Friday, May 31, 2013

Rejinald Woods of Bending Threads: Breaking the Box

Rejinald Woods, the founder, booking manager and idea man for Bending Threads Cabaret Company, currently lives out of town in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he has been appearing as the lead Noah in NOAH, the musical at Sight & Sound Theatre for three years running to rave reviews, including regarding how he "is in most musical numbers, as well as racing throughout the Ark, up and down ladders, and makes the feat look simple." I am exhausted just reading about that.

How do you balance working so dynamically within two groups across two different states?

"Most weekends I travel into the city to rehearse and perform with Bending Threads. I work as kind of the idea man for the group and am always amazed that when I put a theme or show idea out there that Bending Threads picks it up, runs with it and makes it fabulous. We Wear The Mask, our first show, was actually going to be the title of my one-man show. But when everyone signed on to do the first show, Seasons of Change, with me, everyone liked that theme and name, too, so we kept it and used it for our second show. We'll also just brainstorm, and an idea will come to us and we go with it."

He describes Bending Threads' first-ever three-night cabaret show, Dreamscape, as his biggest idea yet and also, as he confides, "one that I thought the group would turn down immediately. Think about it: we would essentially be putting on three different shows on three consecutive nights. But they said yes."

As the booking manager for the group, what are the top five factors in your selection of show venues?

1. Price Point: The price point for both Bending Threads and the patron is very important. It has to be good quality for what they are receiving. If the venue cost is so high that it forces us to price out our patrons, it's not worth it.

2. Location: The location has to be easy to access by mass transit, and it has to be a location that any of our supporters would feel more than safe walking through. We like to eliminate any reason for a potential patron to be hesitant about attending our shows.

3. Reputation: In this business, reputation is everything and though there are people out there who will complain about anything, venues that have bad reputations have often earned them. We don't take a chance with those venues because we believe our audience deserves better than that.

4. Service: Whether it's door attendants, wait staff, or bartenders, good service is a must. A smile and a kind word goes a long way.

5. Facilities: If it's not clean or pretty we don't even go there. (Editor's Note: Words to live by.)

For his part of the four-piece's upcoming LEGENDS jazz show this Saturday and Sunday at The Underground, Woods will be celebrating Billie Holiday.

"I discovered Billie Holiday when I was 12 years old," he recalls. "I found a cassette tape of her music, and I fell in love. Her ability to turn a musical phrase into an emotional experience for the listener is unmatched. There is a rawness, pain, and beauty in her voice that I immediately attached to. I found out a little later that she had a vast amount of music out there and even a movie about her life starring Diana Ross. I rented the movie and was enthralled. I couldn't believe that such beauty could come from such a broken vessel. I became a her biggest fan and got my hands on anything Billie Holiday related that I could find. I couldn't get enough, so when we decided to do the jazz show featuring the music of our favorite jazz greats, I immediately chose Billie as my artist. I know that it may be a little weird that she is the performer that is my focus in the show because she's a different gender, but it makes sense to me because her music touches me to the very core."

I'll be seeing you...

Patrice Bell of Bending Threads: Breaking the Box

How has Bending Threads Cabaret Company stayed motivated to perform and put work out there in NYC, a pretty tough market?

We have truly lasted over four years now due to our loyal supporters and our support of each other. Granted, we are still on our climb but we've done some great things in our four years on nearly nothing – the “broke successful artist” approach.

That sounds familiar. How does that approach take shape for Bending Threads?

We've rehearsed in vacant apartment rooms with up to six people sometimes. I always thought it was strange doing so because I'm a little fancy myself and want a rehearsal space in midtown. There was a studio that offered their first hour free to new clients so we had each singer call and reserve a space on a different occasion and each got the free hour.

Many times the decorations for our shows come from local dollar stores! I am known as the "rich kid" who likes to spend money on a shoestring budget...but wisely. I nickel and dimed a pair of custom made shoes for one of our shows.

It was a boot that was designed for "Dreamscape," Night 2--The Nightmare. So the shoe designer, Michael Grey of Michael Grey Footwear, used inspiration from Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.” But of course I'm on a shoestring budget so I could only afford one specially designed pair of shoes for one night. Hopefully, I can use this designer again when BT has real production dollars.

Honestly, though, each dress for each show has been purchased from an off-price designer store or thrift store for no more than 20 bucks. I also randomly buy good finds throughout the year at great prices because I know I will use them eventually.

For Bending Threads' upcoming LEGENDS jazz show, which again, local readers, is this Saturday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. at The Underground, 955 West End Ave. at 107th St., you have chosen to celebrate Lena Horne. How does she inspire you?

I admire the diversity of Lena Horne's career alongside her elegance. She was an actress with a committed singing career. She was a vibrant storyteller and if you look back at many of her screen recordings, she always had such an expressive face. That's my inspiration for LEGENDS. I am not trying to impersonate Lena Horne by any means but rather allow her essence to inspire my work as Patrice Bell the artist.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Westley Todd Holiday of Bending Threads: Breaking the Box

So, Duke Ellington is the LEGEND you’re celebrating this coming Saturday and Sunday as part of Bending Threads Cabaret Company's summer jazz show, which, local readers, is happening this Saturday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 2 at 3:00 p.m., with both shows being held at The Underground at 955 West End Ave. on the corner of 107th St. What inspired this choice?

