TheaterJones: Tell us about your play.
Bremner Duthie: I call it a “Kabarett of Ghosts,” sometimes. The set-up is a guy walks onto a dark stage to find that everyone he loves and works with has disappeared by the security forces. He has to choose whether to run and shut up, or to keep on doing what he does. He chooses to run, but then he sees that an audience is sitting, waiting for a show. He decides to do a show. He decides to do all the acts that were in the cabaret, so he does the comedian, he does the song-and-dance man, he does the showgirl. He sort of pays tribute to them all. In doing it, he figures out more about what it means to keep on speaking up.
It’s a dark comedy. There’s a lot of dark jokes, he’s a performer and an entertainer. It’s not wringing my clothes and screaming in horror. He’s an entertainer, so he does the show.
From where did the inspiration for this project come?
It came from a couple places. One is one of the songs that I do in the show, which is a song that was written in 1931 to commemorate a Polish village called “Our Village is Burning” [by Mordecai Gebirtig]. It basically says you have to speak up, you can’t shut up. And I wanted to make that song work, and do something on stage with it. This guy’s community was this Polish-Jewish community, he said in his memoir that he wanted it to be everybody thinking of it as their community. The community that I could think of would be a theater community.
The other thing was the fate of a really interesting cabaret in Berlin in 1933. It was a cabaret called the El Dorado cabaret. And it was a place of shenanigans and craziness, cross-dressing and satirical skits and all sorts of madness. In 1933, when Hitler first came to power, he didn’t really have enough power to attack the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and all the people that he hated, but he did have enough power to attack the cultural workers. The first thing he did was censor or close down the theaters and cabarets. This cabaret was actually closed down and then it became a Nazi headquarters. Those great pictures of it before where it was filled with glitter, and just afterward when the signs are still up, there’s swastikas everywhere. Those two involvements made me think about censorship and authority and fun.
Did you find elements of personal experience that you could add into the piece?
My first drafts of the show were filled with history and Hitler and Nazis, and I was like, “It’s not really my story.” So I tried to get rid of all that, and I think now you can decide for yourself what the show is about. I think that my personal experiences are that those are the people I know, and certainly all the characters that I portray in the show I’ve based on people I know and like. I tried to make it universal. For solo shows, it’s always about you, no matter what you do.
There is this undercurrent of the destruction of culture at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis, but you still make it fun.
Again, my first draft was really heavy. Then I thought, if you’re a performer and it’s one guy on the stage paying tribute to all the characters, he wants to do their act to entertain and to do their work. He doesn’t want this to be a huge, depressing blank. He wants this to be a cabaret. The show actually got funnier when using a lot of dark jokes, and there’s a lot of simple moments in there. I have to say my first couple of drafts were me screaming onto the stage, and it didn’t really seem to do the work justice.
What was the writing process like, especially with the incorporation of the songs and music?
Because I’m a singer-actor, I’m always trying to find reasons to sing on stage. I still work on my motto from the program that you sing on stage when you get to the point where you can’t speak anymore. I always try and work in that moment. Why are we singing on stage? You have to take something that doesn’t work in normal speech, so that’s [when I use] songs. I found 100 songs that I wanted to work with, and I narrowed it down to the stuff that dramatically moves the plot forward and makes sense particularly in that moment. And with history, I’m a total research nerd so I really have to stop myself. I’ll just read 100 books and take notes and try to put it all in the show. There’s so much going on, there’s so much history and art and theater being produced. Some of the artistic movements are sort of played around with.
How did you get involved with the Dallas Solo Fest?
I saw [Audacity Theater Lab artistic director] Brad [McEntire] in his show Chop in Seattle [at the 2012 Seattle Fringe Festival], and it was fantastic and I didn’t get to know him. I saw the same show again in New Orleans [at the 2013 SoloMania Festival] over a year ago. He’s really wonderful. We became friends and he sent me a note about Solo Fest, I applied and I got in the festival. I’m really excited. There’s all these little solo festivals appearing all over the world. It’s really interesting that people are picking right now to do solo shows in Dallas.
