Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum

“Cabaret” emcee, Juan Zamudio PO ’18, sings "Money" with the rest of the musical ensemble during dress rehearsal on Oct. 24 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

"Cabaret" Previews A Heavy, Shock-Filled, Insightful Night

An adaptation of John Van Druten’s play “Cabaret” premieres at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre from Oct. 26 to Oct. 29. The musical compares today’s reality with Berlin’s pre-World War II condition. An American writer visits Berlin, Germany and is guided through the dazzling Kit Kat nightclub, and becomes – at instances – the unwitting pawn of the rising Nazi party.

The play was roused on the mainstage by the Director Giovanni Ortega, an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Pomona, and the Musical Director Janice Rogers Wainwright. Cast and crew were comprised of students and a few other faculty members.

The musical showcased Juan Zamudio PO '18, strapping across stage in high heels and glittery outfits as the emcee of the dreamlike night club, claiming again and again that “Life is a Cabaret.” A posse of Kit Kat girls and boys in raunchy outfits follow him and their leading club star, Sally Bowles, played by Amy Griffin SC ’18. In the world outside the club, an old woman (Emma Elliot SC ’19), who rents out house rooms, hesitantly romances a venerable man (Roei Cohen PO ’21), who brings her gifts of pineapples and pears.

Griffin said that her favourite part of rehearsal was watching all these colorful comedic sections materialize. “We got to add in lighting, technical elements, and costumes, after just doing plain acting for so many weeks, and I feel as if I can actually see what the play will look like now.”

But this color and vibrancy is all interwoven with impenetrable skeins of social turmoil and the rise of the Nazis, as Clifford Bradshaw (Evan Fenner PO ’18) and Ernst Ludwig (Tomas Negritto PZ ’19) demonstrate what could happen amid a fanatically rising ideology. Life, as this musical demonstrates, is certainly not a cabaret for many of the people who, holed in a night-club, treat life like entertainment.

Written by Shringi Diva Vikram.

Headshot of “Cabaret” Director Giovanni Ortega. Photo courtesy of Giovanni Ortega.

A Conversation with the Director of "Cabaret" on Political Art for Activism

“I always tell my cast that if we could just change one life from the production, then we’ve done our job.”

Having directed since 2008, Director Giovanni Ortega, an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Pomona College, has been putting together this year’s musical “Cabaret” for the past few months.

Originally from Chicago, with a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Los Angeles, Ortega has taught at Pomona for the past five years and directed three shows in a row, including “Urinetown” and “House of the Spirits.”

With over 80 hours of work put in for “Cabaret,” Ortega noted that while the process is “exhausting, the fruits of your labor are what’s most important.” Even with rehearsing the equivalent hours of two semester courses every Monday through Friday from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Ortega asserted that seeing the amount of community created behind this production was one of the biggest highlights for him.

“These students have worked so hard,” Ortega noted. “ ... I just want everybody to see the work that these Claremont College students have done. Their commitment is above and beyond.”

In preparation for this show, Ortega has not only seen film and live productions of “Cabaret,” but also visited Berlin, Germany to perform in a role himself and toured around the neighbourhood of where this story took place. Ortega said he needed to “come from a very blank state,” so as not to start “imposing my own [and other people’s] ideologies.”

Through examining the historical context of the Nazis in Germany, Ortega hopes that the musical will enable others to “first and foremost, never forget what happened.” He stressed the importance of creating “conversation, not confrontation” about the “phobia” that remains in our world today – whether that is “homophobia, islamophobia, anti-semitism, [or] racism” – in order to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

“There are other moments where you will see – and what I have done to state – that this story permeates to what’s happening right now,” Ortega said. “When I got back from Germany … two weeks later, Charlottesville happened. That’s how deep this show is … What I’ve always said, actually in the cast list, there’s a sign that says, 'Don’t be complicit or complacent. Eradicate hate at all cost.'”

Ortega noted the importance of having found a group of diverse, multi-faceted people to represent different backgrounds. “Multi-cultural casting is imperative in my work,” Ortega said. “If I don’t see in myself as a Filipino Asian Hispanic, if I’m not visible, then I don’t exist.”

