Thursday’s performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” at the Yale Rep’s University Theater had an inauspicious start — a “slight technical difficulty” delayed the start of the performance by just over twenty minutes. But in due time, a large white circle appeared, as if painted with a brush, on the black curtain concealing the stage. It appeared portentous, like the red-tailed comet that appears over the city of Nukha early in the first act. The comet spells immediate doom for the governing regime and sets the war-torn scene for the ensuing action. Soon after its appearance, an explosion rocks the stage, tearing a jagged red hole in the mottled black panels that serve as the production’s flexible backdrop. During the first act, the rest of the backdrop gradually disintegrates as Grusha, our heroine, makes her dangerous journey across Grusinia — having rescued, in the chaos of Nukha’s overthrow, the infant son of the assassinated governor, who now has a price on his head.
Brecht’s play, begun in 1944, is overtly political and unquestionably reflects its historical moment. The playwright and his family fled from the Nazi regime as it came to power, eventually making their way to the United States and ultimately back to Germany after the end of World War II. The Yale Rep has chosen to set its production in an “imaginary contemporary country,” which means the Ironshirts are a SWAT team with machine guns, and the governor is attended by a besuited, earpieced Secret Service type who carries an iPhone with a tinny ring. But the anachronism, if it’s worthwhile to call it that, is relatively undefined and inoffensive. The governor himself wears a generic fascist khaki-green with red stripes. In one of the most arresting visual moments in the play, three characters piled with luggage trek across a foggy stage (standing in for a glacier) draped in vaguely traditional Eurasian traveling dress.
The backbone of the Rep production is its excellent ensemble: the actors bring unfaltering energy and gestural precision to their scenes. Particular standouts were Julyana Soelistyo, an experienced actress of stage and screen, and Jesse J. Perez, perfectly farcical as the Fat Prince. Special recognition goes to Chivas Michael as Shauva, who, in the play’s climatic scene, drew a perfect freehand circle in white chalk on the stage. (This inspired approving murmurs from the two men sitting in front of me.)
Grusha (Shaunette Renée Wilson) and Simon (Jonathan Majors), the play’s romantic element, are both charismatic and sympathetic. Whether deliberately or not, both were noticeably more naturalistic than the rest of the cast, which was occasionally jarring. But in their scenes together—in particular, when Grusha and Simon reunite late in the first act, where they both seem most comfortable with the script — they strike a charming, open-faced harmony. Wilson also shines during the final courtroom scene, when the fate of Michael, the governor’s son, is decided.
Playing the older version of Michael, Hartford fourth-grader Fred Thornley IV (he alternates in the part with New Haven first-grader Kourtney Savage) is appropriately blank-faced, and does an impressively convincing job of appearing jointless, in imitation of the creepily lifelike but decidedly floppy doll that stands in for the younger version of his character.
The most powerful moments of the play, however, come courtesy of the excellent Steven Skybell (a graduate of both Yale College and the Yale School of Drama) in his dual role of the Singer (a narrator figure) and the corrupt judge Azdak. As the Singer, he delivers almost incantatory monologues accompanied by violin and drum. And as Azdak, his flexibility and focus help to carry the second act—though he is, perhaps, a touch too prosaic and humane to match the power of his narrative songs.
During the climactic trial, a lawyer brings up a salient point: whoever ends up with Michael also claims the heir to his father’s substantial estates. Her co-counsel quickly tries to put the emphasis back on the bond between mother and child, but Azdak stops him. “The court is touched by the mention of the estates,” he says. “It’s proof of human feeling.”
Sarah Ruhl is a Tony-nominated playwright, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Now she teaches a graduate seminar and the undergraduate course “Ovid and the Plays of Transformation.” Her plays often deal with transformation and look beyond the ordinary — she’s taken on subjects from Greek mythology to the early history of the vibrator. Ruhl’s most recent book, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” made it onto the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2014 list. WKND spoke with Ruhl over the phone about Louis C.K., never growing up and what she’s working on now.
Q: You’re teaching classes at Yale this semester. What are you learning from your students?
A: In general, they always are teaching me about the innocence of the blank page, and how exciting it is to be entering into the playwriting world.
Q: I actually learned about your work when I wrote an article about the last time Yalies put on a production of one of your plays, “Eurydice,” last fall. Did you get a chance to see it?
A: No, I was so sad that I didn’t. I knew the actress [Lucie Ledbetter ’15] who plays Eurydice and I really wanted to come, but I had a play at the Lincoln Center in New York at the same time and I was previewed for it and I couldn’t go see it.
Q: Which play was this?
A: It was the premiere of “The Oldest Boy.”
Q: What was the experience of doing “The Oldest Boy” like?
A: It was wonderful. It was the first time I’ve worked with puppets. It’s a story about a woman who is married to a Tibetan man and they have a child who is thought to be a reincarnated lama, and so they have to go through a series of examinations to see whether or not the child is a reincarnated lama — and then they have to decide whether to give the child to the monastery. I learned an incredible amount about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism and about puppets and how to operate dramatic puppets, so it was a really incredible process.
Q: Since you didn’t get a chance to see “Eurydice,” what were some stand-out (or just impressively bad) plays you might have seen while you were in college?
A: One play I remember seeing which had a huge impact on me was Paula Vogel’s “Baltimore Waltz,” and it was in a tiny black box theater at Brown. I had lost my father — he died when I was 20. The play had an enormous emotional impact on me, and I think also taught me about abstraction and humor and how they can be right up against really profound loss.
Q: I read this BOMB conversation you had with Paula Vogel, whose playwriting seminar you were in as an undergraduate at Brown, where she says that she cried over the first work of yours that she read. This really resonated with me — the day before spring semester started, I sat down and read “Eurydice” and cried. How do you learn how to tap into that sort of emotion — and, perhaps more broadly, cathartic emotion in general, with readers and playgoers alike?
A: I think that for better or for worse, most writers and most artists are made with a thin veil between their emotions and the outside world, and I think it takes a lifetime for a writer to learn how to modulate that — how to both protect yourself and be brave enough to be vulnerable in your writing and share it with other people. With “Eurydice,” I had so many stage readings and so many workshops [that], by the time it was done, I felt like the emotion in the play was not mine anymore. The first time I heard it read, it felt like a private funeral for my father. By the time it was in New York, it felt like a piece of art that was for other people, so I think that there’s a transformation that takes place over time, and I think that theater is an amazing vehicle emotionally because emotion really does transform through repetition and through sharing it.
Q: How do you maintain a personal connection with a work of yours after it becomes transformed so many times for a wider public audience, and how does this transformation happen?
A: In the case of that play, I don’t think I could have not had a personal connection because it’s sort of the architecture of the myth. From verbatim conversations I had with my father [to] the directions he wrote out for how to get to my grandparents’ house, artifacts of personal connection are all deeply embedded in the play. It’s a lifelong question for playwrights: how you create something personal and then share it; how you maintain your connection as a storyteller to the material and then turn to the audience and give it to the audience, so that you’re not revolving in a little hermetically sealed fob of your own emotional life. I think it’s something I really love about the theater — you’re assuming there’s a reader, you’re assuming there’s a watcher, so you’re transforming something that’s public.
Q: You recently published a book of 100 essays you don’t have time to write. As far as I can tell, it’s the only published work of yours that isn’t a play or adaptation.
Q: What compelled you to put these smaller pieces together in book form?
A: It was totally unintentional. … I was just trying to write to stay afloat when I had little children. I had twins sort of unexpectedly, and was having trouble finding the time to write a play. And writing the essays was my way of maintaining sanity at the time. At a point I had 50 essays, and I thought, “Hmm, maybe I could make it to 75,” and at that point my agent said, “I think it’s actually a book,” and I thought I would try to write 100. But I never thought it would be a book and it’s moving to me to feel like there are periods in one’s life where you don’t think you’re working and then you look back and you realize you were working all this time, but just in a really different way.
Q: One of the essays — well, at least according to the random essay generator on your website — answers “no” to the question: “Is there an objective standard of taste?” If there isn’t, then what is your standard?
A: I love plays that are theatrical, and I love plays that break my heart. I love plays that reinvent form. I love plays that include new people and new stories that deal with really ancient, age-old questions.
