As soon as I got the email from all of the students presenting the upcoming independent âHow To Be Famousâ production, I knew I had to cover it. The unpretentious, emoji-filled email, which featured an “elite influencer” character named Sadboi Cashbags, made me feel like “How to be Famous” would be unlike any Kenyon production I did. had never seen before. And my impression was correct, but not the way I thought it would be.
“How to Be Famous” is the brainchild of Sam Hafetz ’23 and Ava Gruskoff ’23, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in the project, with Melody Wagner ’23 in costume design and Ricky Alavarez ’24 to choreography. The show was publicized by Persimmon magazine, where Hafetz is editor. It took place on November 12, 13 and 15 at Samuel Mather 201, a medium-sized amphitheater. I went on closing night.
As I entered the series, I expected some irony. I expected a detached social commentary. And I was pretty sure I was on the right track when I was handed my program, an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper with clip art from Nike’s #Equality campaign and a thank you section. specials which included Lil Peep, the Justice Department and Joe Rogan.
The one-act performance opened with Hafetz introducing himself as Sadboi Cashbags and rapping about his arrival as an influencer to the tune of the musical “Hamilton” intro. The crowded classroom was bursting into laughter, eager to spend the next two hours or so watching Hafetz and Gruskoff poke fun at the cranky stereotypes of Gen-Z. Then the song ended. Hafetz and Gruskoff began exchanging explosive and hostile lines of dialogue in huge volumes. I quickly realized that “How to be famous” was not meant to put anyone at ease.
Ultimately, Sadboi Cashbags (real name Sam, although Hafetz made it clear that the character is not a self-insert) is a tragic figure. His desire for fame and money is hollow, as the show reveals that the only reason for his current predicament is that his parents always saw him as a product and parenthood as the role of a lifetime. In a series of flashbacks, Gruskoff plays Sam’s calculating and businessman father and Hafetz plays his late actress mother – a cast change that’s one of the play’s most brilliant artistic decisions.
Hafetz and Gruskoff’s passion for the project shone in their sincere engagement in multiple roles, as well as in the little details they included to enrich the story. There is a pause in the action as Hafetz recites a monologue from “The Cherry Orchard” by Chekov. There is a surprisingly smooth choreographed performance of “Makin ‘Whoopee”. None of the characters in “How to Be Famous” are particularly likable, but I feel like Hafetz and Gruskoff have a unique love for each of them.
Make no mistake, though: As sincere as “How to Become Famous” is, he is just as pissed off. Despite its two-person cast, the script is loaded with heavy dialogue, the majority of which is performed with the volume and intensity of a speech at a political protest – Hafetz and Gruskoff deserve props for their memorization skills and voice preservation. The play includes topics on suicide, drug addiction, and body image issues, but never slows down its flow long enough to fully discuss it. There are references to the conflict in Palestine, to corrupt billionaires and other leftist ideas. The public reacted positively to these, perhaps because they weren’t sure how they were supposed to react to anything else. Several times the characters in the play expressed pain or despair and were greeted with laughter from the audience.
âIt’s the tension between laughter and pain,â Grukoff and Hafetz wrote in the shared Google document where they kindly answered the plethora of questions I had for them. “All we know is that when we use laughter to cope, we also demonstrate a loss of control, which is touching.”
They communicated the desire to go beyond the limits of traditional theater, to leave the audience with something deeper than a feeling of whether they liked the show or not. âWe are not looking for checkpoints, we are trying to feel collectively with you. That’s what makes the theater community, isn’t it? “
This philosophy is reflected in the way Grukoff and Hafetz interacted with the audience throughout the play. In one of the first scenes of the series, Grukoff, playing the militant character of Mar, moved into the audience to ask for signatures on a petition. There have been a few instances where Hafetz, in his character, berated audience members who showed up late. Although obviously improvised, these moments felt so natural that I wondered what else was happening there. The relentless fire in Hafetz and Gukoff’s performances made it impossible to tell.
At the end of the show, Hafetz and Grukoff asked the audience if the play raised any questions or feelings they wanted to share. No one seemed to know what to say. Perhaps this is because a project as dense as “How to Be Famous” takes time to digest. I left Sam Mather confused about my own feelings. But one thing I knew for sure was that I was wrong to assume that “How to be famous” would come off. It was the most heartfelt performance I have seen since my time in Kenyon.
Going forward, Hafetz, Gruskoff, Wagner and Alvarez plan to flesh out the project further with a film, which will include sections of the play, interviews, and commentary. “Our greatest hope is that everyone tells the stories they want to tell, how they want to tell them, because the endless experiences that exist make life beautiful,” wrote Hafetz and Gruskoff.
It’s the kind of philosophy that leads to brilliant theater. Whatever your take out, “How to Be Famous” is the type of risky passion project Kenyon could use more of.