Questions and Answers with Director Cassie Abate
This will be Cassie Abate’s first time directing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, as she takes the helm of the hilarious operetta The Pirates of Penzance as part of the 2021 season. She is currently the head of musical theatre dance at Texas State University and has directed and choreographed at numerous theatres across the country, including Connecticut Repertory Theatre, ZACH Theatre, Red House Arts Center, Barrington Stage, and NY Musical Theatre Festival. She is also a co-founder of Educators for Equity in Theatre Arts Initiative.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival: The Pirates of Penzance (and playwrights Gilbert and Sullivan) are extraordinarily popular, even more than 140 years since the play premiered. Why do you think this is so?
Cassie Abate: Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are the pinnacle of parody and satire. Words that come to mind include whimsical, funny, bright, witty, playful, grand, and endearing. They expertly pair farcical situations with extremely intricate and articulate lyrics. The equal lampooning and embracing of Victorian society mirrors the appeal of reality television today. Many topics satirized are universal and still relevant. The Pirates of Penzance was meant to parody grand opera, and yet the luxurious score rivals any of the great operas. It is both a burlesque and a love letter. The combination of comedy, eloquence, and intention continues to delight audiences.
The Festival: The Pirates of Penzance is usually referred to as an operetta. Can you tell us what that term means? What makes it different from an opera or a musical?
Abate: Operetta, or comic opera, really serves as the link between opera and musicals. Operettas are usually comical and satirical in natural and contain large portions of dialogue between sung musical numbers. Operetta laid the groundwork for twentieth century American musical theatre.
The Festival: In your Preliminary Director’s Concept Statement you say that none of the characters in the play should feel like a caricature. In a play that is full of exaggerated personalities and actions, how do you avoid that?
Abate: Each character in the piece honestly and fully pursues their goals with a “life or death” urgency as the heightened stakes draw them into action. The comedy is then derived from the topsy-turvy nature of the situations in which they find themselves.
The Festival: The setting of The Pirates of Penzance (the heart of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1870s England) is a very different time and place than 2021 America. Can the play have meaning for us today?
Abate: No matter the time period it was written, the ideas of hypocrisy and corruption within governments and class systems still rings true. The dangers of following a statement or principle at face value that has been taken out of context can also be applied to social media and current news consumption. I also am interested in exploring the show from the perspective that it is the women of the piece, from a nursery maid all the way up to the queen, that hold the power and agency to provoke action as well as create resolution.
The Festival: A lot happens in this play, and very quickly; but do you think there are one or two overarching themes? What are they?
Abate: The Pirates of Penzance is subtitled, “The Slave of Duty.” The piece examines how it can be detrimental to blindly follow a literal sense of duty with no credence to morality, conscience, context, or consequence. It also tears down the walls of stereotypes as none of the characters fit the mold assumed by their position. The rough pirates are sentimental. The brave policemen are scaredy cats. The major general actually has a very limited military knowledge.
The Festival: As playgoers, what should we watch for in this production that may help us enjoy it and/or understand it more?
Abate: This production expands the role of dance in the storytelling. Keep your eyes peeled for leaping pirates and tap-dancing policemen.
The Festival: This is your first time directing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. What attracted you to the Festival?
Abate: There are so many things that drew me to working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. One is the incredible artistic team and the true sense of collaboration that is evident in the quality of the work. The other is the connection of the theatre to the community and a dedication to uphold and support a vital artistic institution.
The Festival: Besides theatre business, what is the one thing you plan on doing while in Cedar City?
Abate: I am very excited to go hiking in the area with my family.
The Festival: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Abate: I am so honored to be a part of the 2021 summer season and cannot wait to be safely back in a rehearsal room soon!