Title: A State of Play

Last weekend, I stumbled down the stairs of 217 Park Street into the isolated lobby of the Yale Cabaret (Cab, for short). It was 10 p.m., and I had arrived promptly for my dinner reservation preceding the 11 p.m. showing of TBD: A Festival of Rough Drafts. The lobby’s bright block-colored walls were splattered with signatures, inside jokes, and doodles — a mosaic of theatrical process. I stared at a clumsy silhouette of a body outlined in black paint on the west wall of the lobby. It was labeled “Disco Nap.” A Yale School of Drama (YSD) student appeared holding a clipboard, explaining the drawing’s backstory, “Someone was setting up a disco ball show and got tired, so someone else marked his place of rest.” She led me into the Cab’s empty stage space and seated me at large round table at the front.

Courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

It was clear from the otherwise empty basement that I had taken my 10 p.m. reservation slot slightly too seriously. The Cab — small, intimate, casual — was not really a place where I had to be on time. Our friendly waiter, a YSD student getting their MFA in Acting, handed us the wine list, poking at their iPad and recommending desserts. Later in the evening, the waiter’s friend came up to say hi as they were handing us our appetizer. Confronted with the friend’s street clothes and informality, the waiter flashed us a smile, jokingly whispering to their friend, “You’re performing tonight, go backstage or you’ll ruin the illusion!”

A Festival of Rough Drafts — a debut for the Cab — featured short pieces still in the process of becoming fully fledged works. Each piece featured a YSD student working outside of their traditional discipline: playwrights as lighting designers, scenic designers as actors, actors as playwrights.

Benjamin Benne, DRA ’21, and Sunny Jisun Kim’s, DRA ’21, opened the night with a textural exploration of shadow puppets, ending their piece clad in cartoonish masks lit up by LEDs. The performances closed with Mika Eubanks, DRA ’19, and April Hickman, DRA ’20, detailing nightmarish dating stories and unpacking “The Weaknesses of Men.” But these pieces only make up the bread of an eclectic sandwich. Between these were an animated staged reading, a digital avatar of Liu Xiaobo reciting narratives of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and a tap dancing man in a tuxedo whistling “Memory” from Cats. In some ways, TBD feels representative of what the Cab is all about: cultivating a meaningful playspace where YSD students can work across their disciplines to make theater, in whatever form they choose.

Courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

The Yale Cabaret is now in its 51st season. Its walls are thick with layers of paint — Professor Matthew Suttor, who is both YSD faculty and the Chair of the Yale Cabaret’s Advisory Board, notes, “If you chip them, it’s like an archaeological layering of production after production after production. There’s this sort of history literally painted on`the walls.”

Each season is led by an artistic team, who apply with a specific mission and set of values and are chosen by the Yale Cab’s Board of Directors — a group made up of YSD faculty and students. Dean of the Yale School of Drama, James Bundy, DRA ’95, explains “One of the delightful things about the Cabaret is that each artistic director team gets to set the aesthetic agenda for the year, so the Cabaret always reflects the ways the sensibilities of those leaders meet the Cabaret student body. So the Cabaret is a transparent snapshot each year of the issues and the preoccupations of the current students at the school.

This year’s leadership team is focused on foregrounding the Cab’s legacy as a learning space. Molly FitzMaurice, DRA ’19, one of the Co-Artistic Directors for the Cab’s 51st season, explains, “We are particularly interested in artistic risk, in folks stepping outside of the ways that they’ve worked before or trying on new roles… in healthy process and the ways people work together.”

Prof. Suttor agrees that the value of the Cab is less in the “product” but in the joy of theater-making. “I check my judgment at the door. I truly never think after every show, ‘that was good show,’ ‘that was a bad show.’ I’m just happy to be there and happy that they’re doing what they’re doing. Every performance is a triumph.”

