Karissa Wheeler (C’19) as Sally Bowles. Photo by Buck Butler (C’89).
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Tristan Ketcham (C’21) had terrible stage fright in middle school. Up until the eighth grade, he hated being in front of crowds and despised giving presentations. However, when he had to perform in front of a crowd of parents for a class project, his teacher gave him the best advice to overcome his fear.
“[She] told me to just do something completely silly to get all my pent-up nervous energy out,” he recalled. “The next run of the scene, I took a deep breath and started delivering my very normal lines in a ridiculous pseudo-Russian accent. For me, it was the beginning of loosening up and discovering that I loved this nerve-wracking, silly, and powerful world of theatre.”
Ketcham’s stage fright is nowhere in sight as he graces the stage as Cliff Bradshaw in Theatre Sewanee’s Cabaret, which has enjoyed sold-out sales for many of its shows, so much so that a matinee has been added for Saturday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m.
Based on John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera, with music by John Kander, the musical follows American novelist Bradshaw as he delves into the cabaret world of Berlin in the 1930s and meets the English cabaret singer Sally Bowles, played by Karissa Wheeler (C’19).
The two characters pursue a whirlwind romance, their love story running parallel with that of Fraulein Schneider, played by Lydia Klaus (C’19), and Herr Schultz, played by Finn Gallagher (C’21). Schultz is Jewish, and in 1930s Berlin when the Nazis are rising to power, circumstances ensure that the relationship between Schneider and Schulz is doomed to fail.
Klaus and Gallagher are in turn tentative, warm, and heartbreaking as their relationship progresses. Similarly, Ketcham and Wheeler execute their performances with veritable aplomb, Wheeler herself performing no fewer than five musical numbers.
Wheeler is no stranger to the stage. She started dance classes at the tender age of two and then performed in community theatre when she was nine, “which is what gave me ‘the bug’,” she said. She trained with a vocal coach in middle school and did her first professional show, Annie, at age 13.
“I’ve always known it’s what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I’ve been really blessed to have family, friends, mentors, and teachers encourage me.”
One of the mentors Wheeler attributes to “transforming the way [she views] acting” is Jim Crawford, who directed Cabaret. Crawford, associate professor of acting at Sewanee, decided on Cabaret to mark the Tennessee Williams Center’s 20th anniversary, since it was first performed in 2000, two years after the TWC was built.
“It’s a musical that’s really fun, really sexy, and then becomes unexpectedly serious,” said Crawford. “We had all worked through that intellectually, but the actual doing of it becomes surprisingly emotional.”
He explained, “Some of the students in the play have to wear swastikas in order to tell this story. Simply putting a swastika on your own sleeve is a bit chilling, even though you know you’re just playing a character.”
The current Sewanee production of the 1966 hit musical Cabaret opened on October 26. A day later, Robert Bowers, armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11 Jewish people and wounding six.
“The tragedy in Pittsburgh left the entire cast with a feeling of responsibility,” said Ketcham. “It feels like we have a duty to do justice to the message of the show, and we’ve all been reminded that there are still depressingly good reasons to perform this show. This play is a reminder that the struggle against ignorance, hatred, and bigotry are never over, and nobody is truly a bystander.”
The black box theatre at Proctor Hill is set up so that the line between audience and actor is thinned considerably. Tables are set out, and the performances move back and forth from the Kit Kat Club to the boarding house, owned by Fraulein Schneider. A scene in the play involves a brick being thrown through the window of Herr Schulz.
“At the heart of our production is the question: ‘what would you do?’” said Wheeler. “If people had been more vocal about the Nazis, would they have come to full power? Would the Holocaust have occurred? What will you do in our society today?”
Ketcham shares Wheeler’s sentiments.
“The scariest part of Cabaret is that the evil wasn’t some imposing, villainous figure,” he said. “The evil came from all around, from neighbors, even people who seemed like friends. It was all there the whole time, hiding in plain sight. I hope that those who see Cabaret examine their own actions and the actions of those around them for prejudice, for intolerance, and hatred.”
“I hope when they see it, they don’t shrink away,” he continued. “We can’t afford to be bystanders. Too many characters in the show fail to act, to stand up, or even to care enough to do something. If we want to prevent history from repeating itself, we have to be better people than that.”
Cabaret continues its run at the Tennessee Williams Center from Nov. 1-3, with a matinee show added for Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.