Following his four tenants of directing – vision, community, nurturing, and decisiveness – Ortega has committed himself to engaging with the cast, crew, and audience through transformative theatre. He noted that while a show can be “thought-provoking” or emotionally triggering, actors in theatre “become mirrors to society, you become this parallel to the world you’re living in, regardless if it’s in the past, or in the present, or in the future.”

Ortega shared his wish to instill knowledge that his previous mentors have taught him. “In activism, you don’t want to go to a space, a country, for instance, a third world country, create change and then leave,” Ortega said. “You want it to be sustainable. Therefore, when you do transformation theatre… [my job] is to go there, investigate, do research, get to know the people, live with the people, work with them, and then come back, and then say, ‘How can you make this continue?’”

Despite his immense dedication and contribution, Ortega expressed humility in his role as a director. “I’m just kind of like a ringmaster putting things together, acquiring the talents of other people, and then creating this structure,” Ortega said. "You know, the director, they say, is an architect, so their job is to create a three-dimensional piece.”

Nonetheless, Ortega has brought the production alive, even from the first night of preview as he watched his work unfold, while sitting with the audience.

Ortega looks forward most to welcoming his audience for their final performance week. “I think the most rewarding thing is when the audience arrives and sees what you’ve been a part of this whole time,” Ortega said. “What I want the audience to take away from the show is that we are one human family. You must be able to converse and talk it through because all our differences, at the end of the day, [and at] our core, is [that] we just want to be loved and to connect with each other.”

- Written by Ariel So.

Emcee of “Cabaret,” Juan Zamudio PO ’18, sings with rest of the ensemble during dress rehearsal on Oct. 24 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

The Cast Speaks on Becoming Personally, Politically Charged Characters

In the midst of trying on their wacky Kit Kat club costumes over tech-week, five members from the large cast commented on the musical “Cabaret.” Emma Elliott SC ’19 (Fraulein Schneider), Tomas Negritto PI ’19 (Ernst Ludwig), Hershey Suri PO ’21 (Lulu), Regina Famatigan SC ’21 (Fritzie), and Amy Griffin SC ’18 (Sally Bowles) – discussed the implications of the show’s music, their acting process, and the political space of the production.

TSL: Intercollegiate theatre here does not produce musicals as often as other plays. How do you think this musical genre affected the production?

AG: We made a lot of creative choices by adding new characters, such as cabaret patrons, to the storyline. I think those choices added variation and vibrancy to the musical numbers and to the show in general. I think [every] character has strong moments, if not singing, then dancing or in spoken word.

TN: The songs aim to be wacky, sexual, flamboyantly choreographed, very show-like representations of different human desires. I think the audience is going to be like “what is going on?!” but will enjoy it.

TSL: The play, considering its setting in pre-World War II Germany, deals with some provocative and difficult political situations. What do you think about the play’s ultimate vision and its importance to you?

RF: The rise of Nazism in this musical, and the way it considers anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia can be applied to today’s social and political situation. I hope the audience recognises that this same hate and apathy does exist now, that they leave the theatre dissatisfied and upset with the situation, inspired to fight it and not let history keep repeating itself… I think the show does do a good job fighting society. I appreciate so much, for example, the pure diversity of the cast members working together for the play’s vision, especially being a person of colour myself. Not only is it made up of representatives from the different colleges, but it also has varying races, sexualities, religions, etc.     

HS: I belong to a religion called Sikhism, which is very under-represented in the colleges and in the world in general I think. People mistake it for Islam and direct Islamophobia to us as well. My family has dealt with being targeted my entire life, more intensely in the post 9/11 period.… In the play, I’m playing a similar [discriminated] side... So, playing this and simultaneously telling people that this situation is not right, is in a small way, liberating. It makes me feel like I’m doing something about all the instances of racism that I’ve pushed away in the past.