The Cab offers YSD students the unique opportunity for total artistic freedom that students would not be able to access otherwise. “I think that primarily I see the Cabaret as a huge strategic asset for a conservatory like ours,” says Dean Bundy. He explains that students at YSD work mostly within an assigned repertoire, and all stages of their artistic process have consistent faculty oversight. “And so, as adult learners, they have a different kind of outcome [at the Cab] when they get to set their own agenda.”

Latiana “LT” Gourzong, DRA ’19, this year’s other co-Artistic Director, comments, “There are a lot of things that happen at [YSD], where you might not actually see that person’s final vision, because so many faculty members told them to do it a different way. Whereas in the Cab… you can potentially really see the ‘I really wanted to do this,’ and then see the thing they actually wanted to do, as opposed to seven other versions of it.” FitzMaurice adds, “It is the space where you can do something you can’t do anywhere else.”

The Cab puts on 18 shows a year, including an annual Drag show and the Satellite Festival. The Satellite Festival consists of various shows that take place over a weekend, featuring creatives across the graduate schools of Drama, Music, Art and other members of the Yale community. Unlike the rest of the season, the shows that make up the Festival are not confined to the Cab space. Gourzong details, “last year there was something on the loading dock, and in a car.” The 2017–2018 Satellite Festival was described on the Cab’s website as “a collective explosion of creative expression,” with “performances more unusual than the usual.”

All the regular shows in the season are decided through a proposal process. The season is determined on a rolling basis and curated in chunks, with various cycles of calls for proposals. Students first propose their pieces in written form, and then interview with the artistic leadership. There are various formal constraints for shows. They must be able to stage their piece with 75 chairs for audience members; 42 of which have to be at tables for diners; the show must run for fewer than 70 minutes; each show gets a budget of $350.

There are many advantages and excitements for this set-up. “It’s often a lot of passion projects or works that folks don’t find they have room to do within their department or their curriculum,” FitzMaurice explains, “[but] they can do it in this basement.” The rapid turnover and curate-as-you-go structure allows people to create with a sense of urgency. Dean Bundy explains, “One of the most exciting things about the work is that artists in the Cabaret are able to speak to the current moment… at the Cabaret, I think people are able to respond very rapidly. In fact, there’s a long and happy tradition of people sometimes writing sketches for York Street that are performed the week they were written.”

Courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

In a Cabaret proposal to lead the 1994–1995 season, YSD students described the Cabaret as “an aesthetic laboratory of creative adventure… a place which nourishes and is nourished by the larger Drama School community.” They continue, “The Cabaret should offer members of the Drama School community the opportunity — and the encouragement — to be aesthetically daring. And aesthetically exquisite.” The Cab’s history however, demonstrates how Drama School students often had to fight their institution to have this opportunity.

The Yale Cabaret opened its doors in 1968, the day after Richard Nixon was first elected President of the United States. The Cab was founded and remained under the jurisdiction of the then-Dean of the Drama School, Robert Brustein. The Cab’s first ever production was A Kurt Weill Cabaret, performed by Martha Schlamme and Alvin Epstein. Neither Schlamme, a professional actor Brustein brought in from New York City, nor Epstein, a member of the Yale Repertory Company, were Yale School of Drama students. In fact, none of those who programmed, directed, or performed in this show were students. (Regardless, it was a success: Schlamme and Epstein continued to perform the show on Broadway in New York in the late ’70s.) Although the Cab was, from its inception, intended to function as an experimental space extending from the Drama School, the early days of the Cab paint a different picture.

