Being Yourself on Stage -an interview with Ty Jeffries

Ty-J sings-ty-jeffries
Ty Jeffries in “Ty Jeffries Sings Ty Jeffries” at Live at Zédel.


“Cabaret is being yourself, only on purpose.”

Erv Raible (New York based cabaret impresario 1978-2014)

One of the things people who sing cabaret find so daunting is the thought of being themselves onstage, especially engaging with the audience in patter, and for some even singing when not being in character can induce anxiety.

Some have solved the problem by creating a persona and bringing that character on to the stage.  One of London’s most well-known cabaret artists Ty Jeffries is famed for his onstage alter-ego Miss Hope Springs– a pop and jazz singing diva of the 1960’s and ‘70s, very glamorous, extravert, outrageously camp and with a famously sharp tongue.

The real Ty Jeffries is none of those things.  Now, however, for the first time, Jeffries is to sing his own material in a new show, entirely as himself.

I interviewed him to find out why he has chosen this new path, and what he feels about the whole concept of appearing as himself, and to ask if he has any words of advice to budding cabaret performers, or more experienced who might also be leaving a stage persona behind.

Miss Hope is so different in personality to you, and for nearly 10 years, you have been so successful with her.  Why did you choose not to appear as Ty Jeffries before now, and why do it now?  What caused the change of heart?

For me personally, it has been a journey of self-confidence and self discovery.  I started writing songs when I was 7 years old and I got my first publishing deal at 14.  I was a singer-songwriter and that was what I wanted to do as myself. Things didn’t go the way I hoped. I didn’t become the next Elton John, but knew I had something that I wanted to express, and I felt more comfortable expressing it with a mask on, with a character I could hide behind, a character that I could write for, that I could inhabit and hide within.

And I think she did what I hoped she might do. I mean the name Miss Hope Springs – Hope Springs Eternal- was not by chance.  She took me through the journey from 7-8 years ago when I started doing her through to where I am now.  She is fully formed and things are working really well with that character and that show, and it has built up a following and I am working all the time, which is marvelous.

Miss Hope Springs

I just suddenly thought instinctively that I wanted to step out of the character now, just to show that beyond Miss Hope Springs I am a serious songwriter. And I think that message often gets lost behind the wigs and the lashes and the sequins.  People see what I call Musical Comedy Cabaret. Other people see it as Drag, with the negative connotations and the prejudices people have and the snobbishness about drag.  I realized if I do the material as myself, it’s a different type of audience who will come and see Ty Jeffries who would never come and see Miss Hope Springs.  I just needed to step out of that character, and try my own feet – without heels on.

What have been your main challenges in making this shift?

It’s what you touched on at the beginning. It’s a sense of fear, a sense of nakedness, not having something to hide behind, a persona that does some of the work for you, but at the same time I want to show the seriousness of my songwriting beyond the songs I write for Miss Hope Springs.  The songs I write for her are very specific. They fall somewhere between musical theatre comedy and pop and jazz from the era of 1960s and 70s, and I also write contemporary songs that are not right for her and would be out of place for her, but that I can sing, including some that are autobiographical, though of course there is a grain of autobiography with Miss Hope Springs, which gives her the authenticity that I think people resonate with.

So, I’ve made a conscientious decision not to sing Miss Hope Springs songs, but to really separate the two, and do other songs.  I hope people won’t be disappointed, but it’s really going out on a limb and I really want it to be its own identity as Ty Jeffries as a singer-songwriter, composer and lyricist, and we’re leaving Miss Hope Springs in a bag so to speak, with her wigs etc in Somerset and I shall be venturing forth as myself.

I hope I shall discover a way to be comfortable doing it, and I think if I have a word of advice to anyone is that you will only ever find out by doing it.

I didn’t perform Miss Hope Springs for 10 years, because I suffered so much from anxiety!  I would work hard and get a gig and then as soon as I got it, I would freak out and cancel it, because I go so anxious. It wasn’t until 2010 that I finally had the courage to start doing her, and now it’s been 9 years to find the courage to come back to where I was when I was 18 and early 20s when I was writing pop songs. With the confidence I have built up and the following I have built up, it’s a safe place for me to do it.

I am sure there is some weird psychological things going on as well. Having a very famous father (Lionel Jeffries) with a very big personality, was very stressful. He cast a very big shadow, and it was only when he passed away that I managed to do Miss Hope Springs, and now part of me has sort of grown up and can take that risk as myself.

Ty Jeffries with father Lionel Jeffries on the set of Camelot.

