Amanda Palmer comes to the cabaret

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday September 8, 2010

A few weeks back we were able to speak to both Amanda Palmer and Steven Bogart, the star and director respectively of the American Repertory Theatre's production of Cabaret. While Palmer is well-known thanks to her career helming the Dresden Dolls, Bogart is not. In fact it might seem strange to see his name attached to a theater known for championing the work of high-profile directors with international resumes. But that was then -- the old regime -- and this is now -- the new regime headed by artistic director Diane Paulus, who in a short-time has put her stamp on the Cambridge professional theater with Harvard University affiliations.

What brought Bogart to Oberon - the theater-turned-nightclub where Cabaret will be playing through October 29 - is Palmer, whom he taught 16 years ago at Lexington High School and who remains a guiding influence in her career. When Paulus asked Palmer if she was interested in a appearing in Cabaret, she said she was, but only if Bogart was involved. Paulus agreed without meeting Bogart, who has spent most of his career teaching and directing at Lexington High School outside of Boston.

The project they agreed on was the 1966 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical that takes place in Berlin towards the end of the Weimar Republic (1930). In many ways Palmer's participation in it - she plays the Emcee of the seedy Kit Kat Klub where much of Cabaret takes place - is a logical extension of her work with the Dresden Dolls and her previous cabaret-styled entertainment at the ART, The Onion Cellar. The Dresden Dolls, which was described by Palmer and her fellow band-member Brian Viglione as "Brechtian punk cabaret," were a band that owed much to the expressive freedom that so characterized Weimar Berlin.

Working in the theater is also a direction that Palmer has been moving in over the past few years: The Onion Cellar, despite Palmer's unhappiness with what transpired during the rehearsal project, was a major success for the ART; and last year she collaborated with Bogart on With The Needle That Sings In Her Heart, a theater piece for Lexington High School students that was inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel's album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and The Diary of Anne Frank.

What Palmer and Bogart will do with Cabaret is one of the more enticing questions of the fall season. It has already created considerable buzz with reports that the first weeks of the run are sold-out. (Word is that the entire run is about to go clean.) What will distinguish their production over others in the past is Palmer playing the Emcee, a role traditionally cast as a man, though not without androgynous qualities. EDGE spoke to both Palmer and Bogart about how the production came about, her playing a role usually cast by a male actor, their long-standing relationship, and what was to be their spin on this now-classic musical. (In other words, were they going to de-Bob-Fosse it?)

The Bogart connection

First, we spoke to Amanda.

EDGE: Are you in rehearsal now?

Amanda Palmer: Yeah. It’s been brutal. Non-stop rehearsal. We’re doing 8-hour days and training and music - the whole thing is really intense. It’s been really good, though. I’m totally exhausted (laughs), but it’s really good. The tough part of this is to rehearse and run my business at the same time. Usually when I’m home and off-tour, I’m already really, really busy just running the show because I effectively manage my whole business - the national label and all that stuff, and it’s a lot of work.

EDGE: So this is something different, being part of a team?

Amanda Palmer: I actually like that someone else is in charge. (laughs)

EDGE: How did this production come about?

Amanda Palmer: The show came about because I saw Stephen Bogart’s 2001 production of this show at Lexington High School. He was my mentor in high school. When I saw what he did with the production, I said to him we are going to have to do this show some day. And he laughed and said, ’sure, Amanda.’ But I always came back to it.

When the ART first approached me four or five years ago to do a show, I wanted to bring Stephen Bogart into a workshop The Onion Cellar, which was the idea of a show I had. But they weren’t too hip to use him as a director because, I think, he was an unknown quantity. So I ended up working with another director (Marcus Stern) the ART paired me with and that whole experience ended up being very unsatisfying. That was in 2006-2007. When they changed things around and got a new artistic director (Paulus) who approached me about doing this show, I said I would love to, but the one thing I knew for certain that I wanted was Stephen Bogart as the director. That was the deal breaker. So they brought him in and he’s been absolutely slaying it. The production is going to be really creative. I have a feeling that anyone coming expecting the standard Cabaret is going to be really surprised with what we’ve done to it.

A unique vision?

EDGE: What was unique about Bogart’s vision?

Amanda Palmer: I had seen several productions before I saw Bogart’s and the show never moved me. Something about Bogart’s production was incredibly moving, probably because Steven Bogart is not afraid of the dark. He took the piece into a real dark, visceral place. That resonated with me because I enjoy exploring in the dark. And I knew we’d see a lot of that in this production. It is an incredibly dark show, but at the same time in order for the darkness to function it also needs to be incredibly light so it’s a dynamic mix.

EDGE: The Emcee is traditionally played by a man. This is the first time I think it’s being played by a woman that I can think of. What is the approach you take with it?

Amanda Palmer: The approach is basically that I’m playing it as a woman playing it as a man. It’s interesting the very core of the Kit Kat Klub, which is the setting in Weimar Berlin, is sexual freedom and experimenting and gender-bending. Part of the approach the show is taking is that these lines are blurred so you can’t exactly tell what’s going on. But that’s very authentic to the time. The other approach we are taking, especially with the Emcee, but with all the dancers, is that they are not these two-dimensional figures. They’re real people with real stories. Their sexual make-up and their representations of themselves are very playful. A lot of them are really funny, comes from a very real place. It’s not just a cartoon of Weimar. And so it’s true with the Emcee I’m a female, but I’m dealing with my own conflicts (laughs) and my own sexual decisions. I’m not just a flat everyman.