Q: A New York Times review of your most recent play, “The Oldest Boy,” notes that it is your most accessible work. (The reviewer, Charles Isherwood, even goes so far as to say he wouldn’t have guessed that you wrote it.) So there’s this suggested clean break between past works and the newest. Do you agree with that? Has anything changed about the way you’re approaching your work?
A: I mean, first of all I don’t read reviews so I don’t know what people say. I wrote that play for a particular person: I wrote that play for my babysitter, who’s Tibetan. She speaks four languages, but she never went to high school or university. I wanted it to be a play that she liked and that she and her family would come to the theater and recognize their own story in. So I did write it to be accessible and inclusive, quite purposefully. I don’t always have such a specific audience in mind when I write a play, and with this play I was hoping that it would resonate with all parents — people who have to deal with the question of how you let go of your child — but I was also writing it specifically for an audience who, historically, has not had their story on American pages.
Q: What else, or who else, has also inspired you recently?
A: I loved the play, “An Octoroon,” [which] I just saw at Theatre for a New Audience — I thought it was incredibly theatrical. [It was] deeply political and totally surprising and just deeply original. I have been enjoying a book about Montaigne, Louise Glück’s new book, and Louis C.K.
Q: Is there any way you could link Louis C.K. to anything you’ve ever written?
A: Did you say if I can see the relationship between Louis C.K. and Louise Glück?
Q: Sure —
A: I think they both have really dry wit.
Q: I actually asked if there was any relationship between Louis C.K. and your work, but I like the mishearing.
A: I really admire him! I admire the way he performs on TV. I don’t like that much TV. I think he’s actually making something new on television that’s deeply personal and very very funny and says something.
Q: What works of other authors do you look at and think, “Wow, I wish I had made this?”
A: I wish I had composed all of Chopin’s music — no, I don’t wish I had done that. I am happy for other people. … If I had made it, I couldn’t enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy and commune with it knowing that another person made it.
Q: Have you noticed any particular themes repeatedly cropping up in your work lately?
A: I think I’ve definitely been writing more about motherhood lately, now that I’m a mother. I think I write about love a lot, death quite a bit — the usual preoccupations.
Q: I’ve also read in a lot of places that you’re not a big fan of the label “quirky.”
A: I’m what?
Q: That you’re not a big fan of the label “quirky.”
A: Oh — this is like a game of telephone. That’s hilarious. This is going to make the best interview because I’ll just make up these bizarre questions between Louis C.K. and Louise Glück.
Q: No, you’re making my questions better!
A: So, I’m not a big fan of the label “quirky” — that is true.
Q: What are you a big fan of?
A: If I had to replace the word quirky [I would use] original or fabulist.
Q: What do you mean by “fabulist”?
A: [By] fabulist, I definitely mean someone who’s creating something fantastical, that doesn’t look like how we imagine everyday quotidian life. I think quirky is something we say when we want to distinguish a writer from being part of mainstream culture, and I find that dangerous.
[The call dropped. Ruhl called me back as she was getting into New York.]
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: [Aside] Oh, thank you! [To me] New Yorkers are so funny. They’re always looking out for each other. I am working on a play for Actors Theater of Louisville called “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” and it’s a play I wrote as a gift to my mother, who grew up in Iowa playing Peter Pan in the 1950s.
And then I’m also working on a new play that I know less about, sort of for my own edification, and as a palate cleanser, called — I’m not sure what it’s called yet, but it’s about polyamory and the ethical slaughter of animals and whether or not these two things have anything to do with each other.
Q: I’m a little intrigued that your mother grew up playing Peter Pan.
A: I always grew up with pictures of her on the wall hugging Mary Martin and pictures of my mom flying dressed all in green, so it’s part of my mythology that my mother could fly, my mother could play Peter Pan. And it was so odd to me when she turned 70, somehow, that this woman, who in my mind was Peter Pan, was growing up. So I guess the play is about what it means to be grown up.
Q: Speaking of mythologies, I think we have all have these constructions of our parents that might not necessarily be “real.” You’ve also talked a lot about the idea of motherhood, and being with your children — what sort of mythologies do you think your kids are ever going to have about you?
A: I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to [know] how our children see us. I don’t really know how to answer [the question]. The bond between the parent and child is so intimate. One doesn’t objectify oneself in a neutral way and try to imagine the gaze of the child; [it’s] such an intimate connection [so] it’s hard to do that. I have a lot of fun with my three kids; I try to take them to work as much as I can. They think the theater is a fun place to be, and I’m on my way to see them now before bedtime.
Edwin Sanchez DRA ’94 is a playwright, novelist, teacher, and mentor. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, he studied acting and writing in New York before being admitted to the Yale School of Drama. His plays have been produced across the country and in Russia, Switzerland, and Brazil. He has also written television scripts, and a novel awaiting publication. On top of that, he also teaches at the Einhorn School of Performing Arts at Primary Stages in New York City. His play Icarus goes up this week at the University Theater as the Dramat’s Spring Mainstage.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your time at Yale School of Drama?
A: YSD was interesting because I had never [gone to college], so getting in was kind of a surprise to me. And when I got the letter of acceptance I skidded because I was intimidated by the idea of going there. I was sure I would not know anything. My interview was pretty bizarre. They asked me what my favorite Shakespeare play was, and I said the one I read was good. There was sort of a pause, and I thought, “Okay.” But it was because of my writing that I got in. I was very fortunate because of the students that I was with. I bet I learned as much from the classmates as from my teachers there. And I had plays there that continue to have a life. So my time there was very fruitful for me.
Q: What made you want to apply, especially without an undergraduate background?
A: I wasn’t going to apply at all. I was in the Circle Reps Playwriting lab back in the day and the person who ran it was Byron Stitch, who was the playwriting chair at Yale at the time. The thing at the Circle Rep was that they had a reading every Monday, and I would always arrive late because of work, so my comment would invariably be, “The ending really works.” And at the big Christmas party, I thought for sure he was going to tell me if I couldn’t get there on time I shouldn’t do it because it’s not fair to other people. But instead he said, “Have you ever thought of applying to Yale?”
And I looked at him and said [sarcastically], “Yeah, every day.”
And he said, “No, no, you should.”
So I did. And when I got in it was really intimidating in the beginning. But I really came to love my time there.
Q: And where would you say these aspirations to be in theater, to become a writer, come from?
A: I had gone to New York when I was 21, when I first arrived, as an actor. I found that all the roles were for drug dealers, pimps or gang members. And I thought that was kind of limited. So I decided I wanted to write the characters I hadn’t seen. That’s when I started getting into writing. And I really fell in love with it. I had written a bit in Puerto Rico, but that was when it really took hold for me. And then I won a few awards, so that really set me on the path.
Q: You have a very diverse body of work, as you mentioned earlier, between short plays, plays, TV scripts, now a novel. Would say there is any overlap in these different areas? What are some of the differences? And how do you handle the bits of adversity that naturally arise with each style?
A: Well, the first time you do something different, whether you transition from playwriting, to TV, to film, your reaction is to panic. And then you relax. I remember I went to the Circle Reps film lab, and I would think, “I can’t do this or I can’t do that.” But every night they would play movies there, and they had the scripts to all the movies. And after a while I could actually see the pages of the scripts on the screen. And I could see how it happened. I got it. It’s about approaching it with the rules it has. You find where you can play with the rules, where you can bend them.
Q: Where would you say the inspiration for these stories comes from?
A: I got together with a group of dramatists and we were discussing this. What we came up with is that you have a final captive in your head. And little bits and pieces go in there. And then the trigger happens. And you think, okay, now I’m ready to write the play. When I prepared for “Boy With Shoes On,” the trigger was when I read an article in the New York Times about a teenage boy who lived in a single room with his whole family — like five people living in one room. And they asked him where he would want to go to be alone, and that blows my mind. Every play has a trigger. Every play is different.
Q: As a teacher, do you teach these kinds of ideas? And what difficulties do you confront?
A: The most important thing for me when I teach writing is that a) I want the room to be a safe place that you can try something that may not work and that’s okay. And b) it’s my opinion. You have to come in with something you’re passionate about, you want to tell this idea. One thing I also tell my students is you never bring in more than ten pages. I always tell them, in case you get off on the wrong track, you start going down the wrong road, you can always turn back. You haven’t committed this entire journey to one direction and after it all you find that’s not where you wanted to go. And sometimes all you need to do is five minutes, and then you step away. One thing I try to do is to take away the idea that you have to set aside an entire day to write. No! Sometimes you’re waiting in line and a couple of good lines hit you, and you think, “Oh! I want to remember those.”
