Fall 2010 Guide: Up Close and Personal

Steven Bogart and Amanda Palmer. Photo by: Kyle Cassidy

A.R.T. Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick interviews Steven Bogart, director of Cabaret, and Amanda Palmer, the Emcee in Cabaret.

A.R.T. Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick interviews Steven Bogart, director of Cabaret, and Amanda Palmer, the Emcee in Cabaret.

Ryan McKittrick: When Cabaret premiered in 1966, it broke many of the conventions of American musical theater and gave audiences a whole new kind of experience. What kind of relationship would you like to develop between the audience and the performers in this production?

Amanda Palmer: I want a very intimate relationship. My goal is to make sure that no one feels like just a spectator. I want everyone to feel like they are at an event with each other. Their connection with the performers is important, but their connection with each other is also very important. My fantasy with theater is always to surprise people. Not necessarily to shock or unsettle them, but really to surprise them with an experience that they didn’t anticipate. Even if that’s just a brief moment or a discovery. OBERON is small and intimate enough that we should be able to create individualized experiences for people, a lot like the A.R.T.’s production of Sleep No More last season. So even if you go to the bathroom at intermission, something might happen.

Steven Bogart: We want people to have little private experiences at their tables while other things are going on around the space. OBERON is the perfect space for this in many ways because there are so many places for the audience to keep discovering vignettes. So we can have many things going on simultaneously. Not to the point where you lose the focus—but if you look over here you might see one thing, and if you look on the other side of the room something completely different might be happening. In the rehearsal process we’re going to be encouraging the performers to take as many risks as possible. And because of that there will probably be a lot of room for improvisation within the structure of the musical.

AP: That’s why I’m excited about my role as the Emcee. Steve and I talked a lot about whether I would play Sally Bowles or the Emcee. When I was imagining doing the same job forty-two nights in a row, the Emcee looked like the tastier role for me because I can imagine it evolving over the course of the run. I love the idea that my performance can be different every night. My movements can be different. I can do different things to different people.

RM: You and the design team have been looking at a lot of early twentieth-century expressionist art as you prepare for this production. What’s drawn you to that period?

SB: There was a lot of experimental art in the early twentieth century. These incredible artists were doing amazing things. And that period was so filled with artistic freedom of expression and sexual freedoms of expression. It was so raw and visceral. So we’ve been looking at paintings by Otto Dix and George Grosz. And the Austrian painter Egon Schiele has been a huge influence.

RM: What drew you to Schiele?

SB: Just the perfect purity of the expression—simple, tortured, elegant.

RM: Tortured? Isn’t Cabaret supposed to be fun?

SB: The audiences need to enjoy themselves and really have a good time, but then the insidious nature of the totalitarianism starts creeping into their psyches. Fascism is there all along in the musical—it’s just masked at the beginning.

AP: I think this is a great musical for people who hate musicals. I like the idea of musicals, but I pretty much hate all musicals.

RM: Why is Cabaret different for you?

AP: I’ve seen a lot of productions of Cabaret. The first time I saw it was when I was living in Germany, and I just remember thinking that the songs were great. And I like the way the musical is structured. It gets away with having songs that don’t necessarily drive the story forward, and that can really just stand on their own. That’s why I’ve covered songs from Cabaret in my Dresden Dolls repertoire—we’ve done “Mein Herr” and “I Don’t Care Much.” They all work as entertaining songs. And I think one of the reasons Cabaret works so well is because a lot of the action unfolds in a place where it actually makes sense to have music—a cabaret. And the songs have these very powerful messages beneath them.

RM: What are some of those messages?

AP: Take “The Money Song.” It’s so simple and campy and clever. But in the context of the show it’s fucking dark. You’re talking about exchanges of human life.

RM: What do you think of Sally Bowles’s decision at the end of the musical to stay in Berlin and keep performing in the cabaret instead of leaving Germany with Cliff? Is she weak?

SB: I think that’s what Cliff thinks. But in his own way he’s almost siding with the Nazi policy to domesticate German women— he’s telling Sally, “you’ve got to do this with your life.” Cabaret is an anti-fascist musical that is very clear about what it is working against—but it is still a musical in which the male gaze is very strong, and despite its anti-fascist intention, the role of women is subjected to that gaze.

RM: How will you be addressing that in your production?

SB: We’re gender-bending the hell out of this thing. Instead of being all women, the Kit Kat Klub dancers are going to be male and female. Amanda’s going to be playing a gay male Emcee. And Tommy Derrah is playing the landlady, Fraulein Schneider. So the audience won’t always know or understand what they’re looking at. The answers won’t be so clear, and hopefully what will provide the audience with a more visceral experience.

Ryan McKittrick is the A.R.T. Dramaturg.

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