I've been singing the music of Duke Ellington since high school, especially one of the solos I'm singing in the show, "I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart." He was known as the "bandmaster" of jazz and a jack of all trades –- arranger, composer, singer and much more. And I've just always identified with that kind of persona, you know? I've always had my hands in so much –- dancing, acting, singing, now producing –- so I can identify. Plus, as a musician and pianist, I just dig what he does with his vocal line and arrangements.

What does your role as music director for Bending Threads entail?

As the music director, I have the responsibility of organizing the vocal arrangements, working with our live musicians/band, coaching the singers, and teaching harmonies in rehearsals. Believe it or not, they make my job really easy, though. Kareen, Reji and Patrice are such fabulous singers and arrangers themselves. We all bounce ideas off each other and continually try to find what works best for US! I can write something, and then the flare and interpretation these people add to it is uncanny. And our rehearsals and vocal arrangements flow so organically that way. If it doesn't work, we always fix it –- no offenses, no commentaries or dwelling. They truly are superstars. Jazz is not my forte in vocal part writing, so I had to lean on them to inspire me through it all. I've grown. Honestly, it proves you can always grow...I didn't think I could grow anymore after we conquered "Dreamscape" back in 2011. Now, that alone featured 60+ songs and arrangements over a three night music-concert series. History making in Cabaret –- first of its kind.

That's an amazing accomplishment. Taking a step back, how did you come to be involved with the group?

I've known Reji & Patrice since college days at the University of Central Florida. I met Reji a week before college during the audition for the season that year. And I was in the same cast of the all African American version of "Death of A Salesman" as Patrice, which is where we met. Reji and Patrice attended an Actors' Equity workshop where a prominent casting director mentioned there was a lack of Black performers in NYC: They were either all already on Broadway or working out there on tour. And we sought to prove them differently. What we thought would be a one-event project turned out to be a venture to create opportunities for ourselves and the performers we know all around us.

Tell me a bit more about how Bending Threads operates as a company.

We are self-sufficient in the sense that we do everything: we produce, direct, and perform in our shows. In addition, the four of us each take on a different business function: Public Relations, Publicity, Music Direction and Production/Tech Management. We hire live musicians to play and Spoken Word artists to perform poetic themes for our shows.

In a little over four years, we have been nominated Best Duo/Group and Best Music Director by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs in 2010 & 2011, produced a holiday CD available on iTunes and raised money for charities such as the Salvation Army, MOVE for Autism and the Arthritis Foundation. It's a wonder any of us have time to breathe outside of rehearsals, but we love what we do.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kareen Foster of Bending Threads: Breaking the Box

What motivated you to launch Bending Threads Cabaret Company?

Rejection. What motivated me was not getting booked for shows, and I found Bending Threads to be the platform to do it myself. “Bending” represented what we were trying to do: Change the way people thought of black performers and challenge the way theater has been presented. "Threads" represented the four of us who were very different, unique performers whose only similarity was that we were black. Four threads intertwined to create a beautiful picture for the future of cabaret and the theater. And personally, I challenge my vocal ability with songs that I know are out of my comfort zone.

In the upcoming show, you chose to celebrate Ella Fitzgerald as your LEGEND. What drew you to her?

When it comes to Ella, it is her precision and expertise in her execution of her songs that impresses me. Her riffs & scatting meant improvising was no longer easy, but a level that other singers had to reach hard for. I was also in love with the timbre of her voice. It's very light, smooth and slightly operatic, like Audra McDonald, versus a typical deep sultry voice. Although she can hit the highest and lowest notes, there was an eloquent simplicity to her tone. These were all the things that attracted me to her. Taking on Ella in jazz is like taking on Whitney in pop/R&B.

What innovations or boundary breakers has Bending Threads introduced?

In our very first show, "We Wear the Mask," we hit our first boundary breaker by presenting songs that we would never be cast for. My solo, for instance, was "Gimme Gimme" from Thoroughly Modern Millie, sung by Sutton Foster, the original ingenue. For a casting director, the only thing me and her have in common is our last names. We also then did the first-ever three-night cabaret series, "Dreamscape," in which three different cabaret shows were presented and connected under one theme, through over 60 songs total (see below for a sampling of each set list). The common theme was exploring our dreams. Night one was our fantasies, night two was our nightmares and night three were our goals and dreams fulfilled.

We also include poetry in our shows; it’s the skeleton of the themes. "We Wear the Mask" was inspired by the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem with the same title. Most people stay in their lane, but we risk it and learn all types of genres, from Top 40 to Soul, contemporary theater, classical, jazz and so much more.

I would say our biggest challenge is the cabaret world, which is very set in its tradition. It is a constant challenge to penetrate this world. It is a dying art form, and it needs an evolution in order to survive.

Dreamscape, Night one: Fantasies
Dreamlover - Mariah Carey
Dreaming of you - Selena
These Dreams - Heart
Pure Imagination - from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Dreamgirls - from Dreamgirls the musical
Sweet Dreams - Beyonce

Night two: Nightmares
My Immortal - Evanescence
I Still Believe - from Miss Saigon
We Had a Dream - from The Life (the musical)
Just a Dream - Carrie Underwood
Pastime Paradise - Stevie Wonder
Spanish Sailing Ship - from Songs For a New World
What's Going on/Mercy Mercy Me/What's Going On - Marvin Gaye

Night three: Dreams Fulfilled
Don't Stop Believing - Journey
Brand New Day - from The Wiz
Defying Gravity - from Wicked
The Rose - Bette Midler
All I Have to Do Is Dream - The Everly Brothers

Saturday, May 25, 2013