Q: And what do you find most rewarding in your teaching?
A: I love it when students bring something in that takes you someplace else. That just bowls me over and I get so excited. And they’re all different voices. Every class has different people writing. And all at different levels of their writing. And different stories they want to tell. The fun part is when they get to tell it as honestly as they can. And then it becomes a joy.
Q: And do you see enthusiasm from the students?
A: Oh yeah, tremendous. I remember once a student came in and she had written scene after scene and knocked it out of the park, and we kept waiting for the next scene. And when she came in with another scene, she felt it didn’t work. And she looked to the group she said, “Oh well, they all can’t work.” And I treasure that. That she was that comfortable.
Q: Switching gears, can you tell us a bit about “Icarus”? What are some of the main issues the play deals with?
A: “Icarus” is really my take on “Beauty and the Beast”: when you feel unworthy of love, and two of the characters feel unworthy of love for different reasons. And it’s getting to that point when you allow that vulnerability. And that gives you a certain strength. So it’s really these two people who have nothing to do with each other who end up falling in love with each other, and it’s because they’re so different from each other.
Q: What are some of the challenges you had in writing it?
A: Well, it is a gorgeous production, and that’s why I was so struck when I saw it. Especially by how short some of the scenes are, like two lines. And I look at it and say that I applaud the audacity I had at writing them and also how well they did them. One of the great things I discovered as a writer was that, as a writer, I don’t have to worry about how it’s going to get done. I have a design team and a director and actors who are going to bring it to life. My job is to be as honest as I can on stage. I’m thrilled by the other eyes and the other hands that come into the production. My job is just to write the best play I can, then have everybody come in and add their art to it.
Q: And what would you say allows you to have your project and say, “Here’s my art, now you add what you need to it?” That’s a willingness you don’t see too often.
A: You have to feel like your work is being respected. If you let someone come in and take it apart … then you think they don’t respect the work. If you trust the people then it becomes a joyous experience. At rehearsal you want to be very respectful, and you want to be able to find things. But I want to respect when an actor is stuck in a scene and to see how they will do it. You don’t want to give them a mind reading, that’s insane. Respect their journey. What makes it weird is that as a playwright, you’ve already gone through the journey, and you want to see them go through their journey. They have a map, I don’t want to take their hand and walk them to it, you want them to get there on their own.
Q: And would you say you saw that level of respect and level of ownership from the people at Yale who have been putting on your show this week?
A: Oh god yes. I’ve been very pleased. I thought it was just so beautifully done. No hesitations whatsoever.
I went to see “50 Shades of Grey” on Valentine’s Day. Some friends and I thought it would be funny to watch such an anti-romantic movie on a day devoted to romance itself. “50 Shades of Grey” was expectedly unremarkable: The dialogue was stilted; the acting, mediocre; the plot, vapid. Perhaps the only saving grace of the movie was its distinct color palette and cinematography.
I was okay with those facts given that I’d come looking for nothing more than entertainment, to laugh uncomfortably at the sex scenes and make snarky comments on the character development. When the movie began, it certainly seemed to fulfill this purpose with stimulating conversations such as, “I want you to make love to me.” “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”
Yet as the movie progressed, I began to find it less funny and take it more seriously. I found myself salivating at the square jawline and pock-marked six-pack of Christian Grey. His forceful rhetoric and arrogant tone became enticing rather than aggravating. Midway through the movie, I realized I had fallen for the man I had vowed to disdain.
If you were to read a quick synopsis of the movie, it would read as a disturbing love story of a meek young woman who falls for an abusive, stalkerish, wealthy young bachelor with a penchant for bondage. From this simple vantage point, this story is anything but appealing.
So what has made this story fuel for the private fantasies of so many?
It’s a simple but depressing answer: attraction.
Had Christian Grey been depicted as an old man with missing teeth or even as a young unattractive man, he would have immediately been described as creepy.
Christian acts inappropriately on many occasions throughout the movie. When he first takes Anastasia back after stalking her at a bar, she wakes up to find herself in a completely new outfit that Christian changed her into while she was unconscious. He then proceeds to feed her while she’s in bed, crawling up to her and biting on the piece of toast she is eating.
Later on in the movie, when Anastasia decides that she is uncomfortable with the contract Christian has drawn up, detailing what is and is not allowed during their sexual encounters, she texts him to terminate their relationship. Upon coming home, she finds him in her bedroom with two wine glasses, asking her to reconsider her decision.
Christian becomes progressively more and more controlling. In an initially seeming romantic gesture, he buys her a brand new car as a graduation present but sells her beloved old Bug without telling her. At one point, she tells him she’s going to visit Georgia to see her mother; she arrives, and whom should she run into but the man she was fleeing.
Disturbingly, each of these situations leads Anastasia to fall further in love with him when, in reality, they should serve as a red flag. Replace Christian with an unattractive man and she wouldn’t have wanted to be within a hundred miles of him after their first encounter.
By depicting these scenes and Anastasia’s positive responses to Christian’s inappropriate behavior, “50 Shades” condones emotional abuse. It romanticizes behavior that could have legal repercussions in any other context.
But one can also leave the theater with a different message, viewing the movie as a way to reflect on a disconcerting aspect of human nature: our greater acceptance of illicit behavior when the perpetrators are visually appealing.
I left the theater questioning whether it was I, rather than Christian Grey, that was 50 shades of fucked up.
Fiery, fierce and full of passion, Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” which runs through Feb. 21 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, opens on an unassuming scene: the well-furnished living room of an exquisite house in suburban Minneapolis. As the lights in the theater dim and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) begin to go about their daily routines, everything seems ordinary and “American.” And as could happen in any American household, Marvelous prepares lasagna while Donald checks the evening news on TV, at times sipping from a glass of whiskey.
Yet I couldn’t help but wondering if there was something out of place in the scene, something strange happening in the familiar surroundings. Perhaps it was the bright yellow Robert Mugabe portrait that Donald tried to hang on the wall without Marvelous noticing, his furtive actions often soliciting laughter from the audience; perhaps it was the thick Zimbabwean accent that still lingered in their dialogue. Whatever it was, this bubble of suburban American life hinted at a place beyond the confines of the living room walls, the voices of characters suggesting the tones and sounds of a distant land. And beneath the serene surface, unseen forces stir within this immigrant family. Pandemonium begins to build with the arrival of Nyasha (Shyko Amos) after a recent trip to Zimbabwe. A singer-songwriter and feng shui artist trying to make a living in New York City, free-spirited Nyasha assumes the role of the rebellious child in front of her demanding mother Marvelous, the bright hues of Nyasha’s Zimbabwean dress standing in stark contrast to Marvelous’s more somber and subdued wardrobe. Nyasha tries to advocate for a return to Zimbabwean culture and tradition, but her Americanized family gives her no time to speak, preferring a football game to Nyasha’s travel tales. Ostensibly, everyone is caught up in the frenzied planning for the wedding of Nyasha’s older sister Tendiyaki (Cherise Boothe) and “little white boy” Chris (Ross Marquand). Secretly, though, every character is struggling with his or her own worries and fears.
Tackling many profound themes including cultural assimilation, the struggles of the immigrant family and even a little bit of Zimbabwean politics, “Familiar” is an ambitious play. Of particular interest to me was the clash of cultures embodied by Marvelous, Auntie Maggie (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Auntie Annie (Kimberly Scott DRA ’87), three sisters with distinct personalities.
Marvelous is a typically “successful” immigrant, a biochemistry professor with a degree from MIT, brilliant and daunting as her name suggests. She is the no-nonsense authority figure of the family, towering over Baba Chinyaramwira (Shona for “father”) and commanding the thoughts and actions of those around her. Playing Marvelous, Ekulona truly propelled an impassioned performance, highlighting both the intensity and pride of the conflicted character.
