Theater In Conversation
Life as a Cabaret
Walter Corwin with Dan Kelley
Walter Corwin has been hanging out and having his plays performed at Theater for the New City going on 40 years. A protégé of Ed Bullins in the ’60s at the Public Theater and a veteran of the Actor’s Studio and The Herbert Berghof Studio, he’s never been afraid of weaving politics into his writing. The last decade of his practice has been an investigation of short form theater seemingly tailored to life in New York. He writes a stable of iconic characters—long-suffering professors and sleazy academics, construction workers, sidewalk psychics, and cops—all unburdening to an audience meant to act as both therapist and jury. He also deconstructs older types: brutally lampooning the hypocrisy of Arthur Miller’s tortured hero John Proctor from the #MeToo vantage point, and imagining the end-of-life chat between a doctor and tragically resigned Uncle Sam. This season’s production has been spun into a cabaret, entitled Con Hand Cabaret, a collaborative effort of the playwright, husband-and-wife performers Sarah Germain Lilly and T. Scott Lilly, and director Forrest Gillespie. I sit down with Walter to talk about the origins of the project and how in a time where irony is never absent from the news, and subtlety is in short supply, cabaret seems to be the perfect option.
Dan Kelley (Rail): “Con Hand, is the end of ‘beacon hand,’” what is that a reference to?
Walter Corwin: It’s from “The New Colossus” (Emma Lazarus). The plays are vaguely set somewhere in the near future and the plaque from the Statue of Liberty has been broken up, as well as the statue herself.
Rail: The deconstruction of Liberty?
Corwin: They’re taking the statue down, and they cracked the plaque by mistake, and this character, Esther the Riveter, is trying to put it back together again, they’re trying to put the country back together.
Rail: It occurred to me you’re taking another meaning of “Con”, perhaps?
Corwin: There’s also a parody of Emma Lazarus’ poem at the end of the play. There, the republicans add to Lazarus’ poem the idea that they want people coming in who can stand on their own two feet, the kind of people who are being invited to the country now.
Rail: So that’s less of a deconstruction of liberty and more of an addendum to it, or a condition added to it.
Corwin: I replace “the golden door” with “the revolving door”.
Rail: You can come in, but you can also get out again—
Corwin: You can be thrown out.
Rail: She lifts her lamp beside the revolving door.
What one person might call a monologue, you call a “one person play.” Are there one person plays going on in Con Hand Cabaret?
Corwin: Yes, most of them are one person plays. Insofar as it’s a whole play, but there’s only one person involved. A monologue can oftentimes be a performance piece to express a character’s thoughts or something—I try to expand it into a whole action, even though there’s only one person there.
Rail: I know for an actor it’s more fulfilling than just doing a speech or a monologue, to have the writing be more complete or to have a resolution come about through the course of the piece.
Corwin: Well, often the audience becomes the people that you’re talking to, the other characters; they’re not just an audience, they become a select group—they can be transformed into college students, high school students, children, or a spouse. The professor talking to the students—I use that lot.
Rail: Yeah, the world of the play is always important in your writing, and incorporating the audience in that world is the trick, or the puzzle of doing your work.
Speaking of actors, T. Scott Lilly and Sarah Germain Lilly are your actors in Con Hand Cabaret.” To the advantage of their talent, it seems that music has become more of a part of this production—the “cabaret” part of the “Con Hand.” Do you think that cabaret is a naturally political form of theater?
Corwin: Well we put an echo of The Threepenny Opera in there, from Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s. When you think of cabaret, you always think of political commentary, so it worked out alright.
Rail: But why does it work well?
Rail: But why do you think the original cabarets were so effective?
Corwin: It’s a little more mannered that a regular realistic play, so if you’re going to talk politics, you don’t have to be so realistic; you’re not pretending to be fair.
Rail: I feel it’s disarming, too—you can slide in the message because people aren’t defensive in that setting, they’re letting down the…
Corwin: Letting down their hair—I think that helps, too. And you can go a little further, for instance one line in one of the cabaret songs, “the republicans are giving hypocrisy a bad name”—I said it to one of my neighbors, and he said he was going to a party that night and he was going to use it, so then I used it in a song. I left the republican out—people could figure out by whom hypocrisy was being given a bad name.
Rail: Cabaret is a great forum in which to “sneak” that heavy-handed message.
Corwin: Crystal [Field] has always done this kind of political drama, so I’ve always felt this was a very good place for me.
Rail: Well, she gets that there’s always something that’s not being said. I oftentimes find myself saying or thinking: if not here, at Theater for the New City, where?