One of the mainstays of cabaret in New York has also been one of its most unsung: Thomas Honeck, who has been behind the scenes at The Duplex for a decade now, making sure that the performers can be seen and heard. This year, he has emerged from the lighting booth to take the stage at The Duplex in his show, Going On Faith - An Evening of Story, Song and Charity.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Thomas. I can't wait to see your show! I'm so used to your being behind the scenes at The Duplex; in fact, you were the technical director on my New York cabaret debut there six years ago. How long have you been working there?
Thomas: Technically, this is going to be my tenth year.
JF: Is Going On Faith, your first performing experience?
TH: No. I was a performer before I was a technician. I have my SAG card, which I got from doing some films that never saw the light of day, and did stage work at places like The Cleveland Playhouse. I've always considered myself a theatre person, rather than a techie or a performer. I enjoy working on all aspects of a production. When I was in college, I found out really quickly that one had to choose a track: either technical or performing. I thought it was pretty ridiculous, as it seemed to me that one should be able to study whatever one wanted. So I ended up taking to SUNY Brockport, which was my hometown college, as they let you study both tracks. So I got a degree in performing and a degree in technical theater.
JF: Was your technical emphasis lighting design?
TH: No, it was all-encompassing. I used to make decent money as a stage carpenter. I wasn't even interested in lighting all that much, but I found that when you did your senior project you got assigned a lighting designer. I knew I was going to be very specific in what I wanted so I decided to take the courses in lighting design I would need in order to design the lights myself.
JF: Do you work as a technician outside of The Duplex?
TH: That's pretty much all I do right now. I used to do freelance work outside of the room. But I really like the room at The Duplex. I don't think there are many rooms in the city that hold up to it on a technical level.
JF: You won your first MAC Award this year for technical direction, correct?
TH: Yes. A lot of the credit for that goes to Phil Bond [The Duplex's booking manager]. Wendy and Jenny [the previous managers] started the process of turning the room around but Phil has done so much work in bringing ... I hate to say 'respectability,' but ... back to the room by improving it and bringing a higher level of performers and the MAC community back to the room.
JF: Since you see hundreds of shows each year, do you have any tips you would like to impart?
TH: I've often joked that in order to be a performer one should get a gene splice from a moth so that they can find the light. (Laughs). It's astonishing how many people have no sense of where their light is. They get so wrapped up in performing that they forget things like staging and then don't even notice that they are no longer in the light.
JF: What can a performer come in with to make you a much happier technical director?
TH: The best thing that they can bring me is a clean song list ... something that is clearly typed out with enough space between the song titles for me to write lighting cues. And if they can add notes about where in the show they are planning to talk and at least a rough idea of what their final patter line is going to be, it makes my life a lot easier.
It's also very helpful for a performer to bring someone to the rehearsal who can act as an extra pair of eyes in the audience. As it's impossible for a performer to see what effect the lights have unless there's an actual person on stage being lit, it is very helpful for them to bring in somebody who can act as a stand-in.
JF: You design surprisingly intricate lighting designs that are tailored for each show and performer.
TH: Since I know that some performers will miss their light, I try to leave myself coverage, so that I can still manipulate the lighting and make sure that the mood is maintained. It may not be what I designed, but it will work. I get a big kick out of improvising a light design on the fly, though, and it's one of the reasons I love the New Mondays series that Phil Bond started at The Duplex. Basically, the performers get a sound check and don't really work with the lights so I have to be prepared for whatever comes up.
JF: Is it useful to have performers come in to a tech rehearsal with set ideas on what they want the lighting design to be?
TH: Oftentimes, people come to the tech rehearsal with a show that is still in the finishing stages. They are still playing with the order of songs, haven't thought out where on the stage they will be performing each song, and they have no idea what they are going to say or when they are even going to have patter. If they can tell me what mood they are going for on a song, that's great. I just put them on stage and have them run their show and design the lights around it. That way they get a run through and a chance to get an idea of how the show will feel on stage. And it takes an hour or so to do that.
