College of Charleston’s visiting professor Jay Ball knows the rules of good theater. Which is why he knows how to break them properly. “I was tired of ritualized theater and decided to throw the rules of good theater out the door. I said, ‘Let’s do Dada for the hell of it,'” Ball explains. Under his direction, the college’s theater department created an original work based on Dada founder Hugo Ball’s memoir, Flight Out of Time.
World War I left Europe in chaos, manifesting itself in abstract movements like Dadaism, which was founded on the belief in the futility and absurdity of life. The Dada movement incorporated society’s disintegration into its nonsensical verse and lack of structure. The word “dada” itself is nonsensical. In French, “dada” is a hobbyhorse. In English, “dada” is an infant’s attempt to say “daddy.” Dada means many things, or nothing.
As we near the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War, Ball relates to the Dadaists through current social commentary. “I feel a current despair in Western civilization,” he says. “Mike Judge has it right in Idiocracy. The idiots have taken over. It makes you want to laugh and cry.”
Paying homage to Cabaret Voltaire, the theater that Hugo Ball founded with his wife, A Dada Cabaret is a retrospective, vaudeville variety show with sketches, improvisation, music, dance, and puppet theater. In the black-box Theatre 220, scenic and lighting designer and puppeteer Hannah Strickland was jointly inspired by the Cabaret Voltaire and the contemporary avant-garde Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in New York City. She designed a minimalist set, but added theatrical sound effects and a complicated lighting design of colored and blacked-out strings, creating a surreal nightmare world where markers of time and space are breaking down. Costume designer Ashley Blair copied the iconic costumes from Cabaret Voltaire and added her own 21st-century interpretation.
Adapted from a collage of several sources plus new material, the show is an experimental work in progress. The writers and designers drew from vintage and modern sources ranging from the execution of the Romanovs to Kanye West’s tweets to the New Zealand rugby team’s Haka dance. Each performance will be different. One night, actors may read from Lindsay Lohan instead of Snookie. If it sounds absurd, that’s the point.