Musical Theatre Cabaret Month – INTERVIEW – Beginnings, Polar Bears and The Suggestibles

This month we have a very exciting theme to celebrate the month of loooove. (yes, it is Valentines Day month if you haven’t remembered.) Here on The Phoenix Remix we like to take the ideology of that love day that the month is famously known for an actually focus on topics and passion projects of others.

This month we talk to Jenni Winter who is part of the Musical Theatre Cabaret. She has done many live shows as well as performing as a musician alongside improv shows in Newcastle with The Suggestibles. Since the United Kingdom has been in lockdown Jenni has been hosting live shows through Facebook taking requests and performing them live. Today we speak about music beginnings, early memories and improv shows…

Hello Jenni tell us about yourself?

Hello, I’m Jenni Winter- I’m an actress and musician, as well as a teacher of performing arts, although since lockdown started I’m mostly a singer of cabaret songs and now a zoom-based teacher. I’m also busy setting up a community drama group, and completing an  MRes at Northumbria University. 

Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself! 

I’m a performer and teacher, and  three random facts about myself are: I’m a saxophone player, I grew up in theatrical digs, my favourite book is Frankenstein 

I have made some friends for life since becoming part of the improv community, it’s a really special, welcoming place


How did you get into playing music?

I got into playing music for a living by accident. I trained as an actress at Rose Bruford College and graduated in 2000. In those days the Actor Musician scene was just about to explode (in a good way) and if directors discovered you could play an instrument as well as act, you were snapped up. I was very lucky to be in London at an exciting time for Actor- Musician shows, which led to some wonderful parts, and I was lucky enough to work with some amazing actor musicians and theatre companies.  I then moved onto teaching in London drama schools and conservatoires, and working on many professional and student productions as a Musical Director. I never intended to be a professional musician- acting was always my first passion. But  now, of course, I love it!

How long have you been playing the piano?

I began playing the piano aged 4, when a family friend turned up at our house with a piano they no longer wanted. I grew up with my brother and my mum. We all started having lessons, and they both gave up quite quickly. Mum was never strict about much growing up, but by the time I also wanted to give up lessons it was the one thing she put her foot down about, and wouldn’t let me quit.

What inspired you to start doing musical performances?

I LOVE performing, it has always been my passion, and my real love is performing in theatres and bars, and  intimate spaces. I was never very bothered about making film or TV work. I teach a lot, and until lockdown was teaching and performing across the North East, as well as travelling to London a day a week to teach at London Studio Centre.  I adore teaching, but I think performing as well only makes me a better teacher, to really understand what I’m asking of the students. So I have never stopped performing.

  How did you  get into playing instruments?

I don’t really play any other instruments to a particularly good standard. I love the sax, but I have been playing my alto sax for the best part of the last 30 years, and still can’t get the sound I want from it. I  can strum a few chords on the guitar, and give a simple bass line on the double bass, and that’s about it. I think I’ll stick to the piano!

Do you want to learn to play any other instruments if so what are they?

One day I would like to learn to play both the cello and the harp.

What are some of your earliest memories of your first performances?

My first performance was as a polar bear in the West Jesmond Infant School nativity. Everyone who hadn’t been given a speaking part could wear any animal costume they had at home, if they wanted to join in the manger scene. My first memory of a spoken part, was in West Jesmond Junior School as the Sandman in Hansel and Gretel. I remember how happy I felt when I was given a solo song to sing, it was a really magical moment. 

You have a great voice! How did you get into singing? 

Gosh, that’s very kind of you! I sang for 2 years in a rock n roll touring musical and worked with a brilliant MD who really helped me with pitching and microphone technique. Recently I’ve been having singing lessons with Kerry Green. The main thing for me is practise, practise, practise! For years I didn’t realise I don’t really have any hearing in my right ear, and so I had real problems singing or playing with any amplified sound. There are some awful videos of me playing with a fantastic band, Toxic Melons, at the Carling Academy and just yelling into my mic, loud and flat, as I couldn’t hear a thing. 

Any advice for people who want to sing professionally?

Sing what you love. Honestly, all the songs I sing at the cabaret I have been singing my whole life. All the Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and so on- the composers of the Great American Songbook- I have been playing and singing for as long as I can remember,  as well as watching all those musicals. If you love what you’re singing, you’ll sing with flair! And also, practise, practise, practise. And listen to singers who inspire you. In my opinion, don’t worry too much about technique and producing a specific sound. Sing from your soul and let your own voice shine!

“I got into playing music for a living by accident.


What is your favourite song to sing live?

Priest, by Stephen Sondheim

What is the most challenging song to sing?

Anything contemporary, Hamilton for example. Brilliant, and very challenging.

Are there any songs that are too hard to sing whilst you play the piano?

Hah, well Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown are notoriously tricky to sing and play at the same time, so I mainly leave those the experts!

Tell us about the shows you perform in Newcastle?

I co-devised a show last year which was described as Physical Theatre, and I was lucky enough to perform it at Alphabetti. I’ve performed my solo show at Live Theatre, and have played with various theatre and improv companies in theatres and bars around the region. Before I moved back to Newcastle 10 years ago I mainly worked in London and on tour.

You also perform music for improv shows how did that come about

I met Ian Mclaughlin of the Suggestibles when we  were both working on a show at Whitley Bay Playhouse, and we hit it off straight away. A few weeks later he asked me to stand in for Alex, his pianist, at a gig at the Stand. I’d never played an improv show before and was nervous but excited, especially as Alex is so talented and amazing. The whole group were so supportive though – it was an amazing first gig.

I LOVE performing, it has always been my passion, and my real love is performing in theatres and bars, and  intimate spaces


How did you find your journey into the UK improv scene?

That first gig at the Stand with the Suggestibles was where my journey started, and from there I began attending classes and playing with other groups in the region. I have made some friends for life since becoming part of the improv community, it’s a really special, welcoming place, and I would recommend to anyone to book a place on the beginners improv class with School of Improv and join the community!

What have been some of your favourite shows you have played?

I had an amazing time being the resident musician for the Newcastle Improv Festival in 2019, and was privileged to play alongside so many improvisers in a really terrific atmosphere. I also was really honoured to play the Suggestibles all female line up for International Women’s Day 2020. I LOVE playing with local group Spontaneous Wrecks too. And I had a wonderful time playing the piano at Prohibition Cabaret Bar with Let Us Make It Up To You. 

What about for the improv show – what was your favourite improvised song?

I really can’t remember improv songs after they’ve been performed. I did enjoy Aspects of Endings, which was the musical improvised at the Newcastle Improv Festival, and was my mum’s last trip to the theatre, so it was a particularly special show for me.

More next week…

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