by Jen Coté, Theater Director
“Why Cabaret in a high school?! Isn’t it a bit scandalous?” To this I will say—yes! But it is so much more than that. Cabaret is a thoughtful, historically resonant, timely, and engaging play, with a Tony Award winning script and score and fantastic choreography opportunities. Every year I try to chose material that will excite and engage our young performers as well as expose them to a new style we have yet to explore at SA. I am continuously looking for material in a variety of genres that will challenge them both intellectually and artistically. I strive to find material that feels relevant to their world, and with so much divisive political energy in our nation right now, it seemed like the perfect time to dive into a dramatic context of social and cultural upheaval.
Cabaret begins in Berlin in 1931, just prior to the Nazi’s precipitous rise to power. The play—based on the Christopher Isherwood novel The Berlin Stories—is set in the provocative Kit Kat Klub, which is loosely based on a particular style of real Berlin hotspots of this time period. The fading days of the Weimar Republic were a vibrant cultural period famous for music, film, art, and philosophy, as well as open-mindedness about homosexuality and other then-decadent behavior (including fluid sexuality, scantily clad dancers, and transgender performers). With the rise of the Nazi Party, this liberal mecca crumbled as artists and intellectuals fled to safer shores. Our play begins just as these artists and performers are starting to feel the social and political change coming, although many in the story choose to ignore the dark shadow looming, and resort to frivolity and self-imposed ignorance to shut themselves off from the changes happening around them.
What I love about teaching and directing educational theater is exploring the history and culture of each play with the students. When we examine the social and political context of each new piece, we both deepen our understanding and enrich our overall performance. While scandalous in some ways, Weimar Berlin was also a mecca for those seeking freedom of expression. Nightclubs celebrated Jewish/Christian/straight/gay/lesbian and transgender performers alike, and there was very little censorship or condemnation from the city leaders or public. Cliff and Sally (our main characters) are drawn to this world for the freedom that it represents. The Berlin of Cabaret is a place to reinvent yourself, to make money in uncertain times, and to live free from judgement.
Act 2 demonstrates how quickly this openness vanished in the wake of a shift in the political regime. Historically speaking, Hitler’s authoritarian Third Reich had displaced the older, more forgiving cultural norms and tensions were running high. Jews and homosexuals were being openly persecuted. Some of those same highly esteemed artists of the Weimar republic went from being celebrated to being exiled—or worse. Neighbors turned on neighbors and friendships dissolved as lines were drawn in the sand. A core message of the play, for the cast and audiences alike, is the danger of apathy. Cabaret is a cautionary tale about the grave consequences of ignoring a dangerous shift in political climate: Look away and you might find yourself unwittingly agreeing to and accepting the persecution of others. The wild openness and frivolity of Act 1 stands in stark contrast to the reverberations of impending doom in Act 2. In the end, we are left wondering what will happen to this world as the characters feel the very foundation of their social and political world shifting out from under them.
I am inspired daily by how open and accepting our students are of differences, and it has been a pure delight to engage with them over this subject matter and to see them embrace the fantastic choreography and beautiful songs. This group was dedicated from the start, and it was such fun crafting this story with these talented performers. I am so grateful to my amazing team: Clare Grossman, my Assistant Director (thoughtful, dependable, genius), and my unflappable and joyful Stage Manager Keira Slimmer. I also thoroughly enjoyed working with uber-talented Nina Endicott and team on creating the visual splendor of the costumes. Nathan Riebli and Joey Favalora were a dream team on music direction and choreography, and they made my job so much easier by being so professional and outstanding in their respective crafts. We are only as strong as the team that surrounds us in Theatre, and we had an all-around AMAZING team on this piece. Lastly, I would like to thank Sonoma Academy for allowing the arts to flourish on our campus and for granting me creative license to “ push the envelope” with material that challenges both the students and audiences alike.
“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”