I was going to ask you about that. I was wondering just how much having such a famous father had had an effect on you, and it sounds as if it has.

Absolutely, and I think it was easier doing it as a woman, so I wouldn’t be in direct competition with him.  But as well as any Oedipus Rex going on, I had to make my own way, which I’ve done all along without any support. My father passed away and most of his contemporaries and people in the business who might have helped me have also all passed on.  So, I’ve really made my way with the help of friends and people who have liked my work.

I also had a show put on with Xara Vaughan singing my work, which she delivered beautifully, and that went very well, and that was the first step, but now it seems the time to step out myself.

What material can the audience expect from your new show? 

Well Xara has the most amazing singing voice, but I have a voice like Toblerone – it’s quite rich, but then it’s got quite chunky, clunky bits in it. It’s not a flawless voice by any means, but I think there’s an authoritativeness that comes from a singer singing his own work, like Michel Legrand used to do it, Burt Bacharach does it and when Harold Arlen used to do it.  There’s a specific voice that comes from that.

The songs I will be doing are more contemporary, not the easy listening Bacharach sound, and exploring songs not performed as Hope, but more the songs I would be doing if I had become the singer-songwriter I set out to be 30 years ago. Songs that are really coming directly from my voice.

How is being yourself affecting your performance?  Do you find your delivery of songs and patter is different from if Miss Hope Springs were to sing the song?

Yes, it’s very much more workmanlike. It’s much more stripped back. I think of myself as a song-smith. For me it’s my day to day work, although I haven’t made vast fortunes from it as yet, it earns me a living and I take my songwriting really seriously. It’s been my life’s work, so for me this is like a workman showing his work, his pieces of art, like a painter showing his pictures in a gallery.  The show is very simple and very pared back.

Unlike Miss Hope Springs, I’m a very low key person. I avoid crowds and slip out the back after a show, and no-one recognizes me without all the slap on.  Miss Hope Springs loves all that. I’m not keen, so this is really just about the songs, and it gives people a chance to hear the songs stripped right back and hopefully appreciate them for what they are, without all the hair and the sequins and the tragi-comedy aspects of Miss Hope Springs. The songs will be under the spotlight in their own right, and I will be there to present the songs in a very pure and simple way.  This is the best showcase for them at this point.

Miss Hope Springs can be quite acerbic.  How will Ty Jeffries deal with hecklers or difficult people in the audience?

That’s a very good question. Miss Hope Springs is known for her retorts and her sharp wit. I don’t have to access that part of my personality during this.  I think I can deliver the same warning glances as Hope, but I hope people are just there to come and listen to the songs.  If they’re expecting Liberace, they will be sadly disappointed.  I feel a bit religious about it, having given my life to it as others might give theirs to Jesus or Buddha, so it’s interesting that it should be done on a Sunday.

I was going to call the show Chiaroscuro.  My father was a painter and I am a painter, but I didn’t think people would know what that was, but it comes in one of my songs Turning Shadows into Light.  This is about me coming out of the shadows into the light, from my childhood and  father’s career and coming out of that, having to make my own way, and now even out of that to another place.

Coming out of Hope Springs’ shadow, actually.

Yes, and it’s scary. But I would just say to everybody who wants to perform as themselves, there’s a wonderful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.  I read it when I was paralyzed with fear and anxiety and learned to over-ride those feelings.


Back in the day when I was first starting experimenting as Hope , I was doing Miss Hope Springs Sing Barbra Streisand at the Kings Head Theatre, not singing my songs, but about a fictitious relationship between Miss Hope and Streisand, and I got so nervous that about 10 minutes before the show, I climbed out of a window, over the wall and into the carpark, dressed as Miss Hope Springs trying to get away!  The sound and lighting guy was very kind and suggested I come back in, sit down and have a glass of water and see how I felt then, and after about 10 minutes I was ready to go on.

I had a word with myself after that, telling myself “You spend 99% of the time wanting to be on stage, wanting to perform, wanting to sing your songs and show the world what you can do, and when you get to doing it, you’re so paralyzed with fear and anxiety, it ruins the experience.”

But since I talked to myself, I never did it again. I get myself revved up like a racehorse waiting to go on, but I won’t have nerves. I just won’t have them, and I think people can have a word with themselves and I think it’s possible for all of us to de-activate that actually quite useless part of our mechanism.  Excitement and a bit of nerves and wanting to go on and deliver is very positive, but when it descends into fear and anxiety, it makes it really difficult.

