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The Off the Farm ‘Benefit Cabaret’: Finding permanence in a time (and art form) of transience

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Backstage before a high school theater opening night: Kristin, a first soprano, paces through the hallway, doing lip trills that straddle the fine line between impressive and obnoxious. Alissa and Rian, featured dancers, stretch out their arms and legs while awkward, 14-year-old boys sitting at the other end of the green room pretend not to notice. The secrets of last night’s final dress rehearsal fiasco travel through the gossip mill, reaching everybody from Zach, the varsity football quarterback who also happens to play the male lead in tonight’s show, to me, a sophomore singing one line in the opening number that is much, much, much too high for her.  

The atmosphere is loud, chaotic, hectic. 

Five minutes before the stage manager calls places, the cast piles into the green room, water polo players squished next to theater fanatics, cheerleaders, marching band members and AP Honors kids. Just a sea of excited, nervous teenagers, impossible to tell who is who anymore. A calmness fills the room. Mr. Johnson, my director, speaks.  

“The best thing about theater is that it is fleeting. You will never get to do this same thing, with this same group of people, ever again. So enjoy it. Enjoy tonight.” 

I’ve been thinking about this pre-show speech a lot, lately. The built-in brevity of theater, the consequences of loving something with a predetermined deadline. The idea of art that is fleeting in its nature, but permanent in its beauty and impact. 

After working on six theater productions on Stanford’s campus with two different student organizations and the TAPS department, having Ram’s Head Theatrical Society’s spring production of “Pippin” canceled due to COVID-19, and feeling isolated in quarantine, I felt the transience of community and theater just as strongly as I did in high school. Except now, along with an appreciation of theater’s beautiful impermanence, there is a small tinge of sadness for what never got to be. Not just for the cancellation of “Pippin,” but for the countless other spring student art projects that also never came to fruition. 

Arriving home to Southern California, I felt lost and scared of what the future might bring, or, perhaps more accurately in this day and age, what it might take away. 

Then came news of auditions for the Benefit Cabaret. 

The Benefit Cabaret was a YouTube livestream of various campus performers on Friday, May 8, with all proceeds benefiting the Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) organization, a cause helping subcontracted Stanford workers during this economically challenging time of COVID-19. 

In an interview with Kaitlyn Khayat ’21, a lead organizer for the project, she said that the idea for a virtual cabaret sprang forth when her initial plan to host a 24-Hour Musical through Ram’s Head Theatrical Society this coming spring quarter fell through. After seeking the support and feedback of other theater students, Khayat recounted that she quickly formed a little task force consisting of Vincent Nicandro ’20, Grace Davis ’22, Lizzie Avila ’23 and herself. 

“We each tackled different areas of the project,” Khayat said. “I worked really heavily with recruiting people to be a part of it. And then the marketing aspect, Vincent was all about the graphic design and the video editing. Lizzie was our contact with SWR, she helped get the videos from them. And then Grace worked on organizing the program as a whole and kind of giving it a sense of structure, creating a good flow for it.”

Khayat, a current board member of Ram’s Head Theatrical Society and incoming Executive Producer for the 2020-21 season, said that the most meaningful experience she had while working on the project was “watching my phone as all the Venmo payments came in … It was like a little treat every time my phone buzzed. During the cabaret and, even now, I’m still getting emails of people wanting their donations to be matched … It was great. The little high from seeing all the donations is probably my favorite part, because, for me, it’s like a marker that it was successful and people were seeing it and cared enough to donate.”

When asked about the transition from planning on-campus theater productions to a virtual cabaret, Khayat laughed as she admitted that the virtual cabaret may have been easier to plan than in-person performances. 

“There’s a certain excitement about live theater. Is it gonna work? Are we gonna be able to get this done? That’s where the excitement comes from, for me,” Khayat said. “There’s so many ways it could go wrong, but yet, somehow, it all goes right … We had the video done several days in advance. I was still nervous, wanting it all to go well and for people to show up, but I don’t think there was the same thrill of live theater that I get when I do shows in person.” 

Although it was true that the Benefit Cabaret missed the palpable buzz from an excited audience or the rapturous applause after a solo, Kaitlyn and I agreed that the best part of theater, the community that it can build, was present as the video streamed that Friday night. 

