Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Cabaret At The End Of The World

Written by Melody Bates
Directed by Joan Jubett
Produced by Hard Sparks in association with IRT Theater

Nominations: Outstanding Choreography: Hettie Barnhill; Outstanding Sound Design: John Salutz; Outstanding Original Full Length Script: Melody Bates; Outstanding Original Music: Melody Bates; Outstanding Original Music: Rebecca Hart

About the Production

The Cabaret At The End Of The World leads audiences through Julius Caesar with the vibrant Flora and Fawna as guides, inviting you to the “hottest club in Ancient Rome” for an adaptation full of burlesque numbers, clever satire and themes of modern society. 

In this exclusive interview, 2017 NYIT nominees Hettie Barnhill, Melody Bates and Rebecca Hart share their process creating new and innovative theatre with a reference point we know so well.

l to r: Melody Bates, Samantha Bilinkas. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

What attracted you to this production?
: The writer Melody Bates and I met while performing at the Metropolitan Opera, I knew of her previous work and loved it. So when she asked me come on board it was a Yes!

Melody: Meg Taintor, Artistic Director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House, and I started talking about creating a new work that takes off from Julius Caesar. Ideally it would be something musical, something comedic, and something that illuminated Shakespeare’s play in a new way. Meg was into it, and I asked Rebecca Hart to help me write it. When she said yes I thought, “okay, we’re doing a two-woman cabaret based on Julius Caesar” …which turned out to be way more subversive than I expected, as I’ll get into below. So we’re sisters, Flora and Fawna, and we run the hottest underground club in ancient Rome. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcome and people from all parts of society can mix and mingle with an expectation of peace. We’re just there to do our big Ides of March show, but the events of Shakespeare's play start happening outside and we have to deal with them. It’s a classic clown set-up: we have a thing we’re trying to do, and other things keep getting in our way. Shakespeare’s play becomes the obstacle to ours, and hilarity and illumination ensue.

Rebecca: I love adaptation; I love telling a well-known story from a fresh angle and I loved the sound of "two women do Julius Caesar". I liked the irreverence and the humor of it. I liked writing songs for Portia and Calpurnia. Also, Melody asked me to work on it.

What was your favorite part of working on this production?
Hettie: Bringing the humor into the movement and working with the team, it was very organic, which made it the entire experience a delight!

Melody: There is a thing that happens in rehearsal when I have written funny scenes, and I am playing one of the characters in the funny scenes, especially when my acting partners are very good. I turn into a giggle monster. It’s ridiculous. But it has the one redeeming factor that it’s also a sign that we’re getting the scene right. So there’s this scene in Cabaret at the End of the World where my sister Fawna is trying to tell a knock-knock joke, and my character Flora doesn’t know how a knock-knock joke works. It’s one of my favorite funny things I’ve ever written. And Sam Bilinkas, who played Fawna, kept making me crack in rehearsal. I just love making people laugh so much! And when I can feel us getting there, I might as well be a three-year-old seeing a pie-in-the-face gag for the first time. It’s sheer delight. I get it together eventually. At least by the time the audience arrives. But the part of the process where the other actors are making the writer in me laugh like a little kid—I’m grateful for their tolerance, and it sure is a good time.

Rebecca: Being a composer/songwriter on a show is a fairly new role for me, and I loved going to see the play and hearing the songs in performance.

l to r: Melody Bates, Samantha Bilinkas. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

What was the most challenging part of working on this production?

Hettie: Balancing the thin line between "slap-stick" and "silliness". Also making sure that the two main stars were able to confidently deliver their lines while performing my movement.

Melody: In the summer of 2016, not long after the first version of this play was commissioned, J.Stephen Brantley suggested producing it in New York. We were both excited about the prospect. I knew I’d want to do some rewrites, and I knew there was time to do so before the scheduled run in March 2017.

Then the election happened.

After the body-blow of that November day, it took me some time to find my words. The first thing I knew for sure was that the satire in this play about two women dealing with the Roman patriarchy was probably going to take a turn for the darker.