AG: We’re trying to portray every situation in a way that doesn’t gloss over any part of history or present reality today – a lot of it is in your face, and horrifying, and representative of its immediacy. We’ve talked a lot about how to do this respectfully. I don’t want anyone in the audience to feel that their identity was pushed away or misrepresented.  

Fraulein Schneider (Emma Elliott SC ’19) stay in the loving arms of Herr Schultz, played by Roei Cohen PO ’21. (Lauryn Cravens • The Student Life)

TSL: A lot of the characters in the play uphold Nazism. How did you construct those characters?

TN: I play a full-blown Nazi, who’s very passionate about his politics. I felt like I had to be proud of what I was saying if I was going to have any impact in the play’s overall vision. But every time, I started to put myself in his shoes and make myself a fanatic, I felt horrible inside. It was a difficult process, and I had to talk with Giovanni, our director, a lot before I felt like I was convincing. At one point in the show, I sing the Nazi anthem which basically talks about Nazi’s taking over the world and everyone else dying. I’ve learnt to let my character embrace the song’s lyrics enough to convey his beliefs – and not too much because then it gets to me pretty badly.

EE: I play a woman who steps aside and lets the Nazis rise, who does not stand up to them. I think I built my version of her character by making her motive for her actions the struggle she thinks she has, and rooting her in the large part of the population that still stands in the side-lines. I had to force myself to recognise the same passivity in today’s people, and in myself sometimes… I guess what I wanted this character to do was to force the audience into being honest with themselves and maybe recognise similar tendencies in themselves.

HS: People usually say, “oh it’s so much fun to play the bad guy”, but in this show the villain is society, and we all recognise that we’re living it, outside the setting of the show too. Suddenly it’s not so much fun anymore.  

AG: A large part of the process involved just checking in with other cast members and making sure they were okay, while trying to embody these characters.

TSL: What was the best part of the process for you?

HS: The cast and crew are very supportive and kind. I did theatre for a long time before coming to college and this cast has been the most genuinely beautiful that I’ve come across. They each have a specific strength and it’s made dealing with the provocative topic so much easier. I feel like the theatre department has given me some direction; I would have been kind of swimming around as a freshie still without it.  

RF: The creative process has been amazingly informative. This is my first experience with college theatre and I’ve learnt a lot about the sheer energy put into the show by every member in the cast and crew, as well as about creating my own character.

Other cast members are Evan Fenner PO ’18, Juan Zamudio PO ’18, Layla Moehring SC ’19, Jennifer Johnston SC ’21, Roei Cohen PO ’21, William Chen PO ’18, David Linn HM ’20, Jay Pier PO ’21, Kyle Lee PO ’20, Simon Westley PI ’19, Angelica Chun PO ’21, Emily Dauwalder PI ’20, Emma Belle Kolbrener PI ’21, Sasha Scudder SC ’21, Megan Gratke SC ’19, Mia Kania SC ’19, Claire Pukszta SC ’19, Jake Smith PO ’19, Tiffany Zhou PO ’21, and Jefferson Konah PI ’21.

- Written by Shringi Diva Vikram.

The company of "Cabaret" perform "Money" during dress rehearsal on Oct. 24 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

"A Little A Lot" Given Backstage To Make The Show Run

In addition to the talented cast and backstage crew of "Cabaret," there are three people involved in stage managing, who are just as crucial to the show’s success: assistant stage managers Madeleine Kerr HM ’20 and Akari Ishida PO ’20, as well as head stage manager Ross Wollman PO ’18. The three are there for all the rehearsals, helping with auditions and communicating with the cast. Kerr described them as “the bridge between the rehearsal space and the rest of the production team,” including costume, set, lighting, and sound.

During the show, these three work their magic backstage. The stage manager calls the cues, while the two assistant stage managers ensure that all the actors are entering at the right time with the props they need and that the stage is set up for each scene.

Participating in theater requires a great deal of commitment and dedication. Rehearsals for the musical run from 6:00 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week, but as assistant stage manager, Kerr usually arrives 30 minutes before to help set up, and stays behind to clean up and lock up the theatre afterwards. “So, it’s a little a lot,” she laughs.