EDGE: Usually the Emcee is played almost as an abstraction - an insidious guide through the musical. He’s more of an attitude than a personality. How do you create a back story for a character that has no lines of dialogue?

Amanda Palmer: I’m still working through it. That’s why we have six weeks of rehearsal (laugh). But we are doing a lot of really interesting exercises in the rehearsal room. A lot of the dance movement and the performance elements are drawn from the Butoh tradition. (Note: Butoh is a post-WWII dance movement in Japan that development in reaction to traditional dance forms. To learn more, follow this link.

A lot of the choreography is drawn from the Butoh tradition. Which is in stark contrast to the Fosse thing you usually see with Cabaret, although we are including everything. We are throwing the Butoh into the mix but we are not undoing the jazz hands, we’re just making them into jazz claws. The collision of that shiny, glittery, sequined Cabaret-cartoon that people have in their mind is undermined by this dark, visceral form (Butoh) that was born out of a response to prettiness in ballet. It also was something of a more Earth-bound performance answer to the incredible trauma that Japan went through after World War II. It’s a very human, very dark form. All of that stuff and all of that work we are doing in the room is informing my character and the other characters in the show.

Back to Weimar

EDGE: In some ways this is a logical extension of your career - a musical set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Was the creative spirit exemplified by artists from that period a big influence on The Dresden Dolls?

Amanda Palmer: Sure, at some level at which I like everyone else equate Weimar with a particular kind of freedom. The same kind of freedom that I wanted to be the accent of the band and the band’s show.

EDGE: What prompted you to be part of such a traditional piece of musical theater?

Amanda Palmer: It’s not so much musicals, it’s the theater-making. I love making theater. I love being part of a show. Being put on stage. I especially miss this kind of process. The process with Stephen Bogart is what I wanted to do - putting up a regular musical is something I am not interested in. But working with Stephen Bogart is something I miss a lot because it’s great fun and risky, emotional work. You don’t get to do so much of that being part of a rock band. I just missed that. Every time I return to the theater I’m hoping to find that. I’ve learned that Bogart’s process isn’t something that I can take for granted. Because I’ve done a lot of different kinds of theaters; some have felt authentic to me and others have made me feel that I was wasting my time.

EDGE: Your previous show with the ART The Onion Cellar, was very successful, yet you’ve said it was a "nightmare." Why do you think it worked for its audiences if you were so dissatisfied with it?

Amanda Palmer: Once the show was mounted I was certainly feeling - how should I put this? That it was this very creative and emotional show with vignettes that were beautifully strung together, but that wasn’t what I had wanted to create. The process was really frustrating because it just didn’t feel collaborative. And when I do projects - whether I choose to do a project or not to do a project - I’m not really thinking of the end result as much as whether I going to enjoy the process and the work. With The Onion Cellar it was a really frustrating - it felt like a really bounded process whereas I was use to working in an environment where ideas would just fly and everything would be just fun and risky and enjoyable.

Even though at the end we wound up with a good show, it wasn’t A.) the show I had imagined it could be; and B.) the path I had taken to get there was so painful it was hard to swallow. But we did what we did could with it and by the time we got in on stage, I looked at it and, like anything else, it is what it is and I was going to throw myself into it and remember that the people sitting in the audience don’t know what it could have been. I had to let that go. What I really wanted was this very messy, immersive, almost frightening, deep emotional show and what I feel we ended up giving the audience was very entertaining and very enjoyable, but I also felt like it in many levels compared to what we had been aiming for was very laminated.

A dream role

EDGE: Last year you went back to Lexington to work with Bogart on With the Needle That Sings in Her Heart (a student production that used songs by the band Neutral Milk Hotel), which sounds like a great project for you. Do you see that going on from there?

Amanda Palmer: It was wonderful. I’m not sure. I think I really like to move forward with Bogart and look towards another project, but we’re not sure what that project is going to be. The only thing I know for sure is that we’ll - after Cabaret - we’ll go in a more original direction. Cabaret is a great show to present his directing to a wider audience. To take a show that’s a known quantity that we know we could knock out of the park without a ton or X-factors. But where Bogart really shines is taking an ensemble and creating original work. So hopefully whatever we do next - whether it’s some kind of re-tooling of the Needle show or something totally from scratch - I don’t think you’ll see us coming back with The Threepenny Opera or something like that.

EDGE: Over the past few years you’ve extended your career in directions that might seem strange for a rock artist - singing with the Boston Pops, for instance, or performing with the ART. And the Dresden Dolls have been on an extended hiatus. What are your goals now as a performer?

Amanda Palmer: My goal is to enjoy whatever work I’m working on. (laughs). And I think this can change from year-to-year. But I really do love making theater. And also burning out on the constant travel of the rock world. As much as I love rock world, I hate being in a different city every single day year-after-year. That just gets on your nerves. So I think some kind of happy medium between traveling and touring and staying in one place and making theater is what I’ll wind up doing.