Which it did. And it made the play better. Balancing the bleak reality of inequality with an inextinguishable hope for something better—exercising our ability to find humor in dark times and letting that give us strength to keep going: that feels completely of the moment right now. Negotiating that balance led to discoveries like the standout anthem “Resist,” which was the final song that Rebecca wrote for the show. Satire and ridicule, and the supernova power of art to speak truth to power are essential tools in dark times. So the biggest challenge turned out to be overcoming post-election despair and rage and finding that balance. Even to the point of allowing for hope. Stubborn, stupid, relentless, gossamer hope, knocking from the inside of Pandora’s box to be set free. I feel almost embarrassed to feel the possibility of hope, because what we’re facing is so terrible. But still: get up. Keep going. Resist. Or as a fortune from a fortune cookie that I keep on my dresser says: “Keep charging the enemy as long as there is life.” 

Rebecca: Writing chord charts.

What was your favorite part about working with this group of artists?
Hettie: The shenanigans! No... really the diverseness in talent.

Melody: Hard Sparks is an incredible company. The visionary and brilliant J.Stephen Brantley is a mentor, an inspiration, a gorgeous writer, one of my favorite acting partners, a kick-ass producer, and one of the best human beings I know. Along with Robert Lohman, he runs an independent theatre company that lives up to its mission of championing daring productions of adventurous new plays. They take on the impossible, the improbable, the wild, the jump-off-a-cliff-and-see-if-we-fly stuff. Which is probably why I love them—I’m into that, too. And the company who coalesced around The Cabaret at the End of the World was wonderful. Actors Samantha Bilinkas, Connor Bond, Rachel Murdy (in addition to J.Stephen and myself), our intern Guillermo Sanchez-Vela, our stage manager Darielle Shandler, music director Peter Szep, fight choreographer Dan Renkin, costume designer Liz Kurtzman, our generous and gifted director Joan Jubett, everyone on our production team. And of course the great Rebecca Hart, whom I have known since we spent a magical summer together playing Titania and Hermia in Maine, who is a joy to collaborate with and a musical genius.

Rebecca: How game everyone is to be both totally ridiculous and totally sincere in the same show. Also how much they obviously enjoyed singing the tunes.

l to r: Rachel Mundy, Melody Bates, Samantha Bilinkas, Connor Bond. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

What did you learn from working on this production?
Hettie: My love for classic texts. 

Melody: The overall ratio of male roles to female roles in classical theatre is 7 to 3. In Julius Caesar, it’s 49 to 2. 

I mean, holy sh*t.

I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize it was that bad until I sat down with the dramatis personae and counted. On top of that, most of the characters in the play are aristocrats. So it turns out that just telling the story of this story from the perspective of two non-aristocratic women is a revolutionary act. 

The surprises continued thanks to Rachel Murdy’s offer to help with the show, in whatever capacity. I know what’s good for me so I decided to write a role for her. “What if I’m sort of an Anfisa character, like an old discarded servant?” she suggested. I told her I couldn’t be less interested in writing an old discarded woman character. "But," I said, "…what if you’re a goddess in disguise?” Thus was born Feronia, the Sabine goddess “who came with the building,” whose arrival also led to a major discovery about the Sabines and the founding myth of Rome.

Rome was founded through a massive, Boko Haram-style kidnapping and rape. 

I’d certainly seen depictions of the Rape of the Sabine Women in art history. But no one ever taught it to me for what it was: the pre-meditated abduction and rape of hundreds of women, because the Roman generals had established a city of all men, and decided to kidnap and enslave women so they could create future generations of Romans. This is the great Rome, the seat of democracy. Founded on kidnapping and rape. I knew history had a man-washing problem, but researching and developing the play brought it home in a whole new way.

Playwrights make choices about whose stories matter. Our historical accounts, including our literature and art, suffer from man-washing. Check out Livy’s insane account of the rape of the Sabine women if you have any doubts. We’re living in a moment when many male lawmakers seem to have no theory of mind when it comes to women—they fail to empathize with a woman’s experience unless they can imagine it through another man's mind. Hence the “I have a mother/ sister/ wife/ daughter, therefore I don’t want bad things to happen to other men’s mothers/ sisters etc.” nonsense. It’s infuriating. So these discoveries gave us the opportunity to tangle with Roman history in a new way, to give voice to the half of society that has largely been ignored. The Cabaret at the End of the World is subversive because it makes you laugh and takes you on a ride and shows you a good time—and underneath it is a steely demand that you join us in fighting for equality, for love, for a better world.

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