Maggie, on the other hand, is the “lesser” version of Marvelous. She too pursued her education in America, but realizing that academia was not for her, she went on to a job in direct sales. Nonetheless, Maggie follows Marvelous’s footsteps in relinquishing her ties with Zimbabwe in favor of the American way of life. On the far end of the spectrum is Auntie Annie, who still lives in Zimbabwe and enjoys bucket baths. She joins the family for the sole purpose of performing the roora ceremony, a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ritual concerning the bride’s dowry. Annie hopes to exploit the ceremony to extract money from Chris, who, being white, appears rich and privileged from her provincial perspective.
Together, all three women are Tendiyaki’s mothers, not only by Zimbabwean custom but also because, in a twist towards the play’s end, Tendi’s real mother is revealed to be a fourth sister who died years ago during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. Tendi is officially taken in by Marvelous, who leaves Zimbabwe with Tendi in tow, determined to raise her to be a strong woman. Though Marvelous’s high expectations of her children make her easy to portray as the villain, her firm stance and stern words are only a cover for the love she harbors for her family. Despite her best efforts, she never completely assimilates into American society, so she vows to help her children succeed, a commitment not unfamiliar to those who also grew up in immigrant families.
Tendi is a testament to this commitment. Beautiful and powerful, she stands tall in her high heels and commands the spotlight just like Marvelous. “Anyway, anyway, anyway,” they both like to say in the same petulant and sassy way, and both seem to have earned their right to authority. The breadwinner of her future household and a top-notch lawyer with a world of potential, Tendi is the gem of the Chinyaramwira family. Marvelous is certainly proud of her daughter, approving Tendi’s choice of an educated Caucasian husband as perhaps the next step towards fully integrating the Chinyaramwiras into the American Dream.
But family is not all about dreams and achievements, aspirations and desires. There is a deeper bond that overcomes the differences between family members, a kinship in blood, culture and spirit. Nyasha, Tendi’s “c’est-la-vie” counterpart, conveys this realization through a lovely song on the mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe. The light notes of the mbira left me a little breathless, as did the sound of her voice. “Familiar,” the song is called; familiar, a word with “family” as the root.
As I watched the play, a quote from James Gelvin, a history professor at UCLA, kept popping into my mind. “Cultures are not billiard balls that bounce off each other when they come into contact,” he writes. “Throughout history, cultures have borrowed from and influenced each other.” “Familiar” brings this quote to life in the form of a family that is truly one of a kind.
To pair a play about 9/11 and a work by one of American dysfunctionalia’s virtuosos, Alan Ball, is unfashionably ponderous. Director Chandler Gregoire ’17 orchestrates the affair delicately and lets the audience glimpse what an undergraduate theater community is capable of.
We begin with David Rimmer’s piece about 9/11, “New York,” which takes place within a therapist’s office. It doesn’t beat around the bush: “planes were hitting buildings”; “people we knew. Our friends.” Zoe Huber-Weiss ’17 is a pilot in mourning, the first of four patients in treatment, struggling to regain normality. Her gesticulations are refined, she pauses well, but behind the line “somebody sticks his head in my cockpit, I will split it open” lies too little conviction. We believe her marital strife more than we believe her love of aviation, her jingoism.
The first piece ends with Gregoire, who both acts and directs, playing a woman confused. The recipient of a final phone call from within one of the towers, she cannot reason why. Her “why did she call me?” comes heavy and painful. She has a naturalism onstage, displaying the seriousness of terror’s impact, a perpetually displaced anger, an intransitive anxiety.
As we move into Ball’s play, the actresses come alive. Unsurprisingly, dissipation of relationships and Lena Dunham–esque pseudo-problems are more funny, believable, and easier than 9/11. The cues are furiously quick, the timing is sharp and the two southern accents are flawless. Gregoire gets the most out of Ball’s script; it oscillates between profundity and frivolity at a delightful pace. Southern accents, condoms, weed and wild swigs of wine yield to the portentousness of: “What goes through a man’s mind as he fucks his fiancée’s 12-year-old sister?” Gregoire is majestic in unveiling her character’s Secret From Her Past (“real soft, it was like a dream”). Her recounting of a nightmarish personal history calls to mind Blanche DuBois in its fragility.
In Ball’s play, we see the irrepressible vitality of Stefani Kuo ’17, her natural buoyancy a perfect fit for the role of capricious drunkard. In Rimmer’s play, she takes the role of sensitive detective with superfluous Weltschmerz. She lacks the gravity (when one watches Kuo, one notices myriad smiles, microlaughs and bounces in her step) for a character so world-weary. However, Kuo’s Falstaffian electricity is put to perfect use when she plays a sexually potent but dissatisfied Southern belle. “What do you want to look like?” asks Lexi Butler ’17. “A truckstop whore,” replies Kuo, in the evening’s punchiest cue.
Initially, the second showcase might appear to be a comic foil to the first, but this is not the case. The veneer of pleasant, inconsequential triviality subsides to reveal lingering tensions over religion and gender equality. “I’m a Christian” stops becoming a running gag and starts becoming a problem. Enter Will Viederman ’17. The charisma of Wiederman’s voice and his imposing physique disseminate throughout the stage, and his brief cameo is captivating. One longs to see him tackle a role in the earlier play.
The catharsis of a therapist’s office is beloved of modern American culture (cf. “Good Will Hunting,” “Ordinary People,” “The Sopranos,” Brooklyn’s most recent theatrical smash, “Borderline”). However, it takes a performance of true magnitude to create the iconic breakdown-and-cry-in-self-knowledge scene we all crave. Gregoire comes the closest, but falls slightly short.
Yet one must take stock of what “Four Girls in Search of a Part” is: an ingeniously edited, sincerely directed, and well-acted showcase whose tail end delivers a glorious punch that initially is wanting. Gregoire, the work’s mastermind, is to be applauded for taking up and executing with grace neither Rocky Horror Spandex nor Sondheim nor song and dance, but serious theater.
I’ve memorized their faces without having to try. The cowboy with the under-bite, two guns pointed upwards; the curly-haired, pensive woman, frowning a toad-like frown and wringing her hands; the protruding, heavy brow of the man hovering above her; the pleading girl; the smoking clown; the tiny explorer. Though I’ve never given them much thought, these black-and-white cartoons have loomed on the wall of my playroom for what seems like forever. Under their grotesque gaze I learned to walk and read, to gather my stuffed animals and leaf through teeny bopper magazines.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother had one of her first adult jobs working in the development office of the Shubert Theater, the New Haven landmark that stands next to the Taft Apartments on College Street. When she moved away from New Haven, and from her temp position at the Shubert, she took with her a poster — a commemoration of the theater’s 1984 reopening — and has held onto it ever since. Now, the caricatured faces on that poster are permanently etched in my memory.
“I imagine, after 100 years, it might be pretty run-down by now,” my mom said about the Shubert when I called.
In some ways, her suspicion is right: in the lobby one sees exposed pipes and ancient concessions. Just last Sunday at the Shubert, a 500-600-pound box fell and crushed someone — who was subsequently hospitalized — an event that has generated no follow-up report.
Still, my mom’s nostalgia for the theater peeks through in her voice. “It was definitely the most fun job I had in New Haven,” she told me.
* * *
“I have to hug you,” Anthony Lupinacci, the director of marketing and community relations for the Shubert, tells me when we first meet. “I still remember when your mom took us out to lunch at IHOP before she left. We saw the last name, but didn’t think it could ever actually be the same family.” When he first started working here, we ascertain, my mother had just started working here. Time flies, he says.
The two of us are standing in front of the Shubert’s new “gallery,” a timeline of some of the biggest stars and performances the Shubert’s seen over the last century. The lights go up on the framed posters, illuminating the young faces of national dramatic treasures: Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Martin, Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, to name a handful. We start at the beginning.
It’s December 1914, and the Shubert Theater, a new branch of the New York-based Shubert brothers’ company, is preparing to open. A Dec. 3 article from the News boasts of the incoming attraction: “New Theatre Most Modern in United States — New Haven Assured of Best Theatrical Season it Has Ever Had — New Theatre Practically Fireproof.”
Over the next several decades, the Shubert would be christened “the birthplace of the nation’s greatest hits.” It functioned as a premier “tryout theatre,” or a venue for nascent shows to run trial performances before making their debut on Broadway. The stage has played host to the world premieres of quite a few now-canonical shows, like “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, which launched the career of a young, then-unknown Marlon Brando.