For Kerr, opening week was also midterm week – she had three midterms to study for in the midst of the show's final preparations. “I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of things like cleaning my room or spending time with other people ... I just study the whole time,” she admitted.

So, what makes it worth it? Kerr answered: “A love for theater, a love for the cast, and I think most importantly with this show ... the importance of this story and the relevance of this story, and the ability for it to be thought-provoking as a piece of theatre and as a piece of art in general [and the] interaction with the audience."

Though Kerr participated in theater in high school as an actor, this is her first time participating in a production role at Pomona College. Being part of the crew, “you get to see all the different aspects come together, and especially as an assistant stage manager, that is sort of unifying,” Kerr said.

As "Cabaret" is finally unveiled over the next few nights, Kerr said that her only small concern is the audience’s reaction. “The energy of an audience can make or break a show, [but] I think the cast members love each other so much that their mutual energy will uplift each other,” she said. Hopefully, after preview and opening night, they will have a better idea of what to expect.

“Cabaret” is a particularly challenging production because of how difficult it is to tell a story with such a heavy message. “I think the most important thing is that they are such incredibly kind people, and they are telling a story that necessitates being told by kind people – people with a conscience and people who care about society and the direction of society,” Kerr said. “And all of the people in the cast fall under that category, and it’s been an incredible privilege to work with them and get to watch them grow as actors and performers.”

- Written by Jaimie Ding.

Amy Griffin SC ’18, playing Sally Bowles, and the Kit Kat boys and girls perform “Don’t Tell Mama” in the “Cabaret” dress rehearsal on Oct. 24 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

Behind-The-Scenes with one of the Most Essential Crews 

Behind the scenes of “Cabaret” is the incredible work put into costume, makeup, and set design work – which all contribute to ensuring a beautiful, seamless final production.

Costume and makeup designer for "Cabaret," Devon Horn PO ’18, is in charge of how all the cast members look from head to toe. She drew, designed, and sewed each of the costumes from start to finish through her own creative production. In the costume shop, Horn does her part in contributing to the construction of all of the costumes. She has to make sure that all of the costumes not only fit the story and other character's costumes, but with the actors' bodies.

Horn has been working in theater since middle school and has been designing costumes for herself for even longer. As a theater major, she is doing this work for "Cabaret" as her senior thesis project – as she hopes to go into a career in costume design. "Cabaret" is the first main stage production her costumes have been featured in.

“It’s really hard to do a show, especially a musical, without costumes,” Horn said. She explained that costumes are important to the production because they help actors get into character, put the show into historical context, and make the show feel more real.

Cabaret has been harder for Horn than other productions that she has been involved in, mainly because of the sheer volume of the show – with more than 100 costumes involved. The fact that this show touches on issues that are important and central to people's lives makes it feel more important to Horn, but also puts a lot of pressure on her. “We have Jewish actors who are in the show who have to wear Nazi armbands, being sensitive of that [is a challenge],” Horn said.

Elliot Joyce PZ '18 – a stagehand working in both tech and set for the "Cabaret" – has been working in theater for over eight years and, like Horn, is a theater major.

Joyce plays an essential for "Cabaret," as the show, according to Joyce, invovles a lot of props that need to be in the right place at the right time. Joyce’s favorite part of any show are “the ‘Aha!’ moments when a scene that you’ve been working on for a long time goes perfectly," Joyce wrote in an email to TSL.

For Joyce, having an audience see that for the first time is rewarding. “You can perform to an empty room as many times as you like, but the thrill of knowing there’s people watching you live is intense,” Joyce wrote.

The historical context that "Cabaret" exposes is important, according to Joyce. “[The plot] is set against the rise of Nazi Germany and touches on very dark but important issues … 'Cabaret' has a lot of resonance for current times … When I saw the ending, I was floored,” Joyce wrote.  

- Written by Molly Edison.

Amy Griffin SC ’18, playing Sally Bowles, and Evan Fenner PO ’18 as Clifford Bradshaw, dance together looking into each other’s eyes for their duo performance piece. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)