It’s November, 2018. The setting is a recreation room in a college dorm. Spilling out of the room are the friends, family members, and fans of Cabaret who have come to take in a student produced production of the Kander and Ebb hit. Known for its jazzy score, sexy showgirls, and most importantly, Holocaust themes; some wonder whether college aged artists are capable of respecting the stories, and maintaining the integrity of those who were silenced not so long ago. Wagner College Holocaust Center intern, Anthony E. Logrande, sat down with actor, David Dines (The Emcee), and Director, Daniel S. Smith, to discuss the production in relation to the Holocaust.
Actor, David Dines:
What does it mean for you to be a second generation Holocaust survivor? Can you share with us the story of your grandmother?
“I can’t remember when I first learned that she was a Holocaust survivor, but I do remember it was at a really young age, because my mom told me. My mother and I have this weird thing where we feel very connected to it. I don’t know if it’s because we’re Jewish or because she is close to my grandmother.
My grandmother was born in Holland, Netherlands, and she moved to Germany. She was an only child but when the Nazis took power, they moved back to Holland because they thought that they would be safe. But they weren’t. My grandmother was about seven years old when all of this happened. Her father worked for the “Jewish Underground” and he ended up getting captured and killed. My grandmother and my great grandmother were hidden by a family called the Vertsakes in a wall. So there was this hole in the wall with a mattress and they put a bookcase in front of it, and we do not know how long they hid there because my grandmother completely blocked this out. Some neighbors found out and told the Nazis that they were hiding, so my grandmother and great grandmother were taken to a work camp, but my grandmother does not remember that, and they were only there for a little while.
While in hiding, the man of the house was forging secret papers to my great grandmother who was Aryan saying that my grandmother was his illegitimate child so that the Nazis would save her if they came even though my great grandmother would not be saved. My grandmother was saved and my great grandmother died on the death march. My grandmother stayed with the Verstakes for a while, and most of my grandmother’s family was killed, except for her aunt, her grandmother, and her grandmother’s husband and children. They moved to Canada, and after a while my grandmother’s grandmother sent for her from Canada, so she left the Verstakes, and went to Canada, and then she lived with the grandmother which was a weird shift coming from no family to her real family who didn’t really know what to do with her because she did not speak French and she only spoke Dutch which they did not understand.”
How did your grandmother’s story motivate you and other people in the cast?
“I don’t think I used this story as a part of Cabaret. I used my knowledge of the Holocaust but going to Hebrew school for so many years, we learned everything there is to do with the Holocaust. I just had a lot of knowledge about it. But the other thing, from my perspective, is that the Holocaust doesn’t really happen in the show until the very last scene. I think that Cabaret shows the Nazi’s rise to power and then them coming to power, but I don’t think it gets to that point until the complete end. I know in the Roundabout version of Cabaret in 1996, they had the Emcee come out as a concentration camp prisoner. I think that this is useful and I think it makes sense in regards to the show but I don’t think that the Holocaust is that definitive within the show.”
The Emcee crosses so many boundaries in a setting that surrounds him with hate. Did the fact that you are a gay man affect your interpretation of Cabaret in anyway?
“Cabaret is my all-time favorite show. I have watched the movie so many times, I have seen videos of the original production, and I have seen the revival on Broadway. I love the show. There is always that trap when you have a role as iconic as the Emcee. You decide whether you’re going to the play him like Alan Cumming or like Joel Grey, but I figured why can’t it be my own interpretation. It shouldn’t be a reflection of either. Don’t get me wrong, they are both fantastic, and you can pull from either actor, but don’t make it a ‘this or that’ or a combination of both.
Going into it, I wanted to be my own character and figure out how I wanted play this role because I had wanted to play him for a long time. For me, it was finding who he is as a person and how he relates to others. Is he this spirit (Alan Cumming talks about how he’s a spirit), is he the story mover or a real person? I decided he is a real person but in the sense that he has told this story before, he is going to tell it again and the audience is just seeing this time that he is telling it. In regards to sexuality, I went in with the idea that he is everything: he is pansexual, bisexual, however you want to interpret it. I had so many close friends in the cast and I felt very comfortable playing with them and touching them and letting it be this open sexuality that there was in the Berlin night clubs. So, it kind of came naturally how he was open to being involved with and sleeping with people of both sexes.”
What was the whole experience like? And what can you tell us about the resistance of hate in your experience with Cabaret?
“This year in theater at Wagner is all about protesting and seeing what the world is and standing up (like Cabaret and Hair). I like doing theater that makes you think and react. Shows like Cabaret and shows like Hair create a reaction from an audience: that is what they do. In a way, I feel like I am contributing. I personally hate the situation that our country is in but I feel like doing these shows is my contribution to resisting hate, aside from protesting and whatnot.
Using art to make a statement is really valuable, and shows like Cabaret put a magnifying glass to what is going on. In regards to Nazism now, there is a resurge of it, which is really terrifying, and I think that Cabaret is really timely, which is scary. But, I do not know if the show itself is innately about resisting oppression, because I think it tells the story of this woman who has a superiority complex about herself who doesn’t really see what is going on in the world and she is blind to it, and the Emcee and the people in the Cabaret are commenting on her story telling her to open her eyes and see the situation that she is in.”
Did you see In the Light of One Another? If you did, what did you experience from this original play, and as an actor, where could you see the play going?
