Cap and Bells experiments with distinctive cabaret piece

Alice Murphy ’16 was one of the soloists in the student-written, directed and produced cabaret piece, ‘Late Night at the Chat Noir.’ Alex Marshall/Photo Editor.
Alice Murphy ’16 was one of the soloists in the student-written, directed and produced cabaret piece, ‘Late Night at the Chat Noir.’ Alex Marshall/Photo Editor.

This Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Cap and Bells will put on Late Night at the Chat Noir, a student-written, produced and directed cabaret. The show consists of seven solo one-act pieces by Maddie Gilmore ’15, Julia Juster ’14, JoJo McDonald ’14, Pat Megley ’14, Alice Murphy ’16, Frank Pagliaro ’14 and Daniel Potter ’16 and directed by Sarah Sanders ’14.

Late Night portrays a cabaret night, where each actor performs a piece about seven to 10 minutes long through a persona that speaks directly to the audience. The set, designed by Griffith Simon ’15, makes the audience feel as though they were at a cabaret venue, with a slightly elevated stage with a piano in the middle and two dinner tables on both the far left and right ends of the stage.

Every actor wrote his or her own scene that he or she crafted and refined within the past three weeks, trying to relate to the audience within the short time frame. The personas range drastically from Gilmore’s wangster hood rat “Thug Nugget,” to Murphy’s nonsexual-nudity promoter, to Pagliaro’s stoic family-oriented brick worker.

One of the most compelling piece is Juster’s advice-touting alpha woman who appears to be confident and detached but gradually exposes her vulnerabilities while sharing her memories and life philosophies. Juster gives her all to the persona, literally throwing herself on the floor in a bit where she demonstrates the undesirable over-eagerness of a dog. While such an action may seem histrionic when performed by less experienced actors, Juster perfectly balances humor with the raw, desperate desire to be in control and how this desire often yields the opposite intended result.

Sanders was inspired to develop Late Night after taking a Winter Study course, “Cabaret: Development and Performance,” taught by Shaun and Abigail Bengson, a indie-folk band duo, in 2012. “It opened up performance writing for me,” Sanders said. “It was a great experience watching everyone’s pieces and the range and creativity that they brought. Everyone had so much to say when given the opportunity.”

Cabaret is different from monologues and plays in that actors develop personas as opposed to characters, which are oftentimes less personal. “Cabaret is a way to share something very vulnerable to the audience by adopting a persona to share it for you,” Juster said. “I adopted a persona to protect myself.”

“A persona is a midway between yourself and a character who is not yourself. I wore a lot of myself when I was writing [my piece],” said Pagliaro about his writing experience. “It gave me the opportunity to get further away from myself because [the writing] became too personal. The exercise necessitated us to put a part of ourselves into our persona.”

Personas need not be parts of the actors’ own identities. “My persona is based on my friend from high school. She does a lot of things I would do if I cared less about what people thought about me,” Murphy said.

In addition to personas, cabaret is also distinct in that it incorporates a musical element in every act. The music, which also varied in each performance, included Potter’s banjo playing – which acted as both background music and emphasis, Murphy and Megley’s original songs and Juster’s short but melancholic rendition of a Disney classic. “[Music] is something that links the performances and makes them different from a monologue or stand-up,” Juster said.

As each performance was so personal, Sanders’ role was different from the typical director’s. “I led feedback and tried to draw out what was resonating most strongly for everyone,” Sanders said.

All pieces were written and finalized within three weeks. Although there was a tight time constraint, many of the actors found the timeframe more liberating than anything. “[The time] was so short that there was no time to overthink it,” Megley said. “[The mentality] was try something and if it doesn’t work, try something else and if that works, just go with it.” Megley wrote a song during practice that he thought was “terrible” but “ended up being something that people responded very well to,” and so he ended up basing his entire persona on the song. “The little things can become something more substantial,” he said.

In the end, Late Night is a collection of personal reflections as much or even more than a performance for an audience. “Writing a play is daunting, and it’s hard to find time or energy to write something, especially as Williams students,” Sanders said. “I just wanted to give people a space to do that.”

Most of the actors had never been exposed to cabaret performance, including Pagliaro who summed up his experience with, “I’ve never done this type of performance before. It’s different from everything else that has been offered to me at Williams and as an actor.”