This “golden age” at the Shubert spanned the 35 years that it was owned by a certain Maurice Bailey. Bailey took it over in 1941, when the Shubert Foundation, which had become a national theater monopoly, was forced to transfer its ownership, and held onto the theater until it closed in 1976.
Rachel Alderman is a producer for A Broken Umbrella Theatre, a local company that is currently in rehearsals for “Seen Change,” an original musical about the Shubert Theater and New Haven that will premiere Feb. 18 at the Shubert. She noted the venue’s storied history.
“Frankly, you can’t talk about the history or the legacy of the American theater scene without talking about the Shubert in New Haven,” she said. “One birthed the other.”
A show’s try-out period at the Shubert was truly raw and led to notable changes: “Oklahoma!” was named “Away We Go” when it played at the Shubert in 1943, and the responses of New Haven audiences contributed in large part to the addition and subtraction of songs before the final Broadway debut.
In a video she recorded for the Shubert’s centennial in November, Julie Andrews recalled a crippling attack of stage fright by a then-inexperienced Rex Harrison on the opening night of “My Fair Lady.” The performance was called off, but due to a record-breaking blizzard, word did not reach audience members, who filled the seats anyway. The Shubert crew then scattered, gathered the cast members from around New Haven, and put on the show.
“Everything about it was high drama,” she says in the video, holding the original 1956 playbill. “And great fun.”
Andrews’s is one of 44 “shout-out” Youtube videos uploaded by former Shubert stars to commemorate its anniversary. A quick scroll through the playlist makes it clear: The stars remember the Shubert as fondly as the Shubert remembers them, and its legacy has stretched well beyond the local.
“The whole thing kind-of went viral,” Lupinacci said about the shout-out project, which began with staffers reaching out to just a handful of familiar faces. “We started getting emails and submissions from people we hadn’t even contacted.”
A selfie-angle video of Perez Hilton, lying in bed, saying one day he’d feel so honored to act in a play at the Shubert, stands out as a potentially unsolicited submission. Marie Osmond, Jane Fonda and Kristin Chenoweth have posted their own tributes. James Earl Jones recalls spending his 26th birthday at the Shubert performing in the world premiere of “Sunrise at Campobello.”
Lupinacci nods his head in affirmation when Andrews praises what is perhaps the Shubert’s most noteworthy attribute. “Congratulations,” she says, “for surviving all the other theaters that come and go.”
* * *
Survival has not been easy.
During an economic downturn in New Haven, the Shubert closed its doors in 1976, and remained shuttered for seven years. A 1983 project to revitalize downtown brought it back to life.
Funds were poured into renovations and the theater’s mission was reimagined. It would no longer exist as merely a tryout theater and a Broadway junction, though those ties were to remain strong. It would become a community resource and a more versatile venue.
“Since reopening, there’s been an increased diversity in the programming, and an increased functionality,” Lupinacci said. The last season, for example, has seen everything from local high school productions to stand-up comedians to a Gospel act to ballets to, of course, Broadway musicals.
Alderman says that this versatility is so much of what makes the Shubert, and New Haven as a whole, special. She recalled watching her young niece’s recital in the Shubert, where she also saw the Tony-award winning “Peter and the Starcatcher” last week.
“If a three-year-old tap dancing in a bumblebee costume in the same space as that Broadway production is not a beautiful symbol for what’s possible when a city is alive with the arts, I don’t know what is,” she said. “It’s like the whole birth-life cycle right there on stage.”
In 2001, the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts took over management of the theater, though the city still owned the building. Around this time, a new movement emerged that sought to re-create — and update — the tryout theater golden age. The Shubert’s executive directors and board undertook an effort to debut the national tours of Broadway plays. Now, before travelling across the nation, Broadway productions hunker down in New Haven for several weeks to build their sets and — just as in the old days — to test out their performances.
“We have this wonderful past that we love to celebrate, but we’re constantly looking to the future,” said Lupinacci. “We like to remind people that this is not a museum.”
The initiative has landed some huge names: in the past three years, “Jersey Boys” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” made their national tour debuts at the Shubert, and “Matilda” will do the same this May. These big fish not only inflate the Shubert’s credibility, but also pump money into the city. For six weeks at a time, Lupinacci pointed out, creative teams are staying in local hotels, ordering supplies for their shows and patronizing local shops and restaurants. Every year, the Shubert brings in $5 million in revenue and, according to a Quinnipiac University study, generates $20 million of economic impact for the city.
As the centennial approached, the Shubert underwent further changes. Although being owned by the city had its benefits for many years (protection from demolition, for example), converting to a not-for-profit model would allow the Shubert to apply for grants and save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In a unanimous vote in November 2013, the city elected to transfer building ownership to CAPA, a move that, entirely by coincidence, was finalized on the 99th anniversary of the Shubert’s opening night in 1914.
Lupinacci waves his hands and smiles. He says he can only attribute such a happenstance to the spirit of all the old stars who at one point have called the Shubert home.
* * *
“If you look closely enough, you can see the gerbils running through!”
So says a woman cleaning the newly expanded Shubert lobby, referring to the large and exposed mechanical pipes on the ceiling. By the end of the $14.8 million renovation period in October 2016, Lupinacci says, they’ll be covered, but the renovation is being executed in phases.
More dire woes than gerbils — the falling box comes to mind — have befallen the Shubert during the renovation. These oversights are symptomatic of a general state of disrepair in the theater, which hasn’t undergone any substantial renovation since reopening in the 1980s.
In 2013, the board of directors, the staff and the city all agreed: It was time. The first phase, completed from May to October of 2014, addressed the antiquated heating and cooling systems, dressing rooms, lobby and hospitality suite, as well as general maintenance problems.
Lisa Sanborn, who has been artistic director of the New Haven Ballet for the last 14 years (and has consequently worked on 14 productions of the Nutcracker at the Shubert), said that the “single greatest change” has been the implementation of more bathrooms throughout the building. Previously, there were only bathrooms in the basement, which proved challenging for casts as well as audience members.
“It’s a lot easier to implement plumbing now than it was decades ago,” Lupinacci said, adding wryly, “We’re committed to ‘seats where there’s seating.’”
In spite of millions of dollars’ worth of changes, CAPA and the board of directors are committed to preserving the theater proper — which is essentially the same as it was on its opening night in 1914.
Indeed, the 1914 News’ description of the theater rings true 100 years later: “The interior design is in New England Colonial style, the entire effect being of old ivory, with golden brown velvet hangings, seat upholstery and carpets. The Curtain will also be of the same rich tone of brown velvet.
Lupinacci says he’s proud of the theater’s “classic elegance,” and its avoidance of the “overly extravagant, gingerbread style” that many other 20th-century theaters adopted.
He does concede they might like to expand the space, in order to accommodate some larger and more complicated musicals, like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King.” But it can’t happen, he explained, because the theater is sandwiched right in between the Crown Street parking garage and the Taft Apartments.
But according to Sanborn, the theater’s design could not make for a more optimal audience experience. She argued that it has the same, or even better, acoustics as the most technologically advanced theater, and that no matter which of the 1,600 seats you get, there’s a clear and intimate view of the actors.
Not only does the theater create intimacy between performers and the audience, it also fosters intimacy between the audience members themselves. When crafting the conceit for a centennial painting for the theater, New Haven-based artist Tony Falcone asked Shubert staff members what they most wanted to capture about their beloved theater. According to Lupinacci, “It was that feeling of anticipation as the curtain goes up and the audience — who come from all different racial, socio-economic and personal backgrounds — are all united in their excitement about what’s to come.”
That feeling is precisely what Falcone captures in the painting, now hanging at the end of the gallery timeline at the Shubert. The picture is pink and exuberant, reminiscent of Chagall. In it, beams of light emanate from beneath the curtain, which has just started to rise, and shine onto a full house.
When I look at it, I remember the old Shubert poster in my playroom, the histrionic black-and-white expressions of the figures. I can’t help thinking that these two images are indicative of the Shubert’s shift in focus: from the drama of its star-studded past to the joy of giving back to its own community.
For Shubert patrons and performers, these images are complements.
Describing the experience of setting foot into the theater and onto the stage, Sanborn says, “You stand there and think to yourself about all the incredible, world-famous performers that have been backstage, and have performed there, and it really does give you goosebumps.”