“I thought it was really cool how the dialogue was taken directly as a representation of who these people are. Personally, because I have seen so many plays about the Holocaust, another play about the Holocaust that is not bringing new information to me is not giving me anything. I think that the show is very well done and someone who does not know a lot of information about the Holocaust would find it very useful. It makes you think. I have literally been surrounded by the same media and the same stories my entire life and you can only listen to those same stories over and over. Not that everybody has the same story, but there are stories that are very similar to one another, and it is hard not to start making them blend together because you hear the narrative that goes along with the Holocaust. Everybody has their own survivor story, which in incredible and should be told, but if I were to go out and see another play about the Holocaust, I want something new.”
Director, Daniel S. Smith:
Why did you decide to direct Cabaret? Was it in relation to the current political climate?
“I didn’t want to do Cabaret for the longest time. I have always been a huge fan of the piece, but I thought I had nothing to say with it. I thought that directors like Hal Prince, Sam Mendes, and Bob Fosse had done incredible work with it, and I thought that I had nothing new to bring to the table. And then the election happened, and that definitely changed my worldview on a lot of things. Emma Pittman (Choreographer) approached me and she told me that she wanted to get into “working on the other side of the table,” and wanted to either assistant direct or choreograph. We started talking about projects that we could possibly do, and I threw out the idea of doing Cabaret. I thought that there was no better time to do it then now, just because of the fact that we are living on a bubble on this campus.
Reading through the text a couple times, I began to realize that this is the story of people that have to have to look over their shoulders at all times to see what threats are sneaking up from behind. That’s exactly what Weimar Germany was. The Weimar period is marked as being this incredibly progressive era in the Post-WWI, devastated Germany where you had recession and inflation. In the midst of all of that, you had the socialists, the capitalists, and the communists all fighting for control, and nobody could get it. And then you had this cultural phenomenon happening: queer theory was being explored, some of the most incredible work on gender identity and sexual identity was being written, and you had this underground (almost visible) LGBTQ scene.
As I studied more of this period, and I got my dramaturgy and all my materials together, I began to realize that there are a lot of parallels to where we are in this country and where we are as a student community on campus. The thing about the election that really took all of us for a spin was the fact that Drumpf’s win was unexpected (not even the New York Times predicted he would win!), and that is what happened in Germany. Hitler came to power: the national socialists took over and nobody saw that coming. I believe that a production needs to have a point. The core of any production is always the audience, and the story you are relating to them and why they need to hear it. If the audience is going to pay for a babysitter, and take time out of their schedules to see a show, you have to give them something worth seeing.
I think that Wagner students got a splash of cold water in the face with this production. We really focused on what happens when people are not vigilant enough. The parallels between the Kit Kat Club and the Wagner community are strikingly similar. I do not believe in doing things that do not challenge me. I get bored very quickly. Cabaret was horrifying and that is why I loved it. We had a live pit, we were very ambitious in the scale, and we were lucky enough to have fantastic producers (Completely Student Productions) backing us. I am not saying that the show was any good, that’s for the audience to decide, but there was always a lot of ambition in the room.”
You changed the last scene up, correct?
“I didn’t. I simply looked at what Joe Masteroff wrote down on paper, and interpreted it in a way that honored both his work and the lost souls of the Weimar era. You can never do a piece and shy away from the integrity of it. The ending in the book is that the Emcee takes off his trench coat to reveal a black and white striped prisoner outfit underneath. I read the script, and I said to myself that we always need to respect the text, but we also have to respect the intentions of the creatives, and the reality is that a Wagner College audience (all theater kids) already know the ending. They expect it and I couldn’t do it. Yes I know what the text says, but I truly believe that the creatives would have liked the direction I went with.
I thought to myself, “well why do they have this ending?”, and I realized that it was because they wanted to drive the message home and make audiences understand where they are in relation to others. And so, I came up with the idea that if we are in Gatehouse Lounge and we are playing in this club, this beerhall, what if we had SS officers literally kick the doors in and storm the house as if it were a raid. I think it was effective. We gave audiences a trigger warning and the material was very sensitive, but the reason why I had them raid the club was because I truly believe that if you are going to do right by the artists, and more importantly by the people who are at the heart of this story, then you have to tell their story.
I think that it is offensive to do Cabaret and not honor the spirit of the Holocaust. You can shy away from anything you want in a play when it’s for art’s sake, but when you shy away from six million plus Jews and the homosexuals and people of color, and the people who were murdered in mass numbers, that’s wrong. We have to be reminded of that. I personally do not like that children have to get permission slips signed to read Night in high school. I think that every child should have to read Night. It’s triggering, and it is a lot for children to handle, but the reality is that we have to look in the face of it. It’s who we are, and we are all capable of it. You do not rob history of its place in our world. There was an article in the New York Times that said that more than fifty percent of children cannot explain what the Holocaust was, which is crazy! That is absolutely horrifying. That is why we have to do this though.”
How did you plan on integrating David Dines background into it?
“I knew about David Dines’ background before the first day of rehearsal. He first brought it up when we were doing pre-production/table work. I had found some sources for him, and I put together this whole packet of dramaturgy and stuff for him to play with. As we sat down and we talked about where we were going to start from and how we were going to craft the character, he said to me, ‘Do you know that my grandmother is a survivor of the Holocaust?’ My jaw was on the floor. Here we had somebody who really had this story in their blood.
I always want the actors’ opinions and input in my direction, but in this case, I wanted David’s especially. He was the the Emcee so he oversaw the universe, and we worked hand-in-hand at times. If David Dines told me that the ending was too much, I would have trusted him, because he knows from knowing his grandmother’s story so well. We would have recrafted it, or watered it down. He knew his story, and we definitely brought it into the rehearsal room.”
Post By Anthony E. LoGrande
All Photos are the work of Scott Hoke. Instagram: @scotthokephotography