The Drama School, in the late 1960s, was in dire need of more space. By 1968, all classes, offices, and theater spaces had been confined to the University Theatre — a space also shared by the professional Yale Repertory Company and the Yale Dramatic Association. When the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity dissolved due to financial problems and lack of membership, Brustein won a University-wide bid to assume the space. The space’s basement was transformed from a fraternity dining hall into the Yale Cabaret — which, from its inception, was especially interested in the possibilities offered by a dine-in theater. For its first five years, however, the Cab was mainly a space controlled by Brustein to stage professional productions. Other than featuring professional performers from in and around New York City, the Yale Cab also became a second performance space for the Yale Repertory Company. The Rep Company, although not made of Drama School students, shared resources and spaces with YSD. As Amauta Marston-Firmino, DRA ’19, a Dramaturgy student and a historian of the Yale Cab, explains, “the Yale Cabaret was just another venue for Yale Repertory Theater… it was basically just a revenue model for [it].” In the early 1970s, the Drama School acquired the vacant Baptist Church on the corner of York and Chapel, which was transformed into what is now known as the Yale Repertory Theatre. By the 1970s, Brustein had three spaces: the University Theatre, the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the Yale Cab. His Repertory Company had access to all three; Yale Drama students were more or less constrained to the University Theatre.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the question of the Yale Cab was caught in a web of tensions unfolding between students and administrators in the Drama School over the professional Rep Company. Many YSD students were aggravated by Brustein’s concentration on the professional company, which seemed to supercede his interest in teaching. The lack of opportunity for students in the Drama School grew into a kind of dissent. One of their central demands became autonomy over their work — the ability to make theater outside of the faculty’s approval power. And their eyes were on the Cab.

The Drama School students’ desire to assume the Cab extended beyond their academic hopes. Various things happened at Yale between the years of 1968 and 1973 that pushed students to fight for their chance to make their own theater and tell their stories. The City of New Haven was plagued by urban renewal campaigns, which succeeded in demolishing thousands of homes, often belonging to impoverished communities of color. A routine of riots unfolded in New Haven, including the 1968 city-wide riot centering around the Black Panther trials. At Yale, specifically, there were also a number of changes: in 1968, the African American Studies Department was founded and in 1969, Yale College became co-ed. In September 1968, the Living Theater company performed Paradise Now at the University Theatre, which involved undressing and running into York Street to protest. Eight performers were arrested. Marston-Firmino comments, “All of these things came together at the same time that really influenced the student population — not just at the University but specifically at the Drama School.”

In 1969, Drama students organized a committee to lobby Brustein over control of the Cabaret. The inconsistencies in Yale’s archives make this committee slightly hard to track, especially in terms of its size. In different documents, the group is referred to as the Committee of 8, the Committee of 15, and the Committee of 21. Perhaps it kept growing. At first, Brustein rejected their proposal. In a Yale Daily News article from 1969 titled, “What’s Wrong in the Drama School?” Brustein is quoted exclaiming, “No Drama School student will direct, act, or design for any production on any public stage in the University without prior approval of me or my faculty.” (For context, it is worth mentioning that Brustein was believed to be a radical Dean of the Drama School, and introduced many initiatives that have shaped YSD and Yale for years to come. In this same article he is characterized as “the benevolent big daddy of the Drama School.”) Students kept fighting for control over the Cab until the early ’70s, when Brustein conceded and agreed to divide up the Cabaret’s space and grant Drama students production slots to put up their own pieces. Until the mid-1970s, the Cabaret’s season was split between Drama School students and the Rep Company — both shared the space, alternating show after show. The 1972–1973 season marks the first in which students programmed and performed in the Yale Cabaret. And finally, around 1975, YSD students succeeded in taking over the Cabaret completely. “When that happened, the entire programming model of the Cabaret changed. It became this free space of experimentation. It wasn’t about making revenue for the Yale Rep Theatre, it was now just about allowing students to do things that they didn’t have the opportunity to do elsewhere.”

What emerged was a kind of explosion of new and experimental work. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, students put up shows over four days a week. They produced musical shows, improv and sketch comedy, traditional cabarets, new plays, old plays, dance, performance art and more. Finally, in the late ’90s, the Yale Cab was formalized, and rules were introduced, codifying performance nights, show times, and audience capacities. Since YSD students began using the Cab space, it has served as an artistic center for both Yale and New Haven communities. Often surprising, radical, conceptual, and moving, the Cab remains an intimate place for coming together for dinner and a show.