Anyone who’s been to the extracurricular bazaar has heard this refrain: “Do you sing?” “Do you act?” “Do you watercolor/beatbox/bhangra?” (Cue tone-deaf freshman-year me signing onto 37 unnecessary panlists.)
If this scene is any indication, we have a lot of artists at Yale. Enough to fill five improv troupes and seven major theater venues every weekend. Enough to fill 15 world-class a cappella groups. Fifteen! That’s a ton! Now, where do all these talented people end up after senior year?
Well, according to Yale’s Office of Career Strategy, 15 percent of the class of 2013 took jobs in financial services and 12 percent took jobs in consulting. Only four percent went into the fine or performing arts.
We watch our friends act in Dramat shows and sing for The SOBs and perform for Teeth and dance for Rhythmic Blue. And we watch suited-up graduates shuffle off to jobs at Goldman Sachs. I want to know where all that creative juice goes. Are all those poets and actors and comedians really hunched over in midtown cubicles? I don’t think they are. But we don’t really talk about our campus’ aspiring artists — and whether they receive proper preparation at Yale.
How To Be a Working Actor
When Alex Kramer ’13 graduated, he returned home for the summer and dusted off a copy of a book he’d received in high school: “How to Be a Working Actor.” “It was like reading a user’s manual on my life,” Kramer chuckled. “It was so helpful but it was also so straightforward — why couldn’t Yale give me this information? It’s maddening.”
Kramer had known since sixth grade that he wanted to be an actor. At Yale he’d made all the right moves: performed in shows with the Dramat, studied theater abroad in London, devised a senior project combining the 2012 presidential election with Shakespeare’s Richard III. But post-graduation, things were a bit more complicated.
“You hear things like ‘you’ve got to move to New York and start auditioning,’ but I had no idea what that actually meant,” he told me. At Yale, Kramer had access to training, mentorship, heaps of funding for theater pursuits and a thriving arts community. But he received little of the guidance he needed to actually make it in acting.
Had the University offered more resources and preparation for auditions, Kramer feels his path into the theater world might have felt a bit simpler. The lack of practical counsel dissuaded some of his classmates from pursuing careers in acting, he explained.
“Some of the theater training at Yale is obstinately and decidedly anti-vocational, especially given the wealth of talent among composers and playwrights,” said Bonnie Antosh ’13, now a working actress in New York. “I think it’s a shame that the department doesn’t host a senior showcase for casting directors and literary agents.”
Joseph Roach, former chair of Yale’s Theater Studies program, is quick to defend the University’s lack of pre-professional focus. He notes that a good number of Yale students have gone on to become successful actors — many likely came to Yale for a liberal arts education, not any sort of career training. “From my perspective, no major in Yale College has, or ought to have, a self-limiting vocational focus,” Roach wrote in an email to me.
Susan Yassky ’16, a Theater Studies major, also felt that Yale strikes a delicate balance between theory and practice, an academic education and pre-professional training. “The department focuses more on cultivating our passions and less on training us in practical skills,” Yassky said, “But that’s what I want from my classes here.”
And it’s not every school where you would find Theater Studies majors like Yassky taking science credits along with screenwriting classes. For some students, that’s a huge perk. Yale certainly doesn’t offer the vocational preparation that conservatories do but our liberal arts approach has its advantages — like diverse academic offerings and funding in the form of Creative & Performing Arts Awards.
Nathaniel Dolquist ’15, a Theater Studies major, feels that the University’s distributional requirements make for more well-rounded artists, “People who appreciate many academic disciplines and can bring what they’ve learned back to their art.”
To Tim Creavin ’15, also a Theater Studies major, Yalies know that they won’t be receiving the same training as conservatory students. He said that those who want to further develop their craft after Yale can enroll in MFA programs.
What Yale does offer, Creavin argues, is a ‘Do It Yourself’ mentality, and Matthew George ’11, a working playwright, agreed. “Yale provides opportunities to self-create and insofar as self-creation is how you make art, that prepared me,” George said. “But it didn’t offer me much in the way of practical experience. Everyone you talk to sort of ends up saying, ‘just find your own path!’”
And finding your own path can be difficult — especially when others have theirs clearly defined.
Katherine Paulsen ’14 began her senior year the way many Yale kids do — with interviews and case preparation for consulting jobs. She assumed she’d take the same route as many of her friends, getting work as an associate and moving to a large city nearby. The trouble was, the job descriptions on Symplicity simply didn’t excite her. Toward the middle of her senior year, Paulsen realized she wanted to pursue work in theater. The choice wasn’t easy to make when so many of her friends were entering more lucrative fields.
Looking at the stream of Yalies entering consulting and finance post-graduation, many students pin the blame on Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. Recruitment events for Morgan Stanley and Goldman abound on campus, but jobs in theater and writing can be harder to find.
“When I was a senior, all these people were going into consulting and banking,” says Yael Zinkow ’12, currently in Los Angeles pursuing work as a comedian. “It was scary because we didn’t have any recruiters coming onto campus to say, ‘hey here’s how you pursue comedy.’”
Recently, however, the University’s career services took a significant step in catering to the undergraduate arts community. In the summer of 2013, OCS appointed an advisor for students pursuing careers in the arts, Katie Volz.
Since stepping into her new role, Volz has launched a wide range of initiatives, from hosting screenwriting workshops to connecting students with alumni in theater. She finds that alumni in the arts are particularly eager to lend a hand, recognizing the unique stumbling blocks in their fields of work.
Volz strives to remain particularly sensitive to the financial difficulties that aspiring artists encounter. Last semester, she organized a financial planning workshop for musicians and performing artists, during which OCS outlined sample budgets and encouraged students to consider alternative revenue sources.
Volz takes an optimistic — though realistic — approach in helping students finance their artistic careers. “I don’t entirely ignore the ‘starving artist’ notion,” she explained. “While a life in the arts is possible, one has to plan for it in order to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding — like anything else!”
The new OCS approach operates under a simple premise: Yale students don’t have to exchange artistic dreams for recruitment sessions at the Omni. It’s not easy to make the leap from the Calhoun Cabaret to Broadway, but it’s also not impossible.
Take Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ‘15, a senior major in Theater Studies. Eventually, she told me, she is going to be a theater director. Hoyt-Disick has found OCS’s new arts-focused resources “quite helpful” and said she plans to attend an upcoming OCS workshop on careers in theater.
“I just met with Katie Volz a couple of days ago, and I can’t say enough good things about her,” Hoyt-Disick said. “She answered every question I had with thought and specificity.”
Creavin imagined that OCS resources are geared toward students not as familiar with arts opportunities. Those who have already learned about major casting sites might not find the resources as helpful, he explained. He adds that OCS might take a few simple steps to improve its services: The website might list opportunities according to region and provide contact information for Yale-affiliated arts companies.
Despite these shortcomings, OCS advisors find themselves in a unique position. In many ways, Yale students are removed from the challenges facing most recent graduates. We’re disconnected from that national narrative — the typical young person who fails to find work and moves back in with his parents. The unemployment rate among workers under age 25 is 14.5 percent. Yet by June 2014, over 95 percent of Yale’s graduating seniors had jobs lined up for the fall.
“There’s this almost self-indulgent feeling of invincibility because we’re part of this history and we have this name stamped on our diploma,” says Tao Tao Holmes ’14, a former columnist for the News, now teaching English in rural China. “We have this sort of head-in-the-sand mentality of ‘of course we’ll get jobs.’”
Students with that mentality might feel more comfortable gambling with their careers. Charlie Kelly ’14 said that as a Yale graduate, “It feels like you have a backup plan.”
“I know that if I sent my resume around enough I’d find something that would keep me alive,” Kelly explained. “It leaves you in a good place to set yourself up creatively.” In other words, being a Yalie affords the opportunity for risk. And for many, these are risks worth taking.
On a Friday evening, Larissa Pham ’14 gathers with other Yale alumni in Teo Soares’s ’13 New York apartment for a writing workshop. One of the graduates in attendance now works at Google, another at a Manhattan dance company, another at a local non-profit. They’re doing what it takes to get by, doing real things and adult things.
But in their spare time they write and share their work with one another.
