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Interview with Actor, Alan Cumming

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Alan Cumming to discuss his role as the Emcee in Cabaret.

Ted Sod: Can you tell us a bit about your background: where you grew up, where you were educated, when you decided to become an actor?

Alan Cumming: I was born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland and grew up in Angus, which is on the east coast of Scotland. My dad was a forester so I grew up in the forest-really far away from anything. I had a very sheltered upbringing. I attended Monikie Primary School and Carnoustie High School. I wanted to become an actor because the local repertory theatre company came to our school and did a play and I was just mesmerized by that. I saw them packing up their trunks as they were leaving the school and I thought: I want to do that. After I left school, I spent a year and a half as an editor and columnist for the pop and TV magazine TOPS and then I went to drama school at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama.

TS: Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

AC: There was one teacher who was very negative towards me and he told me, "You'll never make it as a professional actor!" I had to realize that that was just his subjective opinion. There was a teacher in high school who encouraged me to be in the school play and she told me I should pursue acting. But I think we learn from people who contradict us. We're not puppies who need to be petted all the time. We learn from those people who challenge us.

TS: Why did you choose to do the revival of the revival of Cabaret?

AC: I just thought enough time had passed. I am almost 50 years old and I am in a different phase of my life and think it will be interesting to return to this role at this age. Also, stories like the one in Cabaret need to be told to every generation.

Interview with Actor, Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming in the 1998 production of 'Cabaret.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: I realize the rehearsal process has just begun, but can you share some of your preliminary thoughts about how you return to a role you have already done?

AC: I approach it like any role that I undertake, but I have to think about it as if I were doing it for the first time. I have done a lot of different roles and projects since I played the Emcee on Broadway and I never went back to see the show after I finished the run on Broadway-I avoided it or any of the songs from it- because I wanted to keep it special. So coming back to it now-I can remember some of it-there are things that are in my body still, but I am rediscovering it. Also, it's a whole new group of people in the cast and I am a different person. You have to remember that the Emcee isn't really a character-he isn't described as a certain age-or in any specific terms-he is really more of a symbol. I am just trying to be authentic and on it-I have a whole different relationship to the role because I am older.

Interview with Actor, Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming in rehearsal for the 2014 revival of 'Cabaret." Photo by Kevin Tachman.

TS: What kind of research do you have to do in order to play the Emcee again?

AC: I actually have done a documentary entitled The Real Cabaret, about cabarets during the period the musical takes place in and so I went to Berlin and investigated the performers who were working at that time. I went to the apartment where Christopher Isherwood lived when he was there. I reread the Isherwood books, The Berlin Stories, which includes "Goodbye to Berlin"and I reread Christopher and His Kind. So I have been putting myself back into the world. By my bed I have books on the Weimar Republic, so I try to keep my brain aware of all the history. It is fascinating to remember that Berlin at that time was a city that had something for everyone. There were constant political battles, experimental artistic ideas and revolutionary new films.

TS: It seems that every major production of Cabaret happens when there is political or economic upheaval happening-do you sense that this is true?

AC: I don't know-I am sure that there are productions that happen when there isn't upheaval. When we did it at the Donmar in 1993, the Thatcher years were over but there was still a conservative government. When we did it in New York City all the country seemed to be obsessed with was Clinton's extramarital affair-it always made me feel that there was a Puritanical streak in this country. I think now one of the reasons to do the play is because of what is happening to gay people in Russia and how they are being oppressed. There are people being persecuted everywhere-it comes in waves really-and that is why it is important to tell stories like this.

TS: Can you talk about how you develop the relationship between the Emcee and Sally?

AC: They don't really have that much of a relationship on stage. I haven't really had a chance to rehearse with Michelle yet, but I am sure we'll have a chat about how our characters relate to each other. It is more about leading the company actually. Really for the Emcee the most important actor I interact with is the audience. The Emcee lives primarily in the world of the Kit Kat Klub. Emcees at that time were the hosts of the singing, dancing and occasional debauchery - the shows they oversaw often satirized the politics of the time-especially the Nazis.

TS: Do you remember how the ending of this version of Cabaret came about? When the Emcee is found out to be Jewish and gay?

AC: We found that in rehearsals, but what's interesting is that early on the Emcee was wearing not only the yellow star and the pink triangle, but a red circle because he was a Socialist - but nobody knew what the red circle symbolized, so it was cut. I think the ending works because the audience becomes complicit - they've been watching the Emcee and enjoying all his antics and they are shocked to see him being carted away at the end.

TS: What do you look for from a director?

AC: Open communication. Someone who enjoys collaborating and is willing to take risks. It should be someone who spurs you on.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired? What feeds you as an artist?

AC: I try to go into the world with an open heart. I get asked to do an eclectic range of things-it seems the more eclectic projects I take on, the more I am asked to do them. I do whatever strikes my fancy. I make art, write, take photographs, do odd projects on the side. I perform on TV shows and I do plays. I try to do things that excite me-there are so many things to do in the world that it isn't smart to stick with things if they don't excite you.

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Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Theatre Company is a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to providing a nurturing artistic home for theatre artists at all stages of their careers where the widest possible audience can experience their work at affordable prices. Roundabout fulfills its mission each season through the revival of classic plays and musicals; development and production of new works by established playwrights and emerging writers; educational initiatives that enrich the lives of children and adults; and a subscription model and audience outreach programs that cultivate loyal audiences.


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