You’ve gone around the world doing this show. What are you most looking forward to with the Dallas performance?
I haven’t done it in the states for a while. I did it in Edinburgh, I did it in Germany, some in Canada. I’m curious what it will say for an American audience, what people will decide about it, what they will think it’s about. It’s like anything in theater; they make up their minds whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, whether they’re going to laugh or whatever. I’m pretty excited about that. I’m curious what impact it will have, whether they will or won’t, whether they’ll enjoy it. Also, I’d like to brag. Brad is such a creative and exciting guy, and this seems like an interesting, quirky theater he’s got going on in Dallas.
What are some of the reactions to the play that you do notice or hear about?
People are surprised at sort of the entertainment part, which is really nice. They’ve thought there was a lot of entertainment and I thought it was going to be a very dark show, a very intense piece of work. I’ve seen a lot of people get really emotionally involved in it, which has been really flattering and cool, to see people identifying with these characters who only appear for a moment. That’s been really flattering and exciting. Sometimes there’s tears, sometimes there’s laughter, sometimes there’s dead silence. You never know.
I’m sure that’s a really exciting part of it.
Every night is always different. That’s the great thing about live theater. It’s always a mystery.
I read your Q&A with Brad on The Solo Performer, and you said, “Lately I’ve been trying to play with the dividing line between the audience and the performer without dropping into the dreaded world of audience participation.”
I’m not very good at it [audience participation]. I love when people can do it and they can get people on stage and everyone feels comfortable, and this wonderful magic happens. But I hate when it’s horrible and awkward. At the same time, I like acknowledging that there’s an audience. I don’t particularly love singing in the theater and having people come up and sit there, and that there’s a big fourth wall. I like when the audience is part of the show in that without you, the character wouldn’t have done the show. Depending on the layout of the theater, I’ll come in the audience briefly and I’ll be out in the audience without forcing people to do anything or asking them to be an acting part of the show. I like when people feel like they are included, and the line between the stage and audience is really blurry.
You have an extensive background in singing, and then incorporating that into performance. What are the challenges and rewards in adding the singing element? [Hear a song from Duthie's show at the bottom of this article.]
I do theater, but it feels like it’s missing something [if there’s no singing]. That’s just what I do. I’m looking for reasons to sing on stage. I think there are things that when singing on stage works, you can touch bases with emotions and ideas that movement can’t really communicate. It’s really exciting to be a singer and to be trying to communicate ideas with music.
The challenges are that when it doesn’t work, it’s a total disaster. A minute and a half of singing can seem like an hour for the audience. It’s hard to make it work. It’s hard, as a solo performer and traveling for multiple performances, sometimes my show will have live musicians, but that’s really tricky to incorporate. This show, I use backtracks that I recorded with my jazz ensemble, and it incorporated that everyone and the musicians are probably dead.
In the same Q&A with Brad, you said “I like feeling like I’m sharing some wonderful, fragile moment with the audience as they join me in some crazy dream that I’m trying to create.” What is that dream in ’33: A Kabarett?
I’m always sort of amazed that it’s the work that people can put all these facts that they know into this weird thing that we’re all participating in, and get really moved, get really excited, understand the process and the character, and get into it. I think that that’s quite magical about theater in general, that when it works, and it’s just magic, it’s amazing. And it doesn’t happen anywhere else. It doesn’t happen in movies in the same way, it doesn’t happen in music in the same ways. That’s why I still continue to do theater. It has a certain magic that is amazing. In ’33, I guess the dream would be that for certain moments, on a good night that I can pull it off, the characters that have disappeared do come back for a moment. I think when it works. I think that’s the surprising thing.
» Bremner Duthie's '33: A Kabarett is performed at the following times:
- Thursday, June 11 @ 9 p.m.
- Saturday, June 13 @ 7:30 p.m.
- Sunday, June 14 @ 3:30 p.m.
And you can follow our coverage of the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest in our special section, here.