Costumes that appear to have been filched from a Medieval Times theme restaurant are carefully laid out behind a postage stamp-sized stage. The audience waits patiently, toying with napkins and waiting for dinner to arrive, as the minutes tick away.
Finally the house manager takes the stage to introduce the evening’s entertainment. He greets the audience informally and then offers the usual admonition to silence all cell phones: “The actors will kill you if you don’t turn them off.”
After realizing that a few of the front row patrons seem to have slipped in without receiving programs, the director emerges from the woodwork (literally) and rushes around trying to find extras. Finally he leaps at an unsuspecting blonde seated stage left. “Did you read that already?” he anxiously asks the woman, reaching to pluck the program from her hands like a golden egg from a goose. Luckily, a stack of unclaimed programs diverts his attention, and the playbill remains in the flustered blonde’s grip.
And all of this is pre-show!
This blend of chaos, spirit, and imaginative theater lives on top of a Bennigan’s, creating a highly unusual blend of bar snacks and sixteenth century history class in the core of the Big Apple. This is not just any Bennigan’s. It is the one on the corner of Forty Seventh Street and Eighth Avenue—Times Square, Manhattan, center of American commercial theater, home of Wicked, Hairspray and Monty Python’sSpamalot.
How did this deliberately low-budget theater end up in such glitzy company? The answer lies closer to York Square than Times Square. The endeavor is modeled after the original Yale Cabaret, a theater located on Park Street that stages bare-bones shows after only a week of rehearsals as a release from the tensions of rigorous drama school training. The resulting delightful romp through groundling theater is the passion of a motley group of Yale School of Drama graduates who call themselves the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret (UNYYC)—pronounced with purpose as “unique.”
The creators of Yale Cabaret’s new incarnation wanted to retain the theatrical immediacy, creativity, and relaxed form of the original while freeing it from academia’s influence. The anxieties of drama school have been replaced by the pressure of real life in Manhattan, prompting a redux of an old school tradition to alleviate stress.
The driving force behind these cabaret works is a deep reservoir of gut-wrenching desire to create without criticism, to make art for art’s sake and not for the commercial success that reigns over the rest of Broadway.
But as anyone who has sat through an open-mic night knows, no amount of heart can turn your next-door neighbor into a pop diva. If these UNYYC cohorts aren’t looking for the acclaim craved by many theatrical artists (TONY TONY TONY) then what exactly are they creating?
The company’s inaugural production, Most Happy, was written and directed by UNYYC artistic director George Tynan Crowley, who graduated from Yale School of Drama in 1990. It’s a blithely simple one-act play exploring the complicated life of Anne Boleyn. The breathless actors’ energy and passion show in their emphatic diction and excited staging. Ambitious lines such as “Art springs from truth,” and “You’re a poet, you’re invested in delusion” aside, the play is engaging and light, while subtly educational.
The actors’ complex, detailed emotions are painted in broad, obvious strokes, favoring heightened drama over more accessible, believable naturalism. Popular opinion be damned! The point of this production is to portray the world from its creators’ viewpoint. What they lack in slick showmanship, they compensate for in pure devotion to the theater.
Dana Watkins, a non-Yale affiliated long-time New York actor who plays Anne’s love interest, Sir Thomas Wyatt, twitched about the corners of his mouth when asked about the process of working with UNYYC. “Everyone involved in this has got a tremendous amount of heart,” he said, “which makes up for a lot.”
UNNYC board member Mahayana Landowne DRA ‘98, graduated from Yale and moved to Manhattan to begin her career as a freelance director. She was naïve to the cold reality of living as a professional artist, and quickly grew frustrated with the need to constantly market herself in order to obtain more jobs while trying to complete her current one. In order to focus once more on the creation of pure theater, Landowne decided to recreate the cabaret of her college years.
She described the cabaret as “a place where it’s more about hope and crafting,” a haven designed to restore the love of theater often tainted after graduation. “It’s more about creating the work,” she explained: UNNYC does not bow to the pressure to produce a hit regardless of its artistic quality, a pressure prevalent in the professional theater world.
Searching for a soft place to fall in the jagged landscape of the New York theater scene, UNYYC has recreated a tiny bit of the Yale bubble in the modest theatrical space above Bennigan’s. Far from being limited to artists, the nostalgic longing for what was once in college— ”the best years of our lives”—is a universal sentiment. College holds the last vestiges of childhood: it’s an incubator in which most Yale students can still enjoy limited responsibilities and total creative freedom without concern for when the next paycheck is coming or where they will sleep that night.
The thought of leaving the warmth and comfort of the incubator is daunting— diploma in hand, forced to take on the world, ready or not. Some members of UNNYC have found the struggle to be far worse than it is for their I-banking colleagues. Competition is fierce, and although friends are still likely to cast friends (the Yale “mafia” does exist in New York), prospective collaborators no longer see each other in the dining halls or on the lawn, making connections hard to maintain and jobs harder to find.
Economic need often outweighs the desire to create artistically meaningful work, a problem rarely encountered in the relatively free environment of drama school. The pressure to achieve immediate post-graduate success leads many actors to emphasize their best attribute and become typecast for a certain kind of role. “A lot of people are seen as only doing one kind of work,” Landowne laments, brushing her hair away from her eyes, which are hidden behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Seven years out of drama school, she has found life on the outside to be fraught with the pitfalls of managing a career and living on a tight budget. Leaving the college bubble means that making theater will become a different process, but how exactly does it change? In the immortal words of Deep Throat: “Follow the money.”
College productions are usually funded by the school, which is in turn funded by tuition, donations and grants. The show does not have to be a hit. This gives crazy college kids the chance to be as experimental and self-indulgent as they want. Actors try their hand at directing while set designers become lead singers, all to the comforting applause of their friends in the audience. The university is a creative haven where, in the words of Crowley’s Sir Thomas Wyatt, students can “write (create, act, sing) because [they] see things the way they are”—not simply to entertain a paying audience.
In the real world, however, theatrical productions have to earn money through ticket sales, or face bankruptcy. Constantly watching checkbooks, public opinion polls and Playbill grosses, producers pressure their creative teams to shape their work into what they believe will make them the most money. Even regional and off-Broadway theaters, run as non-profit companies without the responsibilities to shareholders that commercial productions have, must still sell tickets and receive grants to survive. They, too, remain bound to the public’s fickle opinion.
So what does this all mean for UNYYC?
A tiny theater above a bar, where actors will be applauded for their efforts while the audience politely ignores the waiter caught in the spotlight, will probably not be too commercially successful. However, if the UNYYC members can attract their fellow graduates who also yearn for a return to their bright college years, they can succeed in creating “a place where the audience is also a place for Yale people to meet,” as Landownde hopes.
By bringing together former classmates, new recruits, and an array of actors seeking artistic freedom and innovation into an extended version of the Yale bubble, UNYYC may yield a success more valuable than a Broadway hit.
Summer Banks is a Sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.