It’s an experimental musical theater performance of the story of the apocalypse, with an epic classical score, a futuristic rave scene, maybe some musicians reminiscent of cage dancers in glass tubes, and possibly a “big fucking mosh pit.” It’s Abyss, and it will be in New Haven from Feb. 21 through Mar. 2.
Composer Stephen Feigenbaum, BR ’11, and director Charlie Polinger, CC ’13, initially thought about putting on an immersive musical show over a year ago. Influenced by Stomp, Blue Man Group, and Cirque du Soleil, the show was primarily meant to bring the audience into the music rather than convey a certain narrative. But without the resources for such high-level stunt work, the two decided to bring in playwright Matthew George, SY ’11, to create a story and characters people could connect with. The show features musicians from Yale College and the School of Music, as well as undergraduate actors, dancers, and some circus performers.
Abyss marks just one of Polinger, George, and Feigenbaum’s attempts to bridge the gap between theater at Yale and successfully pursuing theater post-graduation. The three have each had success beyond Yale’s campus before: Polinger and Feigenbaum worked on Independents together, which they premiered at Yale in 2011 before taking it to the NYC Fringe Festival this past September. Polinger and Feigenbaum divided that month between attending classes here at Yale and New York, where they continued working on the show through its last performance. George wrote Cow Play, directed by Polinger, which was performed at Fringe in 2011; and the three worked together this summer to put together Chius Marcus, what Feigenbaum calls an “epic Roman tragedy musical” performed in his hometown of Wincester, MA.
Their new show straddles the line between full independence and the opportunities inherent in a production connected to Yale. While the play is run without any interference or administration from Yale, it takes advantage of access to Yale performers. Financially, it’s a mixture of $15,000 raised through Kickstarter and another $15,000 from a combination of Yale grants and related subsidies.
Every year, graduating Yale students choosing to pursue a career in the arts have to make the leap from Yale’s opportunities to the realities of a professional industry. “You have to be crafty and work on a small budget and under tight restrictions,” Polinger said in an e-mail to The Herald, looking toward the future he sees for himself after graduating this spring. “It’s not like we’re going to have $30,000 and the support of the theater department when we’re performing in a basement in Brooklyn.”
The logistical difficulties of entering a career in the arts are compounded by the questions many seniors find themselves asking. Recent graduate Cordelia Istel, SY ’10, is currently writing, producing, and performing with Rudy’s, a performance collective based in New York City named for the New Haven bar. She is also assistant directing opera and working at the Met Opera. Looking back on the decision to pursue theater after graduation, she said in an e-mail to the Herald, “It’s intense to see all your friends embark on careers that have a seemingly linear trajectory while you slowly realize that to do this thing right, you have to let go of the idea of a neat professional progression. It’s gonna be messy.”
Though bidding goodbye to Yale and its resources is daunting, recent graduates successfully navigating a career in theater cite a few common boons. Most agree that their experiences in Yale student productions provided invaluable instruction in how to work with a group of people to put a show together.
“The best preparation Yale provides its students is arming them with the ability and confidence to conceive and mount their own projects,” said Michael Leibenluft, DC ’10, who currently directs and teaches theater in New York City, in an e-mail to The Herald. “Unlike many other programs where productions have more heavy faculty involvement, Yale fosters an entrepreneurial artistic environment in which students must select their own projects, secure funding and space, and take responsibility for all aspects of executing their vision. I have found that the process of mounting my own work in ‘the real world,’ whether that be Shanghai or New York, is very much the same as my experience directing productions at Yale.” Istel says of the Yale theater scene, “if you take advantage of all it has to offer (not that I did, by any means) you come out able to speak the different jargons, work in different environments. I had to hang lights, I got to direct, I collaborated extensively with Control Group (Yale’s undergraduate experimental theater company).”
Just as much—if not most—of the learning seems to come from peers involved in theater. “The best guidance Yale will give me is the people I’ve met and will work with,” Polinger says. “I’ve met a ton of people who are pursuing the same things as me and have the same urgent desire to create something new. There’s this incredible energy at Yale, like this constant hunger to write and direct and perform. I’ve learned a lot in my classes (I particularly recommend Robert Woodruff’s Composition for the Stage, which pushed me way out of my comfort zone) but the best thing about Yale is the people and the do-it-yourself attitude needed to get anything done here.”
Many of the graduates looked at the theater department itself as a theoretical introduction to theater without much industry-related curriculum, what Istel, a theater studies major, called “a solid theoretical foundation from which to explore.” The Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater within the Theater Studies department provides another way to explore theater academically. Feigenbaum, who studies within the program, mentions the influential faculty as a major aid to his learning. It includes esteemed professionals like Professor Jeanine Tesori, music writer for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek: The Musical, among its ranks. “Yale has the resources to bring in adults worth knowing,” Feigenbaum says. “It gives access to high-level people.”
While Istel says that most theater students fail to find support through the conventional means of Yale undergraduate career services, informal networks of Yale alumni and faculty often provide a promising alternative. Ben Wexler, BK ‘12 graduated from the Shen program and now works for Tesori, who hired him after initially bringing him to compose and fill various other roles on a show-by-show basis. “The transition’s never easy,” Wexler says, “but it wasn’t as frustrating as I think it could have been. Yale does provide you with industry, connections, people to talk to that you can follow through with if you’re ambitious enough.” Working with an alumni network, “you can both create together and be happy for each other when success happens,” Wexler says. For Polinger, too, a lot hinges on community as he looks to move to New York and “basically run blindfolded” after graduation. “I’m lucky to have a lot of very talented friends including writers, actors, composers, etc., so I’ll definitely be collaborating with them and producing as much new work as possible while also assisting more experienced directors. I’m hoping to make some short films, too. I know that it’s going to be a pretty bumpy ride and that every project only lasts a month or so, so I’ll constantly be moving forward.”
This support may be nothing short of necessary in a field notorious for its demands, inconsistency, and instability. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed, not being able to just put up a show whenever you feel like it,” Polinger says of theater beyond Yale. “It’s also pretty weird when no one has any idea who you are or what you do anymore.” Choosing to pursue success in theater, like many other creative careers, also means sacrificing the prospect of a steady income or the stability of an office job. “Your entire life is going to be about finding the balance between doing what is fulfilling/making stuff and then doing something that actually pays,” Istel says.
It’s a rough road, but the secret to successfully exiting the Yale theater bubble may ultimately lie in a willingness to “embrace the mess,” as Istel puts it. “It took me two years to fully embrace that idea—hugely liberating once I did.” As for current students, Feigenbaum insists, “anyone can make an incredible show here.” With any luck, Feigenbaum, Polinger, and George have.