Playing Through

I n lieu of theater seating, no longer an option in the time of COVID, Yale Cabaret’s Jimmy Stubbs came up with a novel alternative: the bathtub. 

For the second production of its 2020-21 season, the innovative, graduate student-run production company of the Yale School of Drama presented Untitled Bathtub Theater Project in three live performances earlier this month. Billed as an “auditory and sensory experience,” Bathtub literally asked its audience to get in the tub. Actors and even some technical staff did the same.

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Donor Advised Funds - The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Following strict warnings about using electronics like phones, laptops and headphones while submerged in water, the show began at 8 p.m. on a Friday evening by instructing listeners to fill their tubs and, while they were doing it, think about a large body of water they feel connected to—a visualization of sorts. I’ll admit, I wasn’t in the mood for a bath. But I did haul a lawnchair into my bathroom and put my feet up on the edge of the tub so I could relax, as instructed, and enjoy the show. As I listened to the somewhat distorted sound of one actor’s own bathtub filling up all the way, I let a couple of inches of water into mine. This opener went on for some time—until 8:17, to be exact. Along the way, I zoned out on memories of riding a beat-up aluminum canoe affectionately known as “old number 7” into the Hudson River on the Fourth of July to watch fireworks. My job on that long-ago evening had been to bail.

What followed in Untitled Bathtub Theater Project was an immersive audio experience including poetry, songs, storytelling, laughter and the occasional emphatic plink from my own faucet, which I hadn’t known until then was a little bit drippy. Audience members were encouraged to mimic the splashing of water in the performance using their own baths. At one point, lulled by a soothing song from actors Madeline Seidman and Hallie Voulgaris, I might have drifted off. The show was followed by a talkback on Zoom; creators were thoughtful enough to give the audience 15 minutes to dry off first.

Untitled Bathtub Theater Project is just one example of how the Cab is reinventing itself for a year in which many theaters—including Yale Repertory—have canceled their entire seasons. Meanwhile, Yale Cabaret is planning 15 shows plus potlucks, workshops and the annual Dragaret and Satellite Festival. As part of a community-authored action plan supporting Black Lives Matter, a Black Theater Festival of readings and works-in-progress by Black artists from within and outside the Yale community is scheduled for December 10-12.

If anyone is poised to do all this, the Cab is. After all, managing director Matthew Sonnenfeld says, “The cabaret reinvents itself every year, so that’s not anything that’s new.”

The season launched in September with a radio play of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Tanika Gupta. First produced in 2012, the piece was built for radio, so it wasn’t a matter of adapting a performance meant to be onstage into something pandemic-ready, Sonnenfeld says. Instead, it was a case of doing work that was “best served” in audio form.

On October 23-24, the Cab will present Love Songs, a multimedia “interactive experience and artists’ salon,” as Sonnenfeld describes it, proposed by YSD students Lily Haje and Madeline Pages. Love Songs addresses the first eight parts of a 34-part poem titled “Songs to Joannes” by Modernist poet Mina Loy; theatrical responses to the remaining 26 parts will be released “periodically throughout the year.”

Other upcoming shows include Ambient Dreams for Sleep-Deprived Teens on November 13-14, an audiovisual satirical health and wellness radio show proposed by Yale School of Music student Samantha Wolf. Voices in the Dark (proposed by Maggie McCaffrey), an ASMR-inspired radio play about two people weathering a storm that Sonnenfeld calls a “fly on the wall piece” with an element of horror, runs December 4-5. Future productions have yet to be announced or even, in some cases, developed.

You can buy individual tickets for any of these shows, but in its pivot to face what’s next for theaters, the Cab is offering memberships for the first time. For $70 (with discounts for Yale faculty, staff and students) theatergoers can attend every performance as well as potlucks and special events. Memberships also offer unlimited access to the new, online Cab Gallery, where asynchronous “installations, visual art, film works, sound compositions, and other pre-existing or pre-recorded works of art” will be posted.

So far, the virtual experiment appears to be a success. Zoom’s analytics have handed Sonnenfeld detailed data; people have been “signing in from all corners of the world.” And while the basement of the Cab’s theater at 217 Park Street seats 75 on a sold-out night, the sky’s nearly the limit online. The largest audience so far this season has been 120, Sonnenfeld reports, and 99 people got in the bathtub together on that Friday night when I listened in. “We assume that all of those logins are essentially households,” Sonnenfeld says. “[T]he actual attendance numbers are higher than the login, so that’s pretty exciting.”

There are other benefits to the virtual season as well. In the Bathtub talkback, performer Sola Fadiran called the piece and, indeed, the season a “brushup on listening.” “Your ears are forced to perk up,” he said. “It’s just a reminder that you can sit and listen.”

Yale Cabaret
Next Show: Love Songs, October 23 & 24
(203) 432-1566 | ysd.cabaret@yale.edu
Website | Season Schedule

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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