Play By Ear

Play By Ear

F or a small, student-run, literally underground on-campus project, the Yale Cabaret has always taken care to embrace the entire New Haven community and not just its immediate academic or theatrical ones.

The Cabaret changes leadership every academic year. Styles and tastes differ, but the format has remained essentially the same for the intitution’s 45-year history: The audience is seated at table. Food and drink are served before the show. Each show is a fully staged theater production that lasts about an hour. The shows each run several performances in a single weekend, including 11 p.m. late shows on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s a different show every weekend, nine per semester. (A separate leadership team presents an unrelated Summer Cabaret season, with longer shows that play for several weeks each). The shows are often experimental in nature and are seldom if ever the showtune revues which many folks associate with the word “cabaret.”

In fact, cabaret is a genre that stretches back to the 17th century. It can encompass any sort of entertainment that happens in a bar or restaurant. In Europe especially, there are long traditions of cutting-edge performances, political provocations and community uprisings occurring at cabarets.

sponsored by

New England Medical Group

The Yale Cabaret takes that legacy seriously—both the world history of cabaret as well as the space’s own impressive role in furthering the careers of Meryl Streep, Christopher Durang, Paul Giamatti and dozens of other major talents. It also builds lasting relationships with its audiences, challenging them and respecting their intelligence. Those audience members (which every week includes some newcomers heading down the stairs at 217 Park Street for the first time and some oldtimers who’ve witnessed several hundred shows there), in turn, appreciate the unpredictability and professionalism of the enterprise.

The offerings vary wildly. Last weekend, the Cabaret season opened with an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs, a hilarious social satire about a global agricultural crisis. Next week, the theater presents Ain’t Gonna Make It, described as a “rock & roll hybrid performance” which “takes an unabashed look at the certainty of knowing your time is almost up.”

This week, the Cabaret has This. (period included). This. is in a special tradition of Cabaret shows which draw directly from the New Haven community. Last year, the hyperlocal attraction was Street Scenes, a series of monologues based on the daily emails sent to Yale students by the university Police Department, and the students’ reactions to them. In the past, the Cabaret has dramatized the stories of real-life homeless people in New Haven, presented a musical about women’s liberation at the turn of the 20th century due to industrialization and bicycling in the city and staged an energetic, aerobicized rock & roll show based on locally rooted encounters from the “Missed Connections” personal-ads section of

For This., the show’s creators—director Margot Bordelon, playwright Mary Laws and dramaturg Alexandra Ripp—listened to stories gleaned from 40 firsthand interviews with fellow students, some regular Cabaret patrons and members of the Yale and New Haven communities at large. They also created an email account in case people wanted to submit answers to the playmakers’ questions anonymously.

The questions dealt with loss, change and “shadows of the past”:

• What’s an embarrassing thing that has happened to you that you still blush or cringe about now when you think about it?
• Have you ever lost a very meaningful object?
• Is there an object you have kept for a long time, but don’t know why? Or perhaps that has special significance?
• Have you ever made a decision that had larger repercussions than you anticipated?
• Is there a particular song that conjures a specific memory or time and place?

While they acknowledge “it would be incorrect to say we surveyed all of New Haven,” the women behind This. feel they achieved “a pretty equal mix” of respondents. As for the city itself, “we don’t speak directly about New Haven in the piece,” says Mary Laws, who was charged with creating a workable script from the reams of interview transcripts. Names, genders, ethnicities, landmarks and other details in the stories were altered in order to preserve the anonymity of the storytellers, and also to give the tales a universality.

Yet New Haven greatly informs the work, they feel. “What makes a community is the people of the community,” director Bordelon declares. “Their pasts, their childhoods, the snapshots of their individual histories…” As they looked for ways to structure the play, the women realized how many common themes were occurring in their research. They began to chart the songs referenced in the interviews, or the objects the respondents lost. “The play really focuses on loss, regret and fracture,” Bordelon says. The environment in which that loss took place can’t help but shine through.

By the time the show’s six-person cast was assembled, the script had gone through several drafts—“richer each time, definitely,” Laws says. It was now about “commonalities—how people experience a lot of things together.”

“Then,” Bordelon interjects, “that process itself became something we wanted to stage. We became interested in how people tell stories.”

Each of the actors takes on over a dozen separate roles in the hour-long play. They don’t use costumes or any props to make these transformations, just change their voices slightly for each new tale. “These are subtle shifts rather than broad characterizations,” Bordelon says. The actors were also not given clues about the backgrounds, speech patterns or appearances of the people whose stories they were telling. This. became about its stories. Despite the obscuring of revealing details, the stories are “97% verbatim,” Mary Laws says. “We wanted to maintain an honesty towards the text.” The result, Alex Ripp chimes in, “is really musical.” A community voice is developed.

Another aspect of community is unique to live performance: the ability to know and see exactly who’s in the audience. Laws says that This.’s creative team was taken by the idea that “we were making a piece of theater for the people who would be watching it.” The Cabaret space seats well under a hundred people. Many of the attendees at each performance of This. are likely to be people whose stories are featured in it, or who have stories similar to those featured.

“We felt that these stories were a gift.” It was a gift they wanted to honor, package nicely and share further. “We wanted to give back.”

Yale Cabaret presents This.
217 Park Street, New Haven (map)
Dates: September 27-29
Times: Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 & 11 p.m.
(203) 432-1566

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo courtesy of Yale Cabaret.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

Leave a Reply