The Yale Cabaret opened its doors the evening following Richard Nixon’s first election to the presidency on Wednesday, November 6, 1968.
New Haven, once a model city, was then in a dire state. Urban renewal campaigns and a routine calendar of riots, sparked by a radicalizing and segregated population, inharmoniously conspired to raze well over 5,000 townhouses around New Haven Green in less than a decade1. In response to urgent times (and maybe loosened rules) School of Drama students organized and founded a basement performance venue in the former home of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. The frat’s bas-relief crest, depicting an owl and three clematis blooms, can still be seen affixed to the façade of the main entrance at 217 Park Street.
The Cabaret envisioned itself as an alternative forum for Drama School talent and, perhaps most importantly, as a space for community, creativity and conversation. Early Cabaret menus (when a cup of coffee cost $0.30) celebrate their kitchen for having the only working espresso machine in New Haven. The cabaret was a meeting space, not just for the School of Drama, but for the larger New Haven community. Even in the most trying of times, the Cabaret brought people together for food, drinks and a live show.
The inaugural production at the Yale Cabaret was, fittingly, A Kurt Weill Cabaret as performed by Martha Schlamme (who had just had her Broadway debut as a last-minute replacement for Golde in Fiddler on the Roof) and Yale Rep company member, Alvin Epstein. The Cabaret has remained in continuous operation since then, producing hundreds of new and not-so-new plays, musical revues, skit comedy shows, improv-nights, lectures, dance, performance art, and more. Artists who have worked at the Cabaret include Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Wendy Wasserstein, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang, John Turturro, Lynn Nottage (with two world premieres), Anna D. Shapiro, Henry Winkler, David Alan Grier, Tony Shalhoub, Paul Giamatti, Liev Schreiber, Trip Cullman, Melissa James Gibson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Lupita Nyong’o, and many hundreds more.
With two performances a night, from Thursday through Saturday, and at least 18 shows per year (including the addition of a Drag Show), the basement of 217 Park is constantly evolving. In 2015, the Yale Cabaret introduced the now annual Satellite Series, a weekend-long celebration of experimental work in non-traditional spaces. Each year, a new cohort of Drama school students brings their unique talent, vision and energy to the Cabaret, continuing the tradition of bold work, engaging conversation, and welcoming community.
— Amauta M. Firmino, Jeremy O. Harris, Yale Cabaret Historians
1 Sheehy, Gail “The Consequences of Panthermania” New York Magazine, Nov. 1970, pp. 44-71.
Our 50th ANNIVERSARY
In its 50th anniversary the Yale Cabaret celebrates a half-century of bold work that traces a trajectory of evolving theatrical taste. From its beginnings as a true-to-form Cabaret, to the inaugural Satellite Series in 2015, the only thing that has remained constant in the basement of 217 Park is a passion for experimentation, collaboration and change.
Early Cabaret productions showed a tendency towards the variety show format. While musical revues and skit comedy shows made up a large portion of the programming, there were also concerted efforts to include contemporary dramatists with playful or lighthearted outlooks. Highlights from the first decade include: the inaugural A Kurt Weil Cabaret (1968), the groundbreaking 1973 Halloween Show by William Moseley and Susan Nanus, which would go on to become an annual tradition; Clay Goss’s one-act play, Of Being Hit (1973), directed by Patrice Walker, was notable for being the Cabaret’s first play by an African-American author; Christopher Durang’s ‘Dentity Crisis, from the 1975 season would go on to the Yale Rep’s mainstage three years later; and an evening of Beckett shorts titled Ends and Odds (1978).
From the 1980s until the early 1990s the Cabaret adopted a distinct shift in tone, favoring bold dramatic voices and hard-hitting political pieces that paralleled the rise of punk, hip-hop and avant-garde pop. Highlights from the second and third decades include: 1981’s “Avant-Garde Revue”, Murder, Madness & Merdre; Sam Shepard’s early meditation on estranged fathers, The Holy Ghostly, in 1984; just five years after closing on Broadway, Grease, as directed by Charles Goldbeck and Chris Graboswki in 1985 (notably advertising “COMPLIMENTARY food and beverages”); second year playwriting student, Lynn Nottage’s world premiere of A Parenthetical Glance at the Dialectical Nature of The Afro-American’s Quest for Autonomy, directed by Ramón A. Flores in 1988; Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman directed by Karol Siegel in 1990; and Tango Place in 1994, by María Irene Fornés.
The 2000s begin plotting a course that sounds and feels familiar. The World Wide Web’s seemingly sudden arrival casts a long shadow over the Cabaret’s aesthetic, and with it, comes a pervasive sense of irony, a post-modern absurdity and a certain turn-of-the-century ennui. Highlights in the fourth and fifth decades include: Brian Robinson and Claire Lundberg’s Y2KXMAS: A Holiday Musical from 1999; Assassins as directed by Trip Cullman in 2000; Bess Wohl’s satirical Cats Talk Back in 2001; the world premiere of Tim Acito’s Zanna, Don’t! (2001-2002); George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum in 2003; a 40th anniversary season with an emphasis on new work and world premieres championed numerous short plays in 2008; Trannequin, an original musical conceived and directed by Ethan Heard premiered at the Cabaret in 2011; the introduction of the now annual Drag Show shook the Cabaret in 2012; while 2015 gave us the Satellite Series; and 2017 gave us the first ever Women’s Voices In Theater Festival (or WVIT Fest).
As the Cabaret angles itself towards the future, it is imperative to study and reflect on the fifty years of innovation, risk, passion, success, and sometimes failure that lives, echoing loud, in the basement of 217 Park Street. Thick and countless layers of paint coat the walls of the Cabaret as testament to the hundreds (if not thousands) of artists, guests, supporters, and friends who’ve called the Cabaret home, even if only for a night.
—Amauta M. Firmino, Jeremy O. Harris, Yale Cabaret Historians