Feb. 4, 2010

Student writer-performers confess at 'Soirée/Cabaret!'

Sharing a secret with a friend or loved one can be difficult, but what about confiding in a room full of strangers? In the new student-written original production "Soirée/Cabaret," the writer-actors perform autobiographical monologues that draw from their personal experiences, each monologue a confession as well as a performance.

"Soirée/Cabaret!" which opened at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 3 and runs through Feb. 14, has its origins in Professor Bruce Levitt's Solo Theater class, in which 11 students worked together to produce an original play. Levitt admits he began the process with no structure.

"We weren't sure what we wanted to do at first," Levitt said. "Students looked to Jon Stewart and Noel Coward, but we abandoned that. The autobiographical was more authentic."

Levitt says that the students' shared experience of dealing with stress and pressure to succeed at Cornell provided the impetus for the autobiographical stories: "A student said, 'Sometimes it can be hard to breathe here,' and I thought, 'Where can we go with that?'"

In the effort to tell their stories, the students share some of their most personal experiences, said producer and cast member Alex Gruhin '11, who describes the effort as "disgraceful revelation."

The writing process, though, Gruhin said, was arduous. "We would stay up until four in the morning writing brilliant stuff and realize mid-performance the next day that everything was terrible," he said.

Some 150 pieces were written and eventually were whittled down to the 40 that make it to stage. Cast member Jeremy Flynn '11 said the process pushed performers out of their comfort zones: "Actors had to sing, singers had to write, we had to wear all hats."

The show was months in the making, giving cast members an opportunity to "live and grow with the pieces over six months," Gruhin said. "It's like a baby we've seen grow up," added Flynn.

The two-act show ranges from the comedic to the tragic; its songs, which are used to express the performers' states of mind, include show tunes, blues and contemporary pop.

The first act centers broadly on identity, featuring musings on race, family and childhood. Alex Viola '10, for example, gives a comic impression of her grandmother, depicting a formidable matriarch with her granddaughter's best interests in mind.

The second act is more intimate and raises the emotional stakes with a series of vignettes that discuss mortality, loss and the conflict between faith and doubt. The show reaches its emotional climax with sophomore Lauren Bamford's rendition of "Ave Maria." As she relates a personal story about doubting religion, she is joined by Flynn singing "Gethsemane [I Only Want to Say]" from "Jesus Christ Superstar," making "Soirée/Cabaret!" not just self-revelatory, but universal in its themes as well.

The experience of sharing one's secrets with strangers was "cathartic," Flynn said. "I've never been so proud to be involved in a production. With this piece, everyone can take something different from it, which is what theater is about."

For ticket information, see http://www.arts.cornell.edu/theatrearts/CTA/boxoffice.asp.

Jordan Walters '11 is a student intern for the Cornell Chronicle.