Eli thespians come together at Cabaret

It’s no secret that acting is a tough business. Those Yale School of Drama graduates who have ventured out into the real world of New York theater know that Yalies are not immune to the plight of the starving artist.

“As much support as you’re given from Yale, there isn’t a support base once you come to New York City,” Pun Bandhu DRA ’01 said. “It can feel like ‘sink or swim.'”

Of the 100,000 actors in the United States, fewer than half make more than $7,500 annually, the national poverty level for a single person, according to “Acting Professionally: Raw Facts About Careers in Acting”, a book by Robert Cohen. With only between 2,000 and 3,000 American actors supporting themselves fully through their acting work, Cohen presents a bleak picture of the highly competitive job market for Yale’s dramatists.

Fortunately, those Yalies bitten by the acting bug have a new home base — the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret, whose most recent play, “Valiant,” ran through last week.

Formed in December 2004, the group is modeled after the celebrated Yale Cabaret, where playwrights such as David Ives DRA ’84 and actors such as Meryl Streep DRA ’75 got their start. The Cabaret is designed to be a venue where audiences can sit with friends and have a meal as the acting company experiments with innovative theater.

While not all the members of the company are affiliated with Yale, Heidi Seifert DRA ’85, the group’s founder and managing director, said UNYYC currently includes graduates from 1969 to 2001. Seifert, like many other alums, said her fondest memories of acting at Yale came from the Cabaret, and that her goal was to recreate the atmosphere for New York City actors. So Seifert went about recruiting Yale School of Drama graduates and soon amassed enough support to found the theater company.

“It was a really wonderfully charged, energized kind of experience,” Seifert said. “When you get out into New York, you drift all around, and you don’t get to see those incredibly talented people again.”

Bandhu, who is the group’s publicity director as well as its youngest board member, said surviving the rigorous “Yale School of Trauma” creates a community that allows for experimentation.

“It’s kind of the same bond that frat brothers might have after ‘Hell Week,'” Bandhu said.

And the company’s actors are not the only ones encouraged to experiment through the Cabaret. Its members often perform plays by unknown and emerging playwrights, and within its first year of existence, the UNYYC has staged a New York premiere, a United States premiere and a world premiere.

Liz Alsina DRA ’06, the managing director of the Yale Cabaret, said alumni treasure their Cabaret experiences.

“It’s a culture of acceptance, risk, of trying new things, being fun,” Alsina said. “There’s still a pressure to do really great work, but it’s also balanced with a sense of enjoyment.”

Yet no amount of talent, innovation or even determination can protect UNYYC from the brutal jaws of the New York theater industry. The group was forced to leave its first home, the restaurant Bennigan’s, after the establishment closed earlier this year.

“The problem is that New York real estate is so expensive,” Seifert said. “And we’re looking for something really special — the Cabaret atmosphere.”

The troupe found a new stage at the West Bank Cafe soon after Bennigan’s closed. However, the Cabaret is still searching for a permanent home.

Kenny Bell, coordinator of special events at West Bank Cafe, said Yale alumni have been performing in the restaurant for years and are always well received by patrons.

Though the UNYYC’s obscure plays and inventive staging may make it difficult for them to find a permanent home, their methods are attracting acclaim. The entire group was named one of NYTheater.com’s Most Influential People.

An even greater achievement has been creating a community for artistic Yale graduates, Bandhu said. He said the troupe serves as a version of the Yale Club for the arts community.

Perhaps most importantly, UNYYC gives talented Yale actors, lighting and set designers, playwrights, producers and directors an encouraging place to display their provocative talent.

“At one point at Bennigan’s, [the restaurant owners] got scared and wondered if everyone would keep their clothes on,” Seifert said. “If you want to begin to engender new talent, that’s part of the prerequisite. When we bring plays in, we’re looking for that freshness, not knowing how something is going to work out, not doing what everyone is used to seeing.”

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