This summer, I spent six weeks in Berlin, Germany, studying solo performance in the context of the art and history of Cabaret. As part of the course, each student also wrote, memorized, and performed our own 15-20 minute solo performance, inspired by the tools and techniques used by Cabaret artists. Cabaret is and has always been a deeply political art, using satire, irony, and the unexpected to engage its audience on a meaningful level; the audience laughs, but in the next instant, they are forced to interrogate why they’re laughing. This form was heavily utilized in Europe and especially Berlin during the first half of the 20th century, giving rise to a number of devoted political activists and artists who bravely and publicly voiced their opposition to fascism, nationalism, and the Nazi party.
It feels particularly important today to reflect on these artists and their work, to understand why and how they were able to create an arts-based movement, as well as to understand why it ultimately was not enough to affect the kind of change they had hoped. One of my favorite figures from the Berlin Cabaret scene is Kurt Tucholsky, a renowned leftist writer and performer who famously wrote: “Nothing is more difficult, and nothing demands more character, than to find oneself in opposition to one’s time and to say loudly: NO.” Tucholsky, however, was a man who lived comfortably in contradiction, and he also wrote: “Social poetry is no social revolution.” Tucholsky specifically, as well is this course as a whole, have brought up a lot of questions for me as a writer and as an activist: What can art alone accomplish? Is it ultimately meaningless if it isn’t accompanied by real, tangible action, or is there value to be found in loudly and confidently voicing my beliefs? How can art and activism coexist, feed off of one another, and affect real change?
In the spirit of the political Cabaret, I wrote my solo performance on my own experiences with eating disorders, sexual assault, and abortion; the piece as a whole was about the feeling of not having ownership of my own body, and the extreme lengths I’ve gone to in order to (re)gain control. It was without a doubt the most personal, emotional piece of writing I’ve ever put out into the world, and certainly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to perform, but I’m so glad I did. The incredible solo performer Spalding Gray often spoke of the healing power of performance, and that’s something I was able to experience firsthand; the act of writing down these stories that I had never even spoken out loud, of editing and cutting and rearranging them to be performed, took away their power over me. The things that had happened to me were no longer these dark, looming entities in my mind; they were just words on paper, words that could, just maybe, provide some solace to others experiencing the same things I had. For once, I was in control of the narrative.
To say this was a transformative experience would be an understatement. The support, understanding, honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to help each other that my little class of ten in Berlin displayed was unlike any other classroom environment I’ve ever encountered, and I know that without such an outstanding class dynamic and such a devoted, intelligent professor (shoutout to Zishan Ugurlu) I would not have been able to learn and grow in the ways that I did. Berlin, a city absolutely saturated in history and art, was the perfect place to explore what writing really means to me, and I will be forever grateful for these six golden weeks.
You can read the full text of my performance, “My Skin-Tight Bright Red Dress,” here.