Story by Sally Henry
Photos by Greg Mooney
In the early grassroots days of her cabaret, Courtenay Collins’s neighbors used to let her borrow Christmas decorations to spice up her rented venue. She may have a larger budget for set dressing now that she is at the Alliance Theatre, but the holiday spirit of giving is still at the heart of Courtenay’s Cabaret.
“My neighbors kind of miss it. This year they said, ‘Wait, don’t you need my reindeer? You don’t need my light-up baby Jesus?’” Collins shares with a laugh. “Back then, it was just an excuse to get some people in a room, sing to them, and share some Christmas joy. I did it in Sandy Springs at this adorable little theatre. I think we squished 90 people in there per night. I didn’t have any decorations, so I went around to all my neighbors and practically stole their decorations off their lawn, with permission. I just wanted it to look like Christmas threw up in the room!”
The concept of a Christmastime cabaret in the first place came from the success of her album, “A Merry Little Christmas.”
“I recorded it about 15 or 17 years ago, and it was before everybody was coming out with all of their Christmas CDs,” Collins recalls. “When I was doing my research, I tried to find songs that not everyone was singing and that weren’t on everyone’s Christmas albums. So I just found all of these beautiful songs that inspired me to record. The album came first, and then a Christmas cabaret sort of evolved. That’s how it started, but it also kind of merged with my new love for and experience in the cabaret medium.”
Collins says that though she grew to embrace the cabaret format as a unique way of telling her story to an intimate audience, she was initially afraid of the idea.
“When I first started performing cabarets, it was frightening because the audience was right there. You couldn’t ignore them or pretend they weren’t there because lights were in your eyes!” says the classically trained actress, noting the stark contrast to her previous theatre experience which had always included a strong, safe fourth wall. “I had to sort of adjust my thinking because really, the audience is part of the show in a cabaret. But you don’t know what they’re going to say; you don’t know how they’re going to answer your questions. And I fell in love with that!”
She sees Courtenay’s Cabaret as a perfect way to combine that love for cabarets with her love for being a hostess. And she takes this idea of hosting pretty seriously.
“[The set] is basically my dream living room, so the whole space has the feeling that we’re all at the same party, and everyone is a guest in my home,” says Collins. “Everything that you want to do at a gathering in December, we do it. We celebrate everything that people celebrate – Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, family, friends, and reunions. I want it to be a place where people can come in, feel great, be with their friends and family, and come back year after year.”
This year serves as Collins’s homecoming cabaret, having recently finished her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-nominated The Prom earlier this year. Collins refers to both the return of her cabaret and her appearance in The Prom, which premiered at the Alliance in 2016, as a continuation of her “love affair with the Alliance.”
“[The Alliance Theatre] was the first place I worked when I came back to town with my babies, and that’s the place I have the most happy memories of really being part of a family. I think they do what they do so well, on such a professional level. I’m so proud of the Alliance.”
Having just come back from New York, the actress is combining the best of both the Big Apple and the South, calling the spirit of her cabaret a “sophisticated New York evening with a Southern hospitality flair.”
“I love the holidays. I really do. And I know as a mom how stressful they can be, so you want to have a place where you can get away from the stress and really celebrate, really just be with your family. I talk about this a little bit too, how the holidays not only can be stressful, but also hard for people who have lost their loved ones. So we want to be respectful of that too, and we honor the memory of those special people we love.”
To Collins, if audiences leave the performance feeling like they have been welcomed into a party with their loved ones to celebrate being together, she has done her job.
“Everybody has their gifts, and I know that I have been given the gift of joy and the gift of being able to watch my parents. My mother is the ultimate hostess. The ability to make other people feel included, feel good, and have a good time is a gift. I can’t balance my check book. I’m really bad at paying bills and I don’t like conflict, but I do joy pretty well.”