The 2017-18 season is the 50th for Yale Cabaret, the adventurous theater in a basement at 217 Park St. run entirely by students in the Yale School of Drama. Many great names of theater and performance have passed through as students in those 50 years, from Meryl Streep to Lupita Nyong’o, from Christopher Durang to Tarell Alvin McCraney.
And yet the Cab is not about big names. It’s about student-created projects that are not part of the curriculum. These are the shows that School of Drama students feel driven to create.
The Cab’s first season, said current Managing Director Rachel Shuey, commenced just after the election of Richard Nixon in November 1968. The Cab questioned the political climate from the start, said the Cab’s new artistic directors Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, a third-year actor, and Josh Wilder, a third-year playwright. Their predecessors looked to stage theatrical works that would challenge and inspire. The Cab 50 crew felt its mandate was to “go back to the Cab’s foundation: affirming students’ interests and tastes.”
The team also includes third-year director Rory Pelsue as associate artistic director, hot on the heels of serving as co-artistic director of Canon Balle, a very successful Yale Summer Cabaret season. The four see themselves as facilitators for their peers, working to achieve the kinds of stories and events the students of the School of Drama want to stage. McKenzie and Wilder have both been involved in theater groups outside of Yale: McKenzie in two ensemble groups in New Orleans and Wilder as a co-founder of the New Griots Festival at the Guthrie in Minnesota. Both McKenzie and Wilder have been named in American Theatre Magazine’s “Role Call” as “people to watch.”
The slogan of this year’s Cab is “Be Seen. Be Heard. Be Understood.” The emphasis is on the kinds of experiences and cultures that are often not addressed by more mainstream productions.
“The Cab should be a haven for students,” McKenzie said. “A place for artists to call home,” Pelsue said. McKenzie, a founding member of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion working group, stressed that this year represents the first year in which all students in the YSD program have gone through workshops on diversity as an aspect of theater.
All four members of the Cab’s artistic team have been involved in a number of Cab productions, beginning for Wilder and McKenzie in their second semester when McKenzie appeared in Wilder’s play “Salt Pepper Ketchup.” Wilder says the two bonded at orientation when they first arrived at Yale and were determined to work at the Cab. This season’s first offering finds them reunited in “One Big Breath,” written by Wilder with input from the cast over the last few weeks.
“One Big Breath,” which runs Sept. 14 to 16, takes on the issue of immigrants and refugees, as six people escape war in their home country for safe harbor in another. McKenzie said this first show is very deliberately an “in-house” production, involving the talents of 10 of the Cab associates, a group of advisors that provide student expertise in the many aspects of theater, from acting to directing to design.
The second show of the season, “The Diary of Adam and Eve” — the first part of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s “The Apple Tree” — is a musical that takes on the story of temptation and original sin. Directed by Pelsue (whose thesis production this year will be Stephen Sondheim’s Passion), “Diary” runs Sept. 21 to 23.
The third show, which runs Oct. 5 to 7, is Sean Devine’s “Re:Union.” Set during the Vietnam War era, the play’s extensive use of projections dramatizes the wrenching story of Norman Morrison, who died by self-immolation in protest at the Pentagon.
Fourth is “This American Wife” (Oct. 12 to 14), a multimedia performance piece first seen at last year’s Satellite Festival. Performers Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley interact with scenes from the reality show Real Housewives in an exploration of obsession, queerness, envy, gaudiness, and shame.
The Cab is also expanding its very popular drag show, which became a yearly event with the 2012-13 season. This year, there will be a three-night celebration of drag running March 8 to 10. One night will feature New Haven’s robust drag community. Another night is for Yale alums who would like to come back and participate. A final night will consist of three shows of drag entertainment provided by current YSD students.
Another recent innovation over the last two years, the Satellite Festival, will also be continued, Feb. 8-10. The exploration of shorter, eclectic performances involving music, movement, spoken word, and a variety of high-tech conceptions will be structured this year as five components to reference the five decades of the Cab’s existence. Shuey was instrumental in planning the initial festival and is a staunch believer in the festival format.
The dining experience has played a part in the Cabaret’s success over the years. In the early days, food was a much humbler component. This year, the Cabaret kitchen under Chef Anna Belcher will be serving up small plates and wine, changing along the way according to customer favorites and possibly the theme of the current show.
Pelsue pointed out that the first four shows of the season indicate the range of what the Cab is capable of: devised original work, classical musical theater, a charged political drama with exciting design elements, and a multimedia installation piece reflecting on popular culture. What keeps the Cab’s unique energy alive is that the season consists of “passion projects,” he said, works in which students’ drive to create theater makes for creative collaborations that benefit all.
Times may be dark, but there’s light in the basement at 217 Park.