From Los Angeles to London, theater venues boast about employing alumni from the Yale School of Drama. Come Oct. 7, Bennigan’s in New York’s Times Square — the chain restaurant better known for mozzarella sticks and chicken wings than for fine theater — has reason to boast, too.
In a little more than one week, the first season of the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret (UNYYC, pronounced “unique”) will begin. Formed by 11 former School of Drama students, the non-profit theater company’s goal is not merely to take the Yale Cabaret’s famous style to 47th Street, but also to provide a space for creativity and community within the stressful world of New York theater. If they are successful, members of the board said, UNYYC will do for New York theater what the Yale Cabaret did for them when they attended the high-pressure Yale School of Drama.
“The Yale Cabaret is where we went to blow off steam, where we went to be ourselves,” said Heidi Seifert, managing director. “There weren’t any faculty members there; no one was grading you. You could do and be whatever you wanted to be. And if that meant you were in the acting department but you secretly wanted to be a director, you could be one.”
Because of reasons she preferred not to disclosed, Seifert left after her first year at the School of Drama, where she had been studying theater administration. She became a therapist, as well as a trainer for investigators of child abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. But the disappointment of not being in theater gnawed at her, and so did her memories of the high-energy, low-budget and often zany productions she enjoyed at the Yale Cabaret.
Even some of those students who do graduate from the School of Drama feel something is missing, said Pun Bandhu DRA ’01, an artistic board member for UNYYC. He said graduates realize that having a Yale diploma — and even a great deal of talent — is not always enough to make it in the ultra-competitive world of New York theater. Many alumni say that, after the training and support they receive at Yale, they seem to be cut adrift upon graduating, Bandhu said.
Most of all, the graduates miss feeling as though they have a vibrant theater community always waiting for them, Seifert said.
“People are looking for a place that they can call home,” she said. “And [with UNYYC] I may not be able to give them giant sets and everything else right away, but at least I can give them a place where they can feel like, ‘I’m crafting again, I can be part of my art again.'”
The Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret is so unprecedented that it caused problems with the Actors’ Equity Association, said artistic director George Tynan Crowley DRA ’90. The union was nervous the company would not adequately compensate its actors and wanted an agreement with UNYYC along the lines of traditional cabarets. The UNYYC board had to fight for the recognition that they were creating non-profit, experimental theater, rather than a corporate money-making scheme.
The company is funded by donations and one grant. The staffs for each performance receive a small budget, transportation, rehearsal and performance space, access to free costumes and props, and a cut at the box office, Bandhu said. Most importantly, they receive exposure to the public and to other theater professionals.
One of the most difficult challenges for the Cabaret was finding a performance space, Seifert said. Spaces the company could afford in New York were even smaller than its budget, not to mention smelly, dingy and dark. Surprisingly for the board members, Bennigan’s became their best bet. The restaurant allows the company to perform there free of charge, requesting only that it keeps the money from food and drink.
Even better, board members said, is the space itself, which is slightly larger than the original Yale Cabaret, and, in some ways, oddly similar.
“When you go to the Cabaret at Yale, you go down a cement staircase. Well, Bennigan’s has a cement staircase that goes up, lit from beneath,” Crowley said. “It feels like a metaphysical response to that entry to the Yale Cabaret.”
The members of the artistic board are an “unlikely alliance,” Crowley said. Only about seven members are full-time theater professionals. Others — like Seifert — chose alternative career paths. And none of the board members, who represent Drama School classes ranging from 1969 to 2001, initially knew each other. Instead, Crowley said, the former drama students came together because of their vision: a Yale Cabaret in New York, only better.
“This is the new Yale Cabaret, but freed from elitism and freed from the strictures of academia,” Crowley said.
Although the board is comprised of former Yale students, the company does not want to be “snooty,” Seifert said. They plan to be much more inclusive, welcoming project ideas from non-Yalies and Yalies alike. For its inaugural season, though, the company’s four performances are all directed by and proposed by Yale School of Drama alumni. Still, the projects run the gamut, from a historical romance about Anne Boleyn to the American premiere of a Malaysian drama.
Clearly, Bandhu said, the performances are far from the commonly-held perceptions of cabaret.
“We are redefining the idea of a cabaret in New York,” said Bandhu. “This is something that hasn’t really existed before — a season of experimental theater, happening in a food-and-drink establishment.”