“One thing that made me personally really happy was to get to see everyone again. As cheesy as it sounds, one of the main reasons I do theater is for the people … That’s one of my biggest draws to the art,” Khayat said. “And, in that way, the Benefit Cabaret was kind of a self-serving way of getting to see people, and watch them perform and be amazing, and use my ability to organize – in a very literal sense, email-sending, list-making – to make that happen and hopefully bring that sense of connection to other people watching.” 

I felt it was best to sing a piece from “Pippin,” so I chose “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man,” a song Catherine, the character I was cast to play, sings as Pippin leaves her and her son behind in search of greener pastures and the most “perfect finale.” The song ends as quietly as it begins, building up to a belty flourish in the bridge and a sudden crashing down in the last verse. It was the one song that I felt I never captured quite right, emotionally. In rehearsal, our director, Grace Wallis ’20, likened it to speaking a eulogy at a close friend’s funeral: sad, of course, but ultimately celebratory and thankful for your time together. As the rehearsal process went on, I kept telling myself that I would eventually find the emotional depth to perform the song correctly, but, sadly, my time ran out and I never quite got there. Even after filming that last take of the song that eventually made it into the Benefit Cabaret, I wondered if even that was close enough to the gravity of loss and gratitude I was supposed to convey. 

Filming my video for the cabaret was easy enough. It involved a clumsy structure of an ironing board, two boxes and a beat, hardcover version of “Leaves of Grass” to hold up my phone to film, a few test shots to get the right lighting and a perfect first take where I forgot to press the record button. Fairly low-effort and low-excitement. 

Still, as I watched my computer screen fill with the faces of so many people I loved and admired on May 8, I felt the similar feeling of excitement, pride and anticipation that I chased all throughout high school, and my first five quarters of performing at Stanford. 

I watched one of my first friends at Stanford, “Gaieties 2018” freshman hero, JRo dorm buddy and now-fellow TriDelt Lizzie Dowdle ’22 sing “Times Are Hard For Dreamers” from “Amelie,” her voice light and concise to begin, until releasing traces of an effortless vibrato in the chorus as she transitioned into a strong mix. I noticed, also, that her hair had grown longer, and wondered how long it will be until the next time I see her. 

When Vincent Nicandro’s face popped up on my screen, for just a brief moment I was reminded of my first-ever performance at Stanford, a staged reading of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” with the Asian American Theater Project my freshman fall. As musically gifted as he is with graphic design, Vincent’s rendition of “Out There” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” highlighted his deep, chilly baritone and the solemnity of his acting choices reminded me of his great ability for empathy, both onstage and off. 

And finally, the Benefit Cabaret reminded me that there are still people, both in the theater community and the whole student population, that I have yet to meet. Levi Lian ’21 put on perhaps my favorite performance of the entire night, a one-man version of the charming duet “It Only Takes A Taste” from “Waitress,” singing both the female and male verses back to himself as he sits on a park bench. His tenor is clear and adorably demure, perfect for the premise of the flirty tune.

My fingers flew across my keyboard throughout the entire streaming, sending virtual love and praise to friends, some of them thousands of miles away. 

You will never get to do this same thing, with this same group of people, ever again.”

We, as college students, artists and human beings, are living in unprecedented times, wrought with fear, uncertainty and far too many questions with not nearly enough answers. We are living through a major moment in history, even if it feels like it is characterized by the mundane routine of being stuck at home, day in and day out. 

So enjoy it. Enjoy tonight.”

If I’m being honest, I still feel just as lost and scared as I did when I arrived home almost three months ago. If I’ve learned anything while in quarantine, it’s that nothing is for certain. I’m working to not take the beautiful things in my life for granted: Late mornings on my porch with my parents as my mom waters her roses, a random text from Lizzie about a crazy dream of hers I was featured in and theater. I’m learning to embrace the fleeting nature of this art form that I love so much, and celebrating the moments it chooses to remind me of its longstanding power.  

When speaking on the $11,826 raised for SWR, Khayat remembered feeling proud and surprised.

“If we even raised $1000, I would be really happy. And the fact that we exceeded that … Woah. That’s crazy,” Khayat said.

I agree, Kaitlyn. For a performance that streamed online for only 48 hours, $11,826 feels pretty permanent. 

Contact Justine Sombilon at jsombilo ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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