Written by Douglas Baumwoll
Photographed by Ben Robins
Come taste the wine.
Come hear the band…
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
Come to the cabaret…*
And so I did. The date: December 16th. The troupe: Gwangju Performance Project. The place: Party Town 57 Building. The event: The 4th Annual Cabaret – Welcome to the Circus.
The modern day version of cabaret, eating food and drinking alcohol while watching live entertainment in a public house, dates back to the mid-1800s in the great city of Paris. And right here in Gwangju, for the last four years, our own community theater group, the Gwangju Performance Project (GPP), has held its annual cabaret downtown. The GPP is an all-volunteer community theater group, founded in late 2010, and the cabaret this year was themed on the circus. I am fortunate enough to have attended all four of these shows, and each year I am, quite simply, blown away by the talent of our Gwangju peers on stage. I am also blown away by the quality of the baked goods that are lavished on each table, included in the price of admission. And why do we donate our money? Because the GPP puts on some serious shows throughout the year. 2017’s fare included Taming of the Shrew, Counterparts, and No Man’s Land (go to the Facebook group, Gwangju Performance Project, or www.gwangjutheatre.com for more info). And they have costs. Stage building, costumes, transportation, printing, photography, videography, and theater rental all add up in the final tally. So what did we, the audience, get for the price of admission this year?
Well, we got 17 acts, about two hours, of jaw-dropping, smile-inducing, thigh-slapping, hand-clapping entertainment. Costumes and song selections were often in line with the theme, especially in the attire of our ringmaster, current GPP co-president and cabaret director/producer, Monique Dean Onyema, who led the show complete with top hat and riding crop! Those 19th-century Parisian cabaret goers would be proud!
The atmosphere was definitely circus-like. There was even a bearded-lady bartender to go along with the signature cocktail being served by the same name – a vodka, juice, fuzzy-navelish libation – of which more than one went down my gullet. I am not going to run down a list of names here; you can go to the Facebook group and check out the cabaret program if you’d like to see individual names of performers and song titles. I’ll just give you an overall feeling of the night. First off, there was fun. Fun and laughter. Folks calling out from the audience in good spirit to urge on and support the performers. Numbers ranged from solo acts to a two-person dance piece slow song, to a country song bit, to another bearded lady (singing this time), to the light-hearted “Bring on the Men,” to the final number, a rendition of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” complete with an electric band and some 20+ performers.
The GPP’s performers graced the stage in all manner of attire and singing styles. Many of them had theater, dance, and singing experience prior to arriving in Gwangju, during their university years or after, but the GPP also has members who never performed before their experiences here in Gwangju. The quality of singing and dancing in the cabaret (and acting in other performances) is very high, and productions come off as professional endeavors and not unpolished thrown-together-at-the-last-minute self-indulgent affairs difficult to watch. Looking at the program, I count over 30 different names involved in putting this show on, including folks doing lights, sound, graphic design, and ticket sales.
Finally, let me mention the venue, which adds to the circus-like feeling of every cabaret held here. The room occupies the space of two floors in a high-rise building right in the center of downtown Gwangju. There is a large bar, and a sprawling floor with ample space for 20–25 tables, plus bench seating along the sides. The roof must stand at 15 meters, and the stage is giant, complete with the largest video screen I have ever seen outside of a stadium concert venue. This all adds to the scale of the production, and the professionalism and quality of the performances.
If you have never made it to a GPP cabaret, then I think you can tell that I am suggesting you do so the next time you get a chance. Monique tells me that the GPP sold 115 tickets, 100 of which were reserved. She and her co-president Robyn Bramwell will be organizing a Pen in Ten performance for Summer 2018. What is that? Well, it is open to anyone. So if you’ve ever fancied yourself a playwright, you just need to submit a drama script for a 10-minute piece. The GPP will choose about ten winning scripts that will then be performed in June 2018. Check their Facebook page anytime after mid- to late-January for the official announcement or any other information about the GPP.
I hope you all enjoy 2018 in good health and spirits. And remember: “Life is a cabaret, old chum.” So don’t miss the cabaret!
Doug Baumwoll, a professional writer and editor for 25 years, trains in-service teachers in writing skills and methodology. His personal writing interests include visionary and speculative fiction, climate change, energy, and social justice. He is the founder of SavetheHumanz.com.