But one thing I should throw out is that my fan base in Boston has been really, really supportive. They’ve been bringing food to rehearsal and I’ve been twittering pictures from down the rehearsal basement and getting off on the response. It’s been great to merge my rock land audience with theater land.

EDGE: Yes, but with Cabaret you’re likely not to be performing to your fan base - no doubt some of them will be there, but there will also be many who may not know who you are. Does that make you nervous at all? Tension in being the first one on stage, audience will be older and may not know who you are?

Amanda Palmer: They don’t need to know who I am. No. If anything, I actually appreciate it because there is something about always preaching to the choir that can dull your edge as a performer. And there’s actually something really refreshing about having to win over an entirely new audience. And I really enjoy that. It happened in The Onion Cellar too. I love hearing people say I don’t know who you are. I don’t know anything about your music, but your performance was incredible and I’m going to look up all your stuff and buy it. In a way it’s a fun challenge because I get to win over a new crop of people. I consider myself lucky that I have this dream role. I love it.

Directly relevant

Upon Palmer’s suggestion, we contacted Steven Bogart to address what he planned on staging this Cabaret.

EDGE: Why do you think Cabaret has endured as a popular musical?

Steven Bogart: In whatever decade it is produced, Cabaret is directly relevant. Although World War II ended in 1945, hatred, prejudice, bigotry, persecution and genocide did not: Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia are only a few contemporary examples. In Cabaret, we’re reminded of how easily people in the past, as well as currently, can be seduced into turning a blind eye. But mostly, it’s probably because the music is great, and the story is poignant.

EDGE: Amanda Palmer said that with the production you previously directed at Lexington High School you went to dark places that she hadn’t realized were possible with the piece. And that she found the production incredibly moving. What is it about your approach that led her to be so affected by it?

Steven Bogart: I can’t speak for Amanda, however, I approached Cabaret as a piece that is directly anchored in true events. The Berlin of the 1920s-30s was a dark and decadent place, and it is out of this darkness that the Holocaust was born. As well as exploring the show’s historical context, we were delving into the journey of each character. I didn’t want to shy away from what was a show filled with complicated feelings, and I tried to help my students embrace what was real about their characters.

EDGE: Cabaret is both an old-fashioned, linear musical and a musical that looks forward to musical-as-commentary pieces (such as Company) that were to follow in the 1970s. How do you reconcile these elements?

Steven Bogart: I don’t see these elements as disparate. It is a Brechtian form that allows for both. The venue for our production is A.R.T.’s Oberon. The space itself calls for the audience to be immersed in the piece. To this end, all elements of the musical can be integrated by essentially setting them all in the club.

Fosse’s influences?

EDGE: Cabaret is always linked to Bob Fosse (though he had nothing to do with the original production). Even Sam Mendes high concept production had Fosse-like elements. Is it possible to do Cabaret acknowledging Fosse’s influence?

Steven Bogart: We’re not worrying about. The movement and dance is growing out of a collaborative process with our movement director. This seems to be allowing for some freshness. If there are some Fosse elements, they’ll probably be inverted or subverted in some manner. Anyway, we have several homages in our production, Marlene Dietrich and Charlotte Rampling to name a couple.

EDGE: The Emcee has always been something of an abstraction, but Amanda said that you humanize the character in some ways -- how do you do that?

Steven Bogart: By creating his/her personality, life outside of the play, outside of the text, relationships, struggles, and feelings about the other characters and events of the show.

EDGE: Why did you cast Thomas Derrah as Fräulein Schneider?

Steven Bogart: We are trying to do a lot of gender bending and create an emotionally and intellectually complicated experience for the audience, and Tommy is a brilliant actor.

EDGE: But how do you avoid making such a casting choice not seem like camp?

Steven Bogart: I suppose that’s what some might expect, but Tommy is playing the character the way she is written, real and complicated.

EDGE: Amanda discussed how you use elements of the Japanese dance movement Butoh in the production. What is it about this movement that led you to want it?

Steven Bogart: It isn’t so much the movement that excites me about Butoh, it is more about the feeling, the ghost like apparition of Butoh that I think works for our production. Amazingly, some of the things that influenced Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ono, the cofounders of Butoh, were German Expressionism, Theater of Cruelty, and Genet--for example. Butoh was also partly a reaction to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

EDGE: Amanda said that she wouldn’t have done the production without you. What is it about the bond between you that is so strong?

Steven Bogart: We work well together, and we laugh a lot as we create. I love her ideas and she usually loves mine, but really, we’re able to work through things creatively. We’re also both uninterested in settling for what is conventional.

EDGE: And when she was your student, did you ever think you’d be directing her at the American Repertory Theater?

Steven Bogart: No, never. I have eight Alums involved in this production with us. The whole thing is surreal, but I am very happy to have this wonderful opportunity to reconnect in this situation. Of course, I owe this to Amanda. She’s the real thing.

Cabaret runs through October 29, 2010 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information visit the American Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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