Dive into the Drama School underground

Most actors have a dream part — some role they’d give anything to play. Actors the world over aspire to be Hamlet or Lady Macbeth. At the Drama School, they aspire to be flesh-eating zombies.

Last week’s performance of “Zombie Attacks!” at the Yale Cabaret — a theater run by Drama School students — featured seven zombies, nine characters who would join the undead by the end of the show, and a re-animated cat. And still they had to turn would-be zombies away.

“As soon as people heard the title, they came up to me wanting to be zombies,” said Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa DRA ’03, who proposed and acted in the show.Ê”We eventually had to put a cap on the number of zombies.”

The zombies — 16 by the end of the show — roamed among the tables at the small dinner theater, smoked joints, delivered self-consciously bad jokes, and made the most of every spurt of fake blood.

But the staged bloodbath was just the mark of another successful night at the Cabaret, with “Zombie Attacks!” marking the second week of this year’s 35th anniversary season. With a new show every week, the innovative performances in the Cabaret’s intimate basement are totally student-run, sometimes student-written, and always daring.



Guerilla theater

The building at 217 Park St., the home of the Cabaret for the last 35 years, used to be home to a very different kind of weekend entertainment — before the thespians moved into the neighborhood, the kegs had to roll out. The group of buildings along Park Street that now house the African-American Cultural House, GPSCY, and the Yale Cabaret used to be known as Fraternity Row, and when the fraternity at 217 Park St. shut down in 1968, the Drama School won the space. Enter the Cabaret.

The Cabaret wasn’t originally student-run and the first show featured only music and no theater. But then, Cabaret Artistic Director Brendan Hughes said, students revolted, demanding the Cabaret for themselves.

“Students took it over from the faculty and it’s been student-run since then,” Hughes said.

The Cabaret boasts an impressive list of famous alumni and the Drama School’s biggest stars — Angela Bassett, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, David Duchovny, Henry Winkler and Wendy Wasserstein all worked on Cabaret shows.

“It’s a wonderful tradition and a lot of great people have come out of the Cabaret,” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “It’s been great to be a part of that unbroken circle.”

But Cabaret theater is not without its challenges. Because of the fast rotation of shows, no cast gets much rehearsal time, and — to make things a little harder — each show only gets $175 for production materials.

“It’s sort of guerilla theater at its best,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “You pull it together and a miracle sort of happens and it’s amazing every time.”

But for full-time students, the rehearsal schedule can be grueling. The Drama School keeps students busy from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Hughes said, and the only chance to work on the Cabaret is after that, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

“You can always tell in class the people who are working on that week’s Cabaret,” Hughes said. “They’re the ones drooling. It’s in lieu of sleep that we do this. Sometimes I go to the bathroom and rest my head against the stall and try to get a little nap.”

Of course, it used to be worse. In the past — during the Meryl Streep days — the actors would cook the food themselves, wait the tables, trade their aprons for costumes, and then perform. Now the Cabaret boasts its own chef and separate kitchen and wait staff.



A loyal following

But zombies aren’t for everyone, and the Cabaret hardly wants to limit its patrons to the zombie-philes among us. So they attract the poets with a student’s homage to Beckett and Yeats, the elf fans with an adaptation of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” and the activists with a pro-union musical. The variety of this season’s repertoire is typical, Hughes said, and the only common theme is that they all take risks.

“The fun part of coming to the Cabaret is even if it’s a show you’ve heard of, it will be presented in ways you’d never expect,” Hughes said. “It’s one of the few theaters I’ve ever seen in my life that’s trained audiences to come out of curiosity.”

And come they do. The Cabaret sells out most late shows, thanks partly to a strong base of members with season tickets, and has built a large following among local residents — some of whom have been coming for decades.

Gladys Beloff of Middlefield said she and her husband have been members of the Cabaret for 25 years. (The Cabaret claims it’s been 28). Except for the odd emergency, they’ve made the 25-minute drive to the Cabaret once a week, every week, for 25 — or 28 — years.

“We like it because it’s very innovative,” Beloff said. “At times it’s beyond innovation. Sometimes we come out wondering what we’ve seen. But that’s part of the charm.”

Beloff said she and her husband have made some great friends through their membership — including one couple they meet for a double date at the Cabaret every Friday.

New Haven resident Don Byrd said he’s been to the Long Wharf Theater and the Yale Repertory Theatre but prefers the Yale Cabaret because of its unique theater space.

“It’s very free, very open,” he said.Ê”It’s nice and quaint and intimate.ÊMost theaters are much bigger and you’re far away. Here you’re in the midst of the action. You almost become one of the actors.”

Students who work at the Cabaret said they are not surprised at the following it has earned.

“This is where you come to break the rules,” said Johnny Salinas DRA ’03, one of the Cabaret’s managing directors.Ê”That’s what our patrons love. They’re not going to the Long Wharf Theater, they’re not going to the Yale Rep. They’re getting something they can’t get anywhere else.”

They’re getting something they can’t get anywhere else on the Yale campus, either, actors said, pointing to the Cabaret’s appeal over the other — often overly serious — Yale shows.

“It’s not as stuffy,” said Jami O’Brien DRA ’05, who has both acted in and written Cabaret shows. “There’s an atmosphere of fun. It’s got that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel. It’s got a spark that attracts people.”



The learning curve

Of course, it’s not all about the audience. The Cabaret provides Drama School students with opportunities they couldn’t get elsewhere, many students said. Hughes said he’s heard that Yale Drama School graduates are different because of their experience with the Cabaret.

“It would be a tragedy to graduate from this school without experiencing it,” he said. “It’s where the students can smash things together and see if something electric comes out.”

The Cabaret allows Drama School students — who are placed in a specific track — to take risks by trying new things. Playwriting students can act, actors can direct, and all the students can interact in new ways.

“It allows a lot of cross-pollination,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “It’s the next generation of theater artists doing shows that they really want to do.”

O’Brien said it’s the ability to do shows they may not get to do otherwise that is the real draw of the Cabaret for Drama School students.

“Most actors have some sort of dream part that they’re dying to play, but they might not get to do it in an academic environment like the Drama School,” she said.

And every Thursday night, Drama School students fill the Cabaret to support each other and be entertained.

“It’s our version of church,” Salinas said. “No matter what you have Friday morning, you better be at Cabaret Thursday night.”

The Cabaret may be the only weekend entertainment around to offer dinner, the occasional use of illicit drugs, and a smattering of bad puns on the same night. And sometimes, of course, flesh-eating zombies.

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