And I think having a certain amount of technique and having something to do is useful.

Yes, when it comes to performing as themselves, I think of Barbra Streisand.  When she is performing, she is not giving us the Streisand that is making a cream cheese and salmon bagel in her kitchen, she is giving us a Super version of herself. A super self beyond herself. Likewise Joan Crawford.

You (Fiona-Jane Weston) have done more performing as yourself than I have, so I suppose you too access a part of yourself that’s still you, but the part that gets you out on stage, is that right?

Yes, that’s true. And also, because I am presenting other women, many of whom have died but whose stories have not been told, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to those women, not wanting to let them down. Never mind about Fiona-Jane, I want people to be interested in these other women.

Yes, and there’s the conundrum. I am fascinated by Miss Hope Springs. That’s why I created her, but I hope people will be interested in my life. I will be talking about aspects of my life, although I have been reticent to do so before, because I think people will expect that, but keeping light and show-bizzy as well. There is enough doom and gloom in the world, so I won’t be going into “When I was 3…”.   I want to keep it entertaining and light, and work through a colour palette, whether I do it as myself or as Miss Hope.

How do you anticipate being yourself might affect your engagement with the audience?

I really don’t know! I am quite a shy reserved person, but I’ve always performed at parties.  I will do it as a performance after a lovely Sunday lunch in front of about 80 of my closest friends, and hope my experience will come to the fore and I’ll just deliver the songs.

Where and When:

Ty Jeffries Sings Ty Jeffries will be at Live at Zédel on Sunday, 24th February at 3:00pm and also on September 4th at the same venue

Miss Hope Springs is still being performed, and you can catch her on 11th April at the Edinburgh Fringe preview at Underbelly Festival in the South Bank Speigel Tent, and at various venues is London and beyond.

www.misshopesprings.com

Key Take-Aways from How Ty Jeffries will Present as Himself:

  • He will be presenting his songs in a spare, pared back way, without the glitz and glamour of Miss Hope Springs. This will be a workman-like performance.
  • As a person, Ty has come through a lot of self-development, growing out of his childhood experiences of living in the shadow of a famous father, and then hiding behind a larger-than-life stage persona, to a sense of being more confident in himself to present his songs in a pure and simple way, and allow them to be under scrutiny for what they are.
  • He will be drawing on his years of experience, both as a songwriter and performer at parties and as Miss Hope
  • He has worked through his once paralyzing fear and anxiety by ‘having a word’ with himself, and refusing to allow those feelings to overcome him.
  • He will not be laying his psyche bare for all to see, but present a Super-version of himself in a professional manner

What key –takeaways did you get from this interview?  Do you have other tips on finding a way to be yourself on stage?

Join the conversation and comment below!

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About Fiona Jane Weston

I am Fiona-Jane Weston and as well as being a performer myself (see website), I write reviews of and features on shows, mainly on the London cabaret and theatre scene. I have worked in theatre for many years, but decided to embark on a new direction in cabaret in 2009, when I produced 20th Century Woman: The Compact Cabaret. Not wanting to neglect my love of spoken word, particularly drama and verse, I made the conscious decision to include these elements in the programme, as well as wonderful songs, to tell the story of women's changing status and preoccupations throughout the 20th Century and up to now. I was invited to audition for the renowned Cabaret Conference at Yale, run by the late legendary Erv Raible, and that was thrilled to be one of only 26 accepted that year, where I was taught by the masters of the genre. Amanda McBroom (composer of the Bette Middler hit "The Rose" and the poignant "Errol Flynn"), Laurel Massé, original member of Manhattan Transfer, Sally Mayes, Tony Award nominees Sharon McNight and Tovah Feldshuh, and New York cabaret veteran Julie Wilson were all on the faculty. We were also treated to the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, Hubert Tex Arnold and the now late Paul Trueblood. With the benefit of their insightful teaching and great encouragement, I took my show to The Duplex in New York, where I was delighted with the response. Since then, I have produced Loving London: The Capital Cabaret, using the same format of songs, poetry and drama, in various London venues, including Leicester Square Theatre and The Crazy Coqs. 2014, the centenary of World War 1, saw the launch of Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret to a sellout house at St. James Theatre, London, garnering great notices, including from The Times and Musical Theatre Review. I have since been touring the show to Belgium and throughout the UK. I hope these reviews and interviews entertain and educate at the same time, and if please do leave comments in the box. It's great to engage in a conversation about the Arts. Fiona-Jane Weston
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