If I'm working with a director, I find it actually takes longer, because they have specific ideas of what they want and I have to translate those ideas into something that is doable given the space and the equipment we have. Some people are flexible and will listen to me when I say that something that they want is not going to look good. Other people are locked into what they want ... which makes for a fine balancing act: to give them what they want versus what I think will look good.
JF: I'm surprised that it takes longer to tech if the performer has a director. I would have thought it would make things simpler, since supposedly the performer would come in knowing where he or she is going to be during each song, where the patter is going to be, etc.
TH: It really depends on the director and the performer. Some directors trust me implicitly and tell me to do what I want, with a note or two describing a specific effect they want, such as bathing a number in red. Others may tell me, for instance, that they want a number to be lit in a very washed out and harsh way, which will look awful once it's attempted ... like something you would see at the DMV. And it will be impossible to talk out them out of such a choice, even though it doesn't look nice and pulls the audience away from the song and the performance.
That's not to say that I don't like directors; my show would not be what it is if it weren't for my director, Lisa Moss, as she was instrumental in shaping the performance and the writing. We basically went through every single word of patter together to discover if it was necessary in order to tell the story we wanted to tell. She also was good at providing feedback as to when I needed to pull back in a song. So it's not that I have a problem with directors, I just know that I'm going to need more time in a technical rehearsal when one is involved.
JF: Since you brought it up, let's talk about the show you are going to be doing at The Duplex.
TH: It's called Going On Faith and I performed it once in May and twice in June, and will be performing it four more times through November.
JF: What made you decide to start performing again?
TH: I had decided two years ago that I wanted to do something special to celebrate turning forty. It's funny: right about the time I started working toward my show, Lennie Watts invited me to be a part of the opening number for the MAC Awards. He put together a big 'how do you get to a cabaret show' number that featured all the people involved in the process, from the singing waiter and the bartender to the technical personnel and the critics. I thought it would be fun to surprise everybody so I didn't let anybody know I was doing it and it was really a kick not only to surprise all these people who only knew me as a lighting designer, but also to reacquaint myself with what performing feels like again!
JF: How would you describe your show?
TH: It's the story about my personal journey from a state of not believing in anything to just having faith in one thing. But it's not a preachy show at all: I don't try to tell you what to believe in or even what the one thing I found is. It's more about the progression than the results.
JF: So it's about spiritual enlightenment versus a religious progression.
TH: Yes. It's also a charitable event as the proceeds of the show go to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Both charities have touched my life: my mother has MS and my brother has Juvenile Diabetes.
JF: And the show features you and your musical director, Ray Fellman.
TH: That's it. There are no special guests or backup singers, since I haven't sung on stage in over eighteen years ... no need to set up comparisons!
JF: What kind of songs did you pick for your show?
TH: It's a pretty eclectic show that contains a couple of pop songs, some Broadway tunes, a standard ... the show is basically a story punctuated by songs, so I prefer not to give too much away.
JF: How did the previous performances go?
TH: Very well. In lieu of a cover, we ask that audience members bring a check of $12 or more made out to either charity and we raised over $3,000 for the charities as a result of the previous three performances.
JF: What are the dates of your upcoming performances?
TH: Friday, September 24, Saturday, October 9 and 16, and Monday, November 1. All shows are at 7pm at The Duplex, which has waived the two drink minimum for the event.
JF: I really like the fact that your postcard is essentially a snippet from The Little Prince.
TH: Thanks. That came about because I not only wanted to give people an idea of the flavor of the show, but also give them something t o think about while it was stuck to the refrigerator, even if they didn't come to the show.
JF: Well I can't wait to witness this new side of you! Have a great run.
Thomas Honeck's show, Going On Faith, will be performed at The Duplex (61 Christopher Street at 7th Avenue in New York) Friday, September 24, Saturday, October 9 and 16, and Monday, November 1 at 7pm. For more information, visit www.theduplex.com. For reservations call (212) 255-5438
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