The Keegan Theatre’s new production of Cabaret has critics and audiences buzzing. It opened on January 26 with bare, simple sets and raw performances. The dark, seamy story of the populace of the Kit Kat Klub during the rise of Hitler in Berlin won eight Tony Awards. And the intimate setting of the Keegan is ideal for making the audience feel as if they are in the seedy bar, not watching a play about it. Co-directed by Christina A. Coakley and & Michael Innocenti, their collaboration results in a production that is “absolutely breathtaking because it was less about flashy set pieces and intense lighting – and more focused on the amazing talents of every member of the outstanding cast,” raved DC Metro Theater Arts. We got a chance to talk to Coakley and Innocenti about the show.
Vanessa Mallory Kotz: What about this story appeals to you?
Christina A. Coakley and & Michael Innocenti: The story of Cabaret is appealing to us because it depicts the consequences of inaction. This is a particularly sensitive subject for Michael because he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors and was able to observe the lasting traumas that this generation endured. Cabaret is accessible to audiences because you are not immediately faced with the atrocities that afflict this troubled nation. In the beginning, you’re drawn in by the decadent, seedy nightlife and the outrageous personalities of Sally Bowles and the Emcee. Then, slowly, throughout the course of the show, you realize the evil lurking beneath the surface that eventually engulfs the state.
VMK: The show just enjoyed opening weekend. Can you tell me what it feels like to present a new production? Especially this one!
CC & MI: There is always a mixture of excitement and anxiety when a show opens. Our most profound desire with Cabaret is that the story is clear and the themes shake the audience to the core without being weighed down by unnecessary directorial concepts. We want the show to spark a discussion about what was witnessed and how it may speak to us in our time.
VMK: What’s it like to co-direct a show? How do you resolve disagreements, and how does that dynamic help the creative process as well?
CC & MI: Collaboration is based on trust and respect. It is essential for the artistic team to provide unity and balance to a production so that the audience isn’t pulled in different directions by competing ideas. Passionate debates will always be a part of the process for us, especially when co-directing. We offer endless possible solutions to get the most effective, honest performances out of our actors. As partners (both artistically and personally), we have the freedom to be completely honest about what works and what needs further exploration.
It is easier to resolve disagreements knowing that we have the same goals: honesty in storytelling, rawness and complexity of character, and harmony in tone. There is less anxiety when we focus on these objectives and let go of our individual visions that don’t work in execution.
VMK: How did you approach the production of such a well-known musical to keep it fresh?
CC & MI: At Keegan, part of our mission is to concentrate on putting storytelling ahead of concept. Some directors try to make classic stories seem fresh by adding unnecessary embellishments because of the assumption that a show is no longer relevant to modern audiences. It is our opinion that there will always be audience members discovering this material for the first time. Our goal is to honor the show as written and tell the story in a compelling way. After all, Cabaret is a classic for a reason. Having said that, the script provides several opportunities for the creative team reimagine the musical numbers. Our choreographer, Rachel Leigh Dolan, is wildly inventive and she has helped us execute these numbers in a way that will hopefully clarify the themes of the show.