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Stage fright is an anxiety many share.  Some love it, some fear it, and some choose to get up in front of people and perform in a cabaret show.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Friday, September 27, 2019 - 10:44
File size
7 min 38 sec

It’s a room of students older than the average, mostly retirees, eager to enhance their performance skills in a class about how to overcome their nerves when performing in public.

It’s their vocal coach, David Rogers-Smith’s seventh year mentoring students of the Lord Mayor’s Seniors Cabaret program in Brisbane. 

“If somebody’s having a panic attack, or they’re really worried about it, what do you say? Students’ response: ‘Breathe’. David Rogers-Smith’s response: ‘Just breathe’.”

The adrenaline rush of performing on stage is what drew 62-year-old Dala Shea to sign up for the master class.

Shea compares singing in public to thrill-seeking activities like bungee jumping but done in a safe environment.

Performing in front of an audience had been on Shea’s bucket list for years.

She started ticking off her list by joining the Brisbane Baltic Choir ten years ago, and now, she’s training to get into cabaret shows. 

“When two other ladies who do a cabaret act said, ‘look, we need a third one, will you join us?’, you know, and you wear sequins and big head dresses, and you know, the amazing range of costumes that we have. I just said ‘yes’ straight away. I didn’t hesitate cos I thought, look, if I have to think about it, I’m gonna to say ‘no’. Cause I’ll think up all the reasons how not to do it. Why I shouldn’t be doing it and I don’t sing well enough but I just said ‘yes’ straight away and I thought, ‘well, I’ll worry about the rest later.’”

Shea is one of 160 participants in the Brisbane City Council’s Seniors Cabaret masterclasses.

Students learn performance techniques like how to sing in a group, how to keep a healthy voice, and what to physically do on stage.

Chris Fennessy of Epiphany Productions has been running this event, the only major seniors showcase of its kind in Australia, for seven years.

“So we put together this program where we made available master classes for the seniors to work one-on-one with the professionals which they’ve never had done before. Then, after they’ve had those master classes, then they went on onto the stage and got to put some of that work into action on the stage, and, then, finally, we have a gala concert at City Hall, where it’s more of a celebration of about 10 to 12 acts, so it’s not a competition, it’s more just a creative process.”

From hobbyists to professionals, Fennessy says there is a wide cross section of participants aged from their 60s through to 90s aspiring to get a chance to shine on stage.

“You get seniors who have never sung before, but have always wanted but they thought, ‘oh, I don’t know if I’m good at it or if I should try?’ So they’re finally going, ‘ok, I’m gonna to give it a try and give it a go.’ Then you get some other performers who used to do it before, had children or a family, so they’ve always had that passion there but they haven’t been able to because of family circumstances so now they’re retired, they can choose to do what they like and there’s also some performers here that have been professional performers in their past and haven’t sung for quite a long time.”

A former real estate agent and prop designer, Dala Shea hopes she can be selected to take part in one of the public performances across Brisbane. 

“You know, they say the worst fear in the world is selling your house and getting up in front of people and talking, and I think when you get up, and you sing, it’s like that. You’re really putting yourself out there, and I had to eventually disband those ideas of what people thought about me because, I mean, that can hold you back, thinking, ‘gee, what do they think about me?’ Eventually, I just let all that drop away so that I could just think about what is it that I think about me? Not what everybody else thinks about me. So it was a really big confidence and learning curve that you go on.”

Indonesian-born Wing Chung Chong is quietly awaiting his one-on-one session with Rogers-Smith.

When he opens his mouth, he beams with joy and confidence as he sings renowned Italian song O Sole Mio to the class. 

Who would’ve realised this unassuming 79 year-old just had his gall bladder surgically removed two weeks earlier.

Chong is a member of the Chinese Little Candle Light Choir and is the only Chinese member of the local Italian men's choir, the Giuseppe Verdi Choral Society.

“I love Italian song! It’s beautiful. In the world, you see the opera, everyone use Italian song. Sometimes, repeat, repeat again, some one song maybe I sing 10 times. You must improve, you must learn, learning how to use the words.”

Having observed countless students since the program started seven years ago, Rogers-Smith wonders whether the Seniors Cabaret is an opportunity for retirees to find or maintain their voices?

“And I love that this is seniors finding their voice or also continuing a voice that you know maybe they’re retired and they feel like they don’t have a voice but they’re not in a work environment anymore. This…the inclusion of this particular cabaret festival is a wonderful thing.”

Wing Chong Chung has been singing in front of crowds since he was in high school.

His love for singing lasting more than 60 years. 

“Singing is good for your body, you know, for your breathe, keep your body healthy, so I need singing sing sing. I sing sing make you happy and exciting even singing, you will relax, like this, so if you singing, more singing, you will long life.”

The selection process is rigorous involving mentors working with students from ten masterclasses and reviewing their performances at community events.

As producer of the Seniors Cabaret, Fennessy says it ultimately boils down to the best line-up of a dozen acts for the program’s finale at the Brisbane Town Hall on October 6th.  

“It’s more a celebration of the talent involved so we make it like a variety concert so you can’t have, for example, five opera singers, even if they’re the best singers out of everyone. It’s more about putting on a show. So you have to get a contrast in styles. You have some dancing, have some opera, have some country music.”

Unfortunately Shea didn’t make it through.

Chong, on the other hand, undeterred by his recent surgery, has made it to the final round, and will be performing in front of 1,600 people at the Brisbane Town Hall. 

“I very exciting. When I sing, a lot of people, I excited, I happy. You know, usually the people enjoy, I enjoy too."

Fennessy noticed most students enjoy the chance to showcase their talent so much that they’ve returned to the program year after year.

“You can imagine the friendships that they’ve made. Every year, you’re seeing the same people reuniting and also seeing their voices develop and some of them, you know, through this program, are getting other opportunities to perform around Brisbane. That’s fantastic. You know they’re getting to do what they love to do.”