“I love having this group to get together and bounce around ideas,” Pham said. She draws inspiration and support from this network of creative Yale graduates, all finding ways to balance their interest in writing with their day jobs.
Pham’s writing group is just one example of an alumni cohort staying connected in the working world. New York City — colloquially known as “Yale Part II” — is home to many communities of alumni who live and work and socialize together.
“Almost all of my friends from college live within 10 blocks from me,” says Willa Fitzgerald ’13, an actress living in Crown Heights. As she was making the decision to move to New York and audition for shows, it helped her to know she could rely on the friends she’d made in Yale’s theater community.
Paulsen told me that, right before our phone interview, she went out to dinner with three other Yale graduates who are also auditioning for shows in New York. They all traded tips and advice on New York theater — what to wear for auditions, how to prepare in advance.
Dolquist said he sees no drawbacks to New York’s theater world, where Yale graduates can find a broad range of opportunities and a welcoming alumni community.
Lucy Fleming ’16, an aspiring actress and writer, is a bit more skeptical of the post-Yale migration to New York. “I do think there’s value in taking time away from the Yale bubble,” she explains. “I know it’s a huge shock to leave undergrad and suddenly not be surrounded by all your friends, but that’s also an important aspect of transitioning into adult life.”
Living and working with friends from college, many graduates do indeed make a concerted effort to break into new social circles. Antosh decided to actively seek out new friends in New York. “Staying totally immersed in an exported Yale bubble was never attractive to me,” she explained.
It’s for that reason that some Yale graduates leave the Northeast. Holmes told me that one of her Global Affairs advisors urged her not to “continue Yale” by moving to New York City. “I see Yalies living together and I anticipated feeling a small pang of FOMO, but I haven’t had even the smallest bit,” she said. “Four years is enough. I was ready to leave.”
New York’s expansive Yale network didn’t really appeal to Holmes. And she isn’t the only Yale graduate navigating a complicated relationship with the institutional name on her degree. Graduates say that in the theater industry, stamping the Yale brand on your resume doesn’t always work in your favor.
“I find that the Yale pedigree is a double-edged sword,” said Antosh. “I’ve had directors who probably gave me a second look because they assumed I was a ‘smart actor,’ and I’ve had other directors almost not cast me because they’d worked with other Yalies who had a chip on their shoulder.”
Kelly, who’s looking for work as a writer in Los Angeles, said that he has noticed a similar adversity toward Yale graduates. He finds that employers respond well to narratives of desperation, tales of sacrifice for art’s sake. “If you come into meetings like ‘I’m this well-bred Yale graduate,’ they don’t respond well,” Kelly said. “They automatically assume you’re this trust fund-y preppy graduate who already has their ducks in a row.”
Summer Homes, Starving Artists
John Stillman ’14 and Brian Loeb ’14 were roommates their sophomore year at Yale. Post-graduation, they’re living in the same place again: New York. (Surprise!) But this time, they’re not sharing a bedroom — they’re not even in the same neighborhood.
Loeb is working at J.P. Morgan, living in a Tribeca apartment with two other graduates. He typically gets into work around 9:00 in the morning and can finish anywhere between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., sometimes even later. Though the hours are long, Loeb said he’s enjoying work and loves living in New York City with its myriad bars, restaurants and concerts. His apartment, he added, is “a lot bigger than I would’ve expected.”
You’ll find Stillman in Williamsburg, where he’s working as a freelance journalist. He has taken on side jobs to support himself; he has worked as a caretaker and he has done gallery installations. He has even modeled for a Facebook messenger ad. Right now, he said, he’s not ready to determine his lifelong career — he’s experimenting, trying to see what fits.
That’s somewhat difficult in a costly city like New York, where the disparities between professions become apparent pretty quickly.
“I’m making enough to live, but my friends are making enough to buy summer homes,” Stillman laughed. “I’m happy for them, but it’s crazy how the disparity is not something that takes time to set in.”
Charlotte Parker ’13, now working on a farm in New Jersey, has also found that class divisions take root after graduation. “When you’re at Yale, finances aren’t totally relevant,” she explained. Of course, she continues, there’s that small subset of students who eat at posh restaurants and throw lavish parties — but frequently students’ financial situations are unclear. “Once you graduate, you can tell a bit more about what people’s financial situations are by what they’re doing on the weekends, where they go out to eat.”
Sometimes, Parker sees the Instagram photos posted by her classmate working at Vogue. Despite living and studying together for four years, she said, their lifestyles won’t ever be the same.
Even if you’re doing what you love, you might not find it easy to pursue your passions when your classmates are making six figures. And some say it’s not all a matter of personal choice: Our undergraduate lifestyle informs our career plans. Yale and its frills — its parade of comestibles, its endless fellowships and grants — might encourage certain expectations of future wealth. To some students, the emphasis here is on the luxe (and not the lux).
“You become accustomed to a lifestyle at Yale that’s kind of unattainable if you really do the starving artist thing,” explained Kelly. “You get chained to a kind of fanciness.” Finance and consulting recruiters give us the chance to latch on to that fanciness, Kelly said, with their lavish information sessions at the Study.
Paulsen certainly felt the pressures that Kelly describes. She says it wasn’t easy to turn down a high-paying consulting job and its accompanying prestige. “But I realized that sort of work is always available,” she said. “If I don’t try to do acting now though, I never will. I’ll never again put a two-year pause on my life to be a starving actress.”
Not a single person asked me if I wanted to audition for a management consulting troupe freshman year. On the other hand, I was accosted by about five comedy clubs and nine publications and all 15 a cappella groups.
So what happens between an extracurricular bazaar and senior year? At Yale, are the arts just a hobby, or are they a possible career?
I guess there’s no easy answer.
But still, so many graduates are making art and making ends meet. Right now, they’re the four percent. And as OCS expands its arts resources, their numbers may grow.
Antosh told me she was willing to make sacrifices for a career in theater. Unlike some of her peers, she gave up money and security and outside affirmation. But to her, the art was worth the risk.
“Deciding to pursue a career in the arts was never a matter of courage,” she said. “It was a matter of hunger and love.”
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” feels like a Steve Martin stand-up routine grafted onto a fun, if flimsy, plot: a pair of twenty-something no-names — a painter and a physicist — meet at a Paris bar in 1903. One is called Picasso and the other is named Einstein, and they spend the night exchanging jokes, competing for women’s attention and announcing their plans to revolutionize the 20th century. The play was Martin’s first, written in 1993.
Each role in this delightful farce is a Martin alter ego embodied — a comic conceit come to life — and the actors in Long Wharf Theatre’s excellent new production have obviously studied Martin’s mannerisms: More than a few lines are inflected with the comedian’s trademark loopy delivery.
The subject matter is uneven. Bathroom humor is unceremoniously thrown together with overwrought soliloquies about the nature of genius, but the powerhouse cast is able to take an already-charming script and wring out a moving and uproariously funny play.
A married couple — Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell) and Germaine (Penny Balfour) — run the Lapin Agile. Among their guests are Gaston, an old man whose perversion is rivaled only by his incontinence; Suzanne, a beautiful young woman eager for a tryst with Picasso; and Sagot, an art dealer whose money-mindedness serves as a foil to Picasso’s romantic idealism.
Freddy and Germaine are ordinary compared to their larger-than-life guests, but they too have their outré moments: a shouting match over whether Germaine is a post- or neoromantic is interrupted by Gaston, who reminds them, “This is not some sleazy dive!”
The show’s greatest comic pleasure is Jonathan Spivey in the tremendously idiotic role of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, an inventor who is confident that his building material — a mixture of asbestos, kitty paws and radium — will guarantee him a prominent place in the 20th-century pantheon. Onstage for 10 captivating minutes, he is the play’s strongest invention — even if the joke can only be sustained for a short burst.
Einstein, in the hands of Robbie Tann, is also delightfully weird, prancing and cackling his way through the 85-minute show. Picasso (Grayson DeJesus) is a caricature of the appallingly self-obsessed artist: picture James Franco or Kanye West at their most cringe-inducingly pretentious.
The rapport between the two men is the backbone of the play: Already convinced of his own genius, each man gradually becomes convinced of the other’s, too, until they are awash in a sea of self-congratulation, shouting lines like “My only regret is that we’ll be in different volumes in the encyclopedia!”
