For Penn alumnus Peter Gaffney, balancing teaching with the co-direction of his vaudeville burlesque theater isn’t hard — except for when students come to shows featuring his strip act.
“It’s not as scandalous as it sounds,” he said in defense. “I think that professors are supposed to be weird these days.”
As a professor for “World Film History, 1945-Present” last spring, Gaffney’s students may not have found him weird, but certainly intriguing.
“He made the material very interesting, very relevant and was very engaging as well,” Wharton junior Chris Moews said.
But Moews was not aware of the dress-donning, directing and debauchery that Gaffney was conducting outside the classroom.
Gaffney’s theater company, Cabaret Red Light, opened its show The Seven Deadly Seas last Friday on a 127-year old Portuguese ship, the Gazela Primeiro. After a Manhattan debut, the crew of actors and musicians sailed the old cod schooner back to Penn’s Landing themselves, in true pirate spirit.
The show, featuring the infamous Calico Jack and his female counterparts, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, mixed a pirate narrative of adventure with corporate investment strategy. For Calico Jack, the road to retirement is called Wall Street, and he can’t sail a ship down it.
Cubby Altobelli, who starred as Calico Jack, began his interview with an uninhibited, “yar,” then proceeded to explain his business initiatives.
“The only thing that bugs me about modern business is that it’s just not as straightforward. You lose a lot of perks. You’re really not getting any satisfying kills, there’s not blood on your hands, there’s no rape. It’s the little things we’re missing,” Altobelli said.
But his nostalgia was quickly countered by the fiscal appeal of the financial world. “Credit-swaps? Beautiful!” Altobelli exclaimed.
Gaffney’s cabaret career is founded in his musical background. As a comparative literature graduate student at Penn, Gaffney played accordion and guitar for a self-proclaimed “cross-over classical punk” band called The Blazing Cherries, a group which today provides music for Cabaret Red Light.
The Blazing Cherries began playing melodramatic classical punk, and later became Philadelphia’s “anarchist music collective,” according to the Cabaret Red Light website.
Two years after graduating in 2006, the band was approached by the notorious Philadelphia burlesque actress Annie A-Bomb with the offer to combine talent and begin a theater company.
When not contributing musically to the production, Gaffney is writing, directing and acting. He is evidently as comfortable with cross-contributions as with cross-dressing. Gaffney teaches essay writing at Haverford College, literature at the Curtis Institute of Music and cinema studies at Penn (this semester, he is only grading for Cinema 102).
“He works like 38 hours a day, basically,” Penn Associate Director of Cinema Studies Nicola Gentili said.
Gentili has known Gaffney since his Penn days, attends every Cabaret Red Light production and carries Blazing Cherries CDs in his car.
“[Gaffney’s] a great intellectual, and his passion for cabaret is just amazing,” Gentili said.
Cabaret Red Light is a self-proclaimed “agitprop” theater, a term which refers to propaganda designed to agitate the masses.
“We’re trying to get people to sign onto our agenda, meanwhile taking our clothes off,” Gaffney said.
But don’t confuse this agenda with a political one.
“We think that theater has no business being in politics,” Gaffney said. “And neither does the government.”
Cabaret Red Light promotes an ideology called “pornographic socialism,” a philosophy Altobelli describes as “working hard to stay hard.”
Pornographic socialism is a doctrine tailored to produce “a carefully orchestrated, non-stop orgy on a national scale,” according to a Red Light pamphlet.
Students should expect “to be very surprised, to be awed,” Gentili said. “All of the people there on stage are just amazing, amazing actors and fantastic musicians. All of it will be unexpected.”
Many of the Cabaret members stress this same point. According to Gaffney, co-director Annie A-Bomb has been known to appear on stage completely covered in chocolate, demanding that audience members lick it off.
“It’s a kind of theater that draws a line in the sand, and invites the audience to cross it,” Gaffney explained. “But not all people will do that. Some find it offensive, and will walk out.”
During one show, cast members dressed up as futuristic police and took people from the audience back into the dressing rooms to take nipple prints.
Though this show’s run is now over, students can find the schedule for future shows at http://cabaretredlight.com. “Be prepared to be involved,” Gentili warned, “As a student, as a spectator. Don’t be shy, play along!”
For those in attendance, a word of advice from Altobelli: “They should bring lots of pocket money, and their best jewelry, any gold they have. Gold would be preferable. Just to show off, not like, we’re going to be pillaging them or anything.”