This fall, as the Yale Cabaret revels in its 40th anniversary, Cabaret members, both present and past, are feeling a heightened sense of nostalgia for the space that has always held a distinctive place within the Yale dramatic community.
In 1967, due to lack of membership, the Phi Gamma Alpha house at 217 Park St. was given to the School of Drama for classrooms and a black box theater. This theater, eventually known as the Yale Cabaret, started off as a sort of coffee house, with the purpose of promoting artistic experimentation and providing all kinds of artists with a space to perform. In fact, the opening performance of the Yale Cabaret was not a play at all, but a concert of Kurt Weill songs by Alvin Epstein and Martha Schlamme.
Over the next few years, the Cabaret gained popularity throughout the Yale community as both a locale for entertainment and a laboratory for artists to hone their craft. During this time, the Cabaret developed a formula that continues to this day: an early show performed for the dinner crowd and a later show for late-night revelers.
Since its inception, the Yale Cabaret has put on countless shows and amassed an alumni list of well over a thousand School of Drama students, including Academy Award-winning and critically-acclaimed actors such as Angela Bassett ’80 DRA ’83, Meryl Streep DRA ’75 and Paul Giamatti ’89 DRA ’94. Many of these stars have mentioned the Yale Cabaret as a sacred place in their acting careers.
“There’s just nothing like it. The Cabaret … it’s just a wild time,” Patricia Clarkson DRA ’85 said.
The Cabaret is well known for its exploratory style, making it an ideal setting for those wishing to stage unorthodox shows. The theater has produced such unconventional plays as “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” and “In No Haven Drag Time,” starring David Alan Grier DRA ’81 in full drag.
“I did a great show called ‘The Complete Works of T.S. Eliot’ in 45 minutes, with wordplay on the titles,” Kate Burton DRA ’83 said. “It was the stupidest thing you could’ve imagined. Some things were great, some things were awful, but they were all entertaining.”
Burton would go on to earn Tony and Emmy award nominations, most recently appearing on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco DRA ’09, writer of the upcoming Cabaret show “Threesome,” said the venue allowed for his play to move in interesting directions that might not be available in other spaces.
“The advantage of working in this venue is that it is open to diverse styles of theater, which can be either classical theater or different styles that break the conventions of what we call ‘typical’ theater,” Rodriguez Risco said. “Its advantage is in accepting each project and its way of doing theater with an open mind.”
The Cabaret has been especially supportive to young playwrights such as Matt Moses DRA ’09, writer of this fall’s “The Do-Over,” who are looking for a venue to bring their original works to life.
“I can’t think of too many theaters that produce as many new works as the Yale Cabaret does,” Moses said.
One of the reasons that the Cabaret has hosted such diverse productions is that each season follows a unique theme, with new artistic directors. Rebecca Wolff DRA ’09, one of the fall season’s co-artistic directors, said this characteristic is quite specific to the Cabaret and makes it a one-of-a-kind experience.
“Things are very in-the-moment,” Wolff said. “There’s this idea that everything we make, we make right now. That it’s in its 40th anniversary is a real testament to our audience.”
Indeed, students said the Cabaret audience is intensely devoted to the theater, even if the premise changes year to year.
“Yale Cabaret has the most loyal audience, who return every season and take the journey with us,” Managing Director Jacob Padron DRA ’08 said. “They are open, diverse and grateful for our work.”
The Cabaret has long allowed students to work outside the boundaries of their academic concentrations, branching out into other professions of theater. Actors can work as stage managers, playwrights can work as lighting designers and so on. Even Bassett, during her time at the Cabaret, spent a season as a technical assistant.
“The Cabaret is essential to the drama students since it’s fully-run by students and is the only space within the School of Drama where a student can work outside his or her field of study,” Rodriguez Risco said.
Students said this system allowed them to gain new knowledge about aspects of theater that are not as familiar to them.
“I directed a show called ‘The Club’ about four women in a gentleman’s club; it was an incredible experience,” Burton said. “And you get more exposure to the playwrights.”
As long as it has existed, the Yale Cabaret has served as a site for drama students’ growth and development. Rebecca Phillips DRA ’09, who adapted and translated this season’s “An Evening at the Grand Guignol,” said the structure of the Cabaret allows students to discover and explore new styles of theatrical art.
“Because the Cabaret is student-run, it offers us a kind of artistic freedom that we simply don’t have in much of our other work,” Wolff said. “This is our playground, a place to take the wildest ideas we can dream and put them up on their feet.”
Looking back on their years at the School of Drama, alumni said that the Cabaret provided a learning ground where they could enhance their skills in a loose and promoting environment.
“The Cabaret was where I got my first laugh, where I learned I was capable of being funny,” Burton said.
Many alumni agreed that the Cabaret has been an integral part of their careers, providing them with a workshop in dexterity and forcing them to be quick on their feet. The Cabaret has likewise become legendary for its ability to put up a show in very little time, while harnessing that pressure in order to enhance the entertainment.
“I think that the Cabaret is the most spontaneous part of the Drama School,” Burton said. “That ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ feeling: you can only get it at the Cabaret. It’s like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
As to the question of its longevity, students said the theater endures because, at the Cabaret, they feel an extraordinary sense of camaraderie and exhilaration.
“You wouldn’t be as rich in experience without the Cabaret,” Burton said. “The School of Drama without the Cabaret would be a totally different experience.”
To commemorate its roots, the Cabaret will be hosting an “Evening of Cabaret” next weekend, with numerous musical acts and burlesque performances by School of Drama students. Starting this season, the Yale Cabaret will honor its beginning as a coffeehouse by ending each Friday night of shows with The After Party, a lounge and showcase of musical artists from around the Yale community.
For the past 40 years, the Cabaret has served as “the playground of Yale drama students” and will continue to act as such as long as School of Drama students continue to be interested in experimenting with theater.
“It is a place of extreme joy, both for the artists and the audiences,” Phillips said. “Sure, it’s maddening and life-consuming and frustrating and intense, but in the end, we keep making theater in that space because it is OUR space, and we love to do it.”