Pop Cabaret bridges campus, community

Credit: Courtesy of the School of Art via Flickr Credit: Courtesy of the School of Art via Flickr Credit: Courtesy of the School of Art via Flickr Credit: Courtesy of the School of Art via Flickr

What would a robot burlesque be like? How do I cast magic spells? What kind of alien would I be in an alien vaudeville act?

These atypical questions are the ones that students in Pop Cabaret: Performance Art at the Andy Warhol Museum, a Carnegie Mellon course in performance art, seek to answer. Through the bizarre and the eccentric, this class of 12 diverse students create short solo and group performances that draw from an assortment of cultural issues. The class consists of two major performances: The first — a free Halloween variety show — was presented this past October and was entitled “I Put a Spell on You.” The final winter performance will be held on Dec. 16.

Associate professor of art Suzie Silver teaches the course and encourages her students to find inspiration in club- and cabaret-style performance. “There are multiple reasons why we are focusing on club and cabaret-type performances,” Silver said. “The pop art focus of the Warhol and the wonderful, permissive vibe that exists there reinforces that these are performances that can be done almost anywhere.” Pop Cabaret is a first-time college course collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and the Warhol Museum and was spearheaded by Ben Harrison, the Warhol’s curator of performing arts.

As a museum that is continually redefining itself in relationship to contemporary life, the Warhol is the perfect place to host a performance art class. “The idea of it being a pop cabaret class is really cohesive with what the Warhol represents,” senior Julia Cahill said. “You know, it’s a pop art museum and a lot of the art deals with contemporary issues. For the pop cabaret class, we’re all dealing with issues that are contemporary as well.” Cahill, who is on track to get her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in sculpture installation and sightwork, joined the class because of her love for performance and the Warhol Museum.

“There’s only 12 [students] in the class so we’ve really bonded,” Cahill said. Although the class is small, the diversity within the group is stunning: Cahill, Ann Stone, Mitsuko Verdery, Chelsea Lupkin, Adelaide Agyemang, Ippei Mori, and Stephanie Ross are in the College of Fine Arts; Harrison Apple, Julie Mallis, Kinji Cheri Ho, and Murphi Cook are in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences; and Tim Sherman is obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and the arts. “We have a really diverse class that no matter who you’re put with you’re going to have a really interesting idea,” Cahill said.

The first show the class put on lived up to the standard of “diverse” in every sense of the word. Pop Cabaret’s Halloween show featured short solo and group scenes ranging from three to five minutes each. The performance followed the format of a variety show, with random sketches loosely tied together by a spooky Halloween theme. For his part, senior Tim Sherman told a scary story by flashlight. “I was in another piece about everyone having bizarre alien genitals,” Sherman said. “And I also did a lip sync to this song called ‘Big Fat Fuck’ where I was eating cheeseburgers and stuff. We’ve definitely had a decent spread of content and style.”

Another sketch featured Cahill in a robot burlesque. She developed the idea over the summer after searching for a way to incorporate the unexpected in her art: “I was like, ‘What can I do with burlesque that isn’t the typical female showing her body, but still make it something interesting?’ And then I was like, ‘Yeah, robot burlesque!’” Cahill collaborated with her group to create a scene with two female burlesque robots and one over-excited HAL 9000, played by Mori. “So for that performance these two robots are trying to make the HAL 9000 happy and he gets too excited and overdoes it.... We called it gear-gasming.”

“In another skit, Ann [Stone] and I did a twisted sister thing where we sing this kid song that goes like ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me, so I guess I’ll go eat worms,’” Cahill said. “So we did a play on it where we’re sisters singing it, and then we started choking each other with worms. It was a strange, weird, kind of sexy, two-sisters-having-a-pillow-fight thing — but taken to a really grotesque place. Some of it is bizarre and goofy, but I think a lot of it draws from things we experience on a day-to-day basis, which is what makes it a pop cabaret class.”

Just as the title hints, Pop Cabaret is a strange and bizarre amalgamation of political issues and avant-garde performances; it’s a fun way to explore issues. The students’ pieces range from the ridiculous to the serious. Although many sketches are strange ideas that the students have fleshed out just for fun, others have a more somber tone. Apple, a junior humanities and arts major, performed a dance piece using his own hair and a song that describes a man taking boys and burying them. It was described as “a dark piece” by Apple’s classmates.

However, this variety of scene is what makes Pop Cabaret such an unusual class. The class is categorized as time-based, as all performance art is, and allows its students to create temporary, wide-ranging scenes that are unique and new. The focus on cabaret and contemporary culture lets the students explore their own interests: If someone wants to lip sync, create a monologue, choreograph a dance, or sing, they have the freedom to do so.

In many ways, Pop Cabaret is finding its own place in the Carnegie Mellon community, and the Pittsburgh community at large. “I hadn’t done performance in a while — in a couple of years actually,” Sherman said. “So when it was offered it sounded like something really unique and different. There really haven’t been live performance art classes.”

Cahill also commented on the lack of performance art. “In the four years I’ve been here, there hasn’t really been a rise of performance art in the art department — or any department, for that matter,” Cahill said. “I mean, you have the drama school, but that’s more aimed towards theater, and performance art is more of a combination of non-traditional theater and art.”

Because the class is an all day event (every Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and is removed from campus, students feel less like students and more like a legitimate acting company. Dedicated to the show, students took time to gather outside of class to practice and hone their sketches. “We’re becoming a performance troupe in a way because it’s not like a class,” Cahill said. “We’re practicing on our own time and everyone is dedicated — no one feels forced. They’re in the class because they want to be.”

Both Cahill and Sherman noted that the cultivation of a community of peers has helped them gain confidence both on and offstage. “I’m not afraid to go onstage and try something,” Sherman said. “It’s in a separate space and I can be wholly in that moment in that class working and watching, and that’s really, really nice.”

It’s unclear whether Pop Cabaret will become a regular class, but the students have high hopes that the trial run they participated in will turn into something more permanent. “Having this group of people get away from campus and get into the Pittsburgh art community is probably the most successful progression of this class,” Cahill said. “Not just for the art department but for Carnegie Mellon to show that we’re actively getting into the community.”