthusiast and jazz singer, just as she makes her sell-out debut on the London cabaret scene with a self-devised tribute to her alter-ego Mrs. Robinson. She has hosted jazz evenings and performed at a number of venues including The Crazy Coqs, The Pheasantry, and 606 Club. In her day job she is a leadership development coach, travelling around the globe, working with a hugely diverse population of executives, as they grapple with the challenges of leadership and organizational change. Having recently expended most of her writing energies on her doctoral thesis, she welcomes the opportunity to entertain and inform a different audience through Cabaret Scenes.