I n 1974, when the Yale Summer Cabaret began, there were still summer theaters throughout Connecticut, and the United States, with this well-established format: a company of actors doing five or six plays back to back, switching up roles and scripts with aplomb. There might be a comedy next to a melodrama next to an Elizabethan classic.
“Summer stock,” as it’s known, was considered one of the best ways for a young actor to gain practical experience, in a broad range of styles, in a hurry.
In New Haven, there’s another way to attain those professional goals: attending the Yale School of Drama. But some of those students, who spend years at Yale studying the classics, creating cutting-edge experimental works and dabbling in everything in between, apparently can’t get enough.
Those hardy thespians are now visible, all summer long, at the Yale Summer Cabaret. The team chosen to run the Yale Summer Cabaret this year has embraced the old ways while adding their own contemporary outlook. They’ve built a repertory company whose members might do a lead role in one show, then a smaller supporting part in the next. They’ve put together a season which deftly mixes comedy and tragedy, reality and fantasy, the old world with the new.
The season opened last week with Molière’s 17th-century social satire Tartuffe, about a scoundrel in cleric’s robes who preys upon a wealthy household. Next up is August Strindberg’s dire classist fling Miss Julie.
As the season’s Artistic Director Dustin Wills (who’s directing three of the five shows) puts it: “We were looking for giant plays. The excitement is in jumping from Molière’s rhyming couplets into Strindberg’s naturalism, into Lorca’s poetry, into Tennessee Williams’s heartbreaking writing into Caryl Churchill, who shows that language can be insufficient to achieve anything.”
Many of the Summer Cabaret actors, plus Wills and Associate Artistic Director Chris Bannow, gathered in the space the other morning to share their communal vision for the summer. Bannow, a Yale School of Drama acting student who was born and raised in New Haven (where he attended the Educational Center for the Arts magnet high school program), plays Orgon, Tartuffe’s gullible victim, in the season-opening Molière comedy and is also directing two shows. He describes the Cabaret’s goal as moving “from style to style, working different muscles all summer… like a circuit workout.” His exercise metaphors amuse his colleagues, who come up with some outlandish variations of their own but clearly share the same vision of “pushing each other” while staying limber and maintaining control.
Mitchell Winter, who plays the starry-eyed young lover in Tartuffe, will become a more hostile romantic figure as Jean in Miss Julie, then the formidable Bar Man in Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel and finally a gay man in an angry relationship with an American in Caryl Churchill’s political allegory Too Drunk to Say I Love You. He’s thankful for the dizzying variety because, as student actors, “we never get to do a run for this long.” School of Drama and school-year Cabaret shows get around six performances each, while the Summer Cabaret offerings will get between eight and thirteen. Ashton Heyl, who plays the wisecracking maid Dorine in Tartuffe, adds that “the rehearsal process is so short, we’re discovering more about the text each night” while performing it. Tartuffe had only three full run-throughs prior to opening night, Heyl explains. “We’re running it for longer than we rehearsed it.”
The actors and directors have all worked together as classmates. With a couple of exceptions, everyone involved has just completed the second year of their three-year graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama. But the familiarity largely ends there: none have worked on these particular plays before, and almost none have even seen any other productions of the plays. Ceci Fernandez, who assumes multiple walk-on roles in Tartuffe and carries the title role in Miss Julie, says, “It’s so exciting, in terms of the language, how getting what you want from your partner can be so drastically different.”
Bannow hopes that “the audience gets to go on this same journey with our ensemble.” So far so good. Ticket sales have been brisk. Patrons of Tartuffe have expressed great interest in returning to see the same actors in other roles.
Behind the scenes, the ensemble members don’t just enjoy acting opposite each other; they spend most of their downtime together as well, shopping or going to the beach or preparing bits for the Summer Cabaret’s special “Late Night” series on Fridays from 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., which involves everything from dance parties to special short theater performances to “boy band videos,” “blind wrestling” and “perpetual beer pong,” presented on or around a stage in the Cabaret’s outdoor garden area.
Prema Cruz—who plays a delightfully flustered old biddy in Tartuffe—marvels at the ensemble’s collective skills and level-headed devotion to craft. “This whole team, they’re just so good at what they do. There are no divas. We want to be around each other all the time. We just did yoga upstairs today.”
Micky Theis, who dons a fat-suit for his role as Cleante, Elmire’s brother and Orgon’s confidante in Tartuffe, declares, “We are a class, and we are all friends. This is our last summer together in grad school. There is nowhere else I would rather be.”
Yale Summer Cabaret
Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.