This past summer, the Summer Cabaret — a separate institution from the Yale Cabaret, with a separate board and structure — closed for a season because of an “internal conflict around issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion,” explained Marston-Firmino in an email. After the controversy, they’re restructuring their Board of Directors and the process by which they choose the Summer Cabaret’s student leadership. This event falls under a larger conversation regarding theater’s contested history as an exclusive artform.

The Yale School of Drama is constantly engaging with questions of inclusivity and representation. The history of theater and the history of Yale overlap in their traditions of inaccessibility, and YSD is combatting the double heritages of white cis men as they continue forward. Prof. Suttor explains how YSD and the Yale Rep are changing and expanding beyond “the voices of white heteronormative male playwrights.” However, there is still a long way to go. Suttor describes a conversation he had with one of his students about El Huracán, a play at the Yale Rep earlier this semester that focused on three generations of Latina women. His student described how “that was the first time I saw my family on stage.”

Although the Rep and YSD are changing, the Cab has always been a place for students to tell their stories. Armando Huipe, DRA ’19, the Managing Director for the 51st season, explains, “We produce more work by, for, and representing queer people and people of color… If there’s an important political role we play on campus, it has to do with representation on stage.”

It is worth noting that YSD and the Rep are making significant strides. The next season of the Rep is particularly exciting in terms of racial representation, featuring Good Faith, which concentrates on cases of racial discrimination in the New Haven Fire Department, an afro-futurist Twelfth Night, and Cadillac Crew, which tells the story of four Civil Rights activists. Recently, the Rep also announced the 2018–2019 No Boundaries Performance Series featuring WET: A DACAmented Journey by Alex Alpharaoh and What Remains by Claudia Rankine.

“As a school we’re grappling with all these sorts of issues,” Prof. Suttor comments. “And students are very much trying to work this through. And it’s painful… we’re getting used to feeling uncomfortable. So I think these are big changes. In some sense they are political, but it’s not just about party politics, it’s about the body politic.” In theater, there is political significance in whose bodies are represented on stage, and who is writing, directing, and designing the telling of their stories.

Everyone interviewed for this piece can point to at least one favorite memory at the Yale Cabaret. The Cab, which cares about the value of making more than the critical merit of what’s made, has a propensity for igniting memories accompanied by smiles or laughs.

To offer one of my own: a few weeks ago, I attended the Untitled Kesha Project at the Cab, a musical production featuring many Kesha songs sprinkled with YSD inside jokes that I can’t claim to have understood. Before the performance began I was asked whether or not I would like to include my name in a bowl and possibly be picked to participate in the show. After agreeing, I sat nervously for the first 40 minutes of the show until, low and behold, “Nurit Chinn” was announced to approach the stage for a competitive dance. Not knowing anyone there was liberating but, I lament to say, I was still voted out first (BUT not after initially tying with another dancer, who I went head-to-head with for a small second round before I was publicly determined the worst of the two. I get it.) No hard feelings, though. Really.

Speaking to faculty revealed the energy present in the 217 Park Street basement. Dean Bundy described, “Some of the most memorable things I’ve seen in the theater anywhere I’ve seen at the Cabaret. Several times a year I end up leaping to my feet and weeping buckets of tears because something has happened that is completely life-changing for me. So I love going there, I love the surprises, I love the passion, I love the risk-taking, I love the immediacy.” Professor Suttor agrees: “It reminds me why I like doing what I do, why I fell in love with this, like the first productions I did as a student, it was amazing, and then as a professional you lose it. So the Cabaret brings that back.”

The Artistic Directors inform me that no matter how difficult or tiring the process, it’s always worth it. FitzMaurice exclaims, “This is the conversation, this is the play, this is the process worth staying up until one in the morning for.”

There is a common refrain at YSD that rings whenever a student articulates a creative desire to make something of their own: “Put it in the Cab.”

Title: A State of Play was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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