Perhaps here it is appropriate to note that the play’s armchair philosophizing is on a par with Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: Orations on the subjectivity of the universe are either rousing or woefully out of place, depending on your mood.
Over and over, it is pointed out that the 20th-century revolutions in physics and art both involved a radical relativism — which is an idea, sure, just not a remotely original one. Granted, no one expects Steve Martin to be Tom Stoppard, and his effort to dramatize an historical moment is perfectly admirable.
Thankfully, there is an endless stream of goofy, meta-referential moments and absurd tangents: When Suzanne coyly asks Picasso when he will return to his room, he answers, “When the play is over.” Einstein seeks to explain why “e” is the funniest letter, individually assessing every other letter in the alphabet to prove his point.
The audience’s knowledge of history provides another rich vein of humor, as when Germaine offhandedly predicts the advent of air travel, television, the atomic bomb, computers and lawn flamingos — before being dismissed by her husband as foolish.
The futuristic bell that chimes whenever anyone enters or exits the bar is a subtle clue that the bar exists in a special realm unto itself. But any subtlety on this front is left in the dust in the play’s final sequence, when the bar’s magical qualities are brought to the fore in a preposterous finale that only Steve Martin would dare to include. No spoilers here!
Suffice it to say that the play is an idiosyncratic love letter to the 20th century. It darkly hints at the impending world wars, but also seems to hold up Picasso and Einstein as secular saints — individual minds whose elegance might be capable of redeeming the century’s legacy. Steve Martin might not belong in their rarefied air, but even as a rookie playwright, he has created an enduring work of his own.
“War,” written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz DRA ’12, is characterized by its tensions: between present and past, brother and sister, family members; across racial divides and language barriers; and between two different shows playing on one stage.
At the beginning, the lights go up on the show’s minimalist stage to reveal two armchairs, two siblings, one comatose mother in one hospital bed and a strange woman by her side who claims in a mixture of heavy German and broken English to be the mother’s sister. Tate and Joanne, the two siblings, have never heard of the woman, who calls herself Elfriede. Further complicating this is the fact that Elfriede is white and German, while Tate, Joanne and their mother Roberta are African-American. What brings them all together is that Roberta has had a stroke.
As Tate and Joanne sit waiting for Roberta to wake up, they are left to confront and reconcile their long-simmering tensions.
Over the course of each act, the two ridicule each other’s decisions and words, from the minor and recent to the lifelong and festering. Gradually, we learn about the family of four that the siblings share even as they divide it. The two decorate the stage with bitter words about loyalty, hypocrisy, Joanne’s decision to drop out of law school and marry a white spouse, and Tate’s career burnout.
As the show delves into the complexities of familial relations, it also experiments with complex narrative forms. From time to time throughout the play, the lighting changes without a moment’s notice, the stage physically rises and the characters — doctors and family alike — drop to all fours and begin to act not as people but apes. Dressed in a ghostly, white hospital gown, Roberta — dazed, amnesiac, lost, confused — wanders among the apes, trying to recover her memory and understand where and who she is. As Roberta stands next to the hospital bed her body occupies, one gets the impression of a purgatory, of an out-of-body experience. A show about family is interlaced with a one-woman act (save, of course, for some apes).
Tonya Perkins, who plays Roberta, delivers a stellar performance, leaving the audience entranced as she weaves in and out of her own consciousness and memory.
Just as chilling are her direct addresses to the audience. She speaks directly to us, asks us who we are, what we are doing here and why we won’t speak back to her.
A common motif of the play is the characters’ breaking of the fourth wall. They often not only interact with the audience, but observe it and make a spectacle of it. The very opening of the play features all of the characters (except Roberta) walking on-stage and slowly breaking into laughter at the audience, as if slowly catching on to some inside joke that only they understand. This image is paralleled at the play’s end, when a group of the characters go to a zoo to look at the ape house and end up looking through a window at the audience itself.
While this adds a surreal element to the play’s many complicated themes and questions, it seemed tangential — if not distracting — to the play’s pathos.
As Tate and Joanne try to grapple with the story (often lost in translation) of this strange German woman and her temperamental son, Tobias, they discover that Elfriede and Roberta share a father.
“I wanted to write a play about black Germans for a very long time,” Jacobs-Jenkins said in an interview published in the playbill. “Specifically something that dealt with the mischlingkinder (children born to white Germans and African-American soldiers during the American occupation of post-WWII Germany).”
Jacobs-Jenkins has constructed a play focused on a unique and unknown component of WWII history, but perhaps the most appealing aspect of “War” is its unique use of the stage. The elevation of the stage to create the rainforest purgatory is enticing. A space in the middle of the stage creates a wall between the characters, a threshold for the apes and a window for the characters to look at the audience. One of the characters exits the stage by walking right off of the downstage steps, joining the audience in the front row. In the physical and the visual, “War” is superb.
However, in its emotional appeal, “War” had its moments of brilliance, but it fell short in its ending. The catharsis it had promised was never fully realized. When the lights dimmed for the final time, I sat at the edge of my seat expecting one more scene. After all, the emotional release had only just begun. But then the audience began to clap, and the players took their finals bows.
I first heard Dylan Thomas’s famed villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” just a couple weeks ago in the new Christopher Nolan blockbuster Interstellar. Michael Caine, each time the topic of mortality comes up (which is often) beats us over the head with it — “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” — and proceeds to build a giant spaceship. I can’t say I was particularly enthralled with Thomas after that. The grand conclusion of his poetry — don’t die? Try really hard not to die? I was unimpressed.
But pretentiously waxing poetic about immortality and actually achieving it are two different things. Thomas — his poetry and humanity brought to life by Welsh actor Ben Kingdom for an hour — achieves the latter in “Dylan Thomas: Return Journey,” a one-man-show that played at the Yale Center for British Art on Thursday. This frustratingly simple production is not a play or a monologue; it is something much closer to a resurrection.
Although performed by Kingdom, the play is a seamless stringing together of Thomas’s prose and poetry, and feels driven by Thomas himself. Without much reason (but a good amount of rhyme) “Return Journey” shows Thomas ambling into the past, deep into his childhood. His destinations are trivial: The stories he tells of old men pub-hopping and Christmas Eve fires are amusing and laden with nostalgia, but of little apparent significance. Along the way, however, Thomas runs into poem after poem. At first, they seem random, out of place, but we begin to see that these memories may be the underground springs from which his poetry surges forth.
With whimsy and subtle melancholy, Thomas tells us of throwing snowballs at the neighbor’s burning house until the fire engine came. He gets a look in his eyes, the lights dim, and the poetry commences. More uncanny than Kingdom’s embodiment of Thomas’s ghost, however, was how this famous poem felt as natural as the story that launched it. Yes, obviously this was a poem: The shadowy intensity of the moment commanded a little bit more of our attention, the language was a little bit denser. Yet it was an organic outpouring.
That this piece captures the end of Thomas’s life seems rather fitting: It can be seen as a meditation on death in form and content. It has a certain movement to it — the audience laughs much more at the beginning. Though it remains amusing the whole time, the dry humor is supplanted by a gentle darkness as the piece orbits death at an ever-decreasing distance. And by confronting us with the reality of death, only to contradict itself by placing an immortal Thomas in front of us, the piece succeeds in a way that few performances can: It gives profundity to its source material. Thomas’s poetry about death is what brings him back to life. While I’d thought Thomas to be a shallow poet ruminating in a mildly interesting way on the oldest idea in the book, “Return Journey” showcases the nuances of his approach in a beautiful and unexpected way.
All this being said, I was not as spellbound by the show as many reviewers have claimed to be. At times, Thomas’s tale seemed a little too self-indulgent, his accent a little too impenetrable. In these fleeting moments, the magic was interrupted, the narrative thread lost and I had a vague sense of annoyance at the whole ordeal. Though it’s possible I just needed more coffee, I think that this excessive theatricality was a trait of Thomas himself. Just listen to a recording of him reading one of his famous poems. Though haunting and passionate, Thomas savors his words just a little too much, as if to say “I know this is good.” While that same pomp sometimes bogs down “Return Journey,” it is, on the whole, a successful resurrection of Thomas in all of his spirit. “Return Journey” was only at Yale for one night, but with a volume of Thomas’s poetry and a bit patience, you can resurrect him yourself.