Monday, June 23, 2014

The Grace Period Blog Presents Performance as Activism: "The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae"

As summer comes into full swing and the newest wave of college graduates throw their caps high with blithe enthusiasm, for many there is an unspoken skeleton in the closet, ready to reveal itself in six months, whether or not anyone is prepared: that skeleton is Student Debt.

Co-Founder Sydney Arndt Shows Off Her Debt
Photo Property of The Grace Period Blog
While one now Off-Broadway musical asks, "What can you do with a BA in English?", one Off-Off-Broadway newcomer, "The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae," asks (proverbially, not via puppetry) "How can you ever pay off a BA or MA in [insert any creative arts or humanities area here] with short grace periods, ever-growing interest, and stagnant incomes?" The cabaret-style show is a vision of The Grace Period Blog, co-founded by NYU MA Performance Studies Alumni, Gabriela Moreno and Sydney Arndt. The Grace Period Blog first went live in September 2013, and was inspired by the founders' "personal experience with the student debt crisis in America." The Grace Period Blog has clear activist goals including: extending the student loan grace period beyond six months and encouraging deferment and income-based repayment plans for private loans. What's unique about this site is that each post is intended to inspire more performance, and the content is interwoven into performance ideas. The performance itself becomes the activism.


The first content-driven performance of The Grace Period Blog took place in Washington Square Park on November 21, 2013, the very date on which the founders' student loan grace period ended. Since then, the founders have continued to work to turn their show into a movement, and most recently their efforts have evolved into "The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae," which WGINY had the pleasure of catching last week at Greenwich Village's IRT Theater.

3 of the "Great Lakes" from "Hey My Servant!"
R to L: Sarah Lucie; Sydney Arndt; Laura Mooney
Photo Property of The Grace Period Blog
As soon as I walked into the theater, instead of a playbill, I was handed a syllabus. Instead of skits there were lectures, and instead of actors there were professors. A "key term" to remember at the top of my syllabus was: "Sallie Mae: A publicly traded corporation that originates, services, and collects on student loans." For a moment I was filled with a first-day-of-school dread, and that was before the emcee, co-founder Gabriela Moreno, announced that 50% of all student debt is held by families in the bottom 25% of household incomes.


Introducing the first act, Moreno referenced a popular student loan provider, Great Lakes, and as she explained that these "legal loan sharks" could be sultry but dangerous, the opening number, "Hey My Servant!" began with five female performers wearing next-to-nothing, except for large posters representing New York's own famous five Great Lakes. A creative parody on Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' "Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity," "Hey My Servant!" tackled loan crisis issues, explaining how and why students often chain themselves to loans. Other numbers similarly addressed problems with loan deferral, refinancing, interest accrual, and the like, with a particular focus on the effects of America's economic crisis on artists, and the difficulty of earning a sustainable income on creative art alone. Writers and performers may enter school thinking that they will immediately become the next Carey Bradshaw or Sarah Jessica Parker (see what I did there?), but upon graduation they are forced to face the harsh reality that if they want to survive financially, it may be at the expense of their artistic passion. And yet, the message of the show is not to give up those dreams, but to forage on and follow your passions, even if that means working as a nanny for three families, and a research assistant, and an after school program theater specialist, as performer Jenna Tanimi does. Co-founder Sydney Arndt's penultimate burlesque lecture/skit, "Are you an actress?" addressed just this, as she craftily captured the caricature of the omnipresent actress/waitress in New York City, of which she admittedly is one, as well as an event caterer, theater critic, and restaurant reviewer.

Sarah Lucie in "Screw Loose"
Photo Property of The Grace Period Blog
One of my favorite numbers, "Screw Loose," came right after the emcee reminded the audience that, in July 2013, the federal student loan interest rate doubled from 3.4 to 6.8%. "Screw Loose" featured the vocal stylings of Sarah Lucie as a character who has literally been driven mad by her inability to pay her student loans. Her soulful solo was unexpected and she sent gasps through the audience as she belted out her woes.

Although the ideas of The S.M. Cabaret are presented in a light and humorous way, and may even cause you to snort on more than one occasion, the student debt crisis is nothing to laugh at. Though the show had a burlesque theme and a definite sex appeal, the real meat was not the girls on the stage, but the awareness they were raising.

This may not be a show for the 1% (although we certainly hope they get the message), but for the rest of you, keep up with thegraceperiodblog.com for more info. You can also like them on facebook and follow them on twitter.

You've got a grace period of a little over a month to get to this show, as the next planned run will be July 31-August 2, location TBD. There are also plans to take the show on tour to local colleges where the Blog can also focus on workshopping with arts students.

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