Gaieties has arrived! Before I go any further, let me just say that you need to go see it. It’s a beloved Stanford tradition; it’s a huge energy and time commitment from the students involved, made purely out of love for our school; and naked people get in for free. If that’s not the most compelling endorsement of musical theatre you’ve ever heard, then your artistic priorities are seriously confused.
The Gaieties show every year hits the same basic notes: there are affectionate send-ups of campus stereotypes, a lunatic plot hatched by our jealous, vengeful rivals at Cal, and a motley crew of Stanford students who join together to undo whatever damage those Bears inflict and remind us all why we love Stanford. There’s also nudity and at least a few kinky undertones, which are occasionally made into explicit overtones.
Indeed, the Gaieties team knows very well that there’s a storied tradition to carry on here, one they can’t really deviate from— Gaieties serves a functional purpose at Stanford that goes beyond “art for art’s sake.” This, creatively speaking, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a real challenge to devote so much time and effort to something that people think they’ve already seen, in some form or another, every year, or which they can get the gist of by just asking a few upperclassmen.
The writers call this out more than once, to let us— and the Band heckling loudly from the balcony— know they’re in on the joke. At one point, a character laments that she should have seen Cal’s plot to destroy Stanford coming, because a plot to destroy Stanford “happens every year, usually around this time.” The story gets increasingly self-referential: the final showdown within the plot of Gaieties 2014 happens at the show’s version of Gaieties 2014. The performers playing performers then break into the musical number “Hot Mess” to describe the production’s attitude toward the show: “The story doesn’t matter, we know you don’t care. We’re only all here because Cal’s a piece of shit.”
In a way that’s true, but in recent years, our rivalry with Cal has subsided more into accepted-status-quo territory, rather than actual vitriolic hatred. (On our end, anyway. Who knows what or if they think over there.) As such, pure loathing for Cal and excitement for Big Game aren’t enough to motivate Stanford students to leave their study bunkers and trek to MemAud for two hours. But our love for Stanford is– or, if not our love for it, our desire to be at peace with being here as opposed to feeling vaguely unsettled with no definitive reason why.
That tension between loving Stanford and feeling helplessly manipulated by it is very much on students’ minds this year. With author William Deresiewicz’s recent viral commentary on the elite college system, the national surge of interest in addressing sexual assault on university campuses, and Stanford’s own, rejuvenated effort to bring mental wellbeing out from beneath the Duck Syndrome and into the public consciousness, 2014 has been a year for rethinking who we are and how we relate to Stanford.
Maybe I’m naive to think that my cycle through the Farm has been unique from all the others in the past hundred-plus years. I’ll take that risk, though, and just say I don’t think that restless soul-searching has ever been as in vogue, so openly accepted, and such a definitive part of being a Stanford student, as it has been this past year. Our student body, as individuals and as a community, is going through a sort of existential crisis after years of not questioning that deep-seated inkling that something is off, and I think it’s about time.
It’s in capturing that internal crisis, which has bubbled to the surface over the past several months, that Gaieties 2014 takes itself out of its timeless echo chamber and makes itself relevant to the specific experience of this year’s Stanford.
The evil plot of this year’s Cal villain is more of the philosophical variety. Oski, disgruntled as ever at Stanford’s continual domination in all things, recruits his fellow PAC-12 mascots: a chain-smoking Oregon Duck, USC’s boneheaded Tommy Trojan, and ASU’s Sparky the Sun Devil, who here has a lovable hobo sensibility. Together, they wear orbs around their necks, looking like a drunk Flavor Flav tribute band at a thrift store costume party. When these orbs flash blue in the presence of a Stanford student, it makes the student forget “that which makes him who he is.”
The protagonist, a bright-eyed freshman named Maddie, is the only student who doesn’t lose anything. Around her, classmates either wail in agony at having lost their “thing” (the Tree, lost without his fanatical sense of school spirit) or eagerly embrace everything they fundamentally opposed before (the co-op hippie chanting “Conformity! Hierarchy! Shooting things!” as she does ROTC jumping jacks). But Maddie didn’t lose any special talent or unique interest, and so she must not be special.
Over the course of the show, important distinctions are drawn between those suffocating buzzwords that pervade our Stanford Bubble: “special,” “passion,” “purpose.” The ghost of Herbert Hoover, who goes by “Herb” and whose indecent legacy watches over us, shows up as Maddie’s great grandfather, and he offers surprisingly insightful advice given that his fiscal policies caused the Great Depression.
Herb assures Maddie that Oski’s band of wayward mascots took “the thing that defined everyone, not the thing that makes you special.” He tells her that we should continue to look for the thing that makes us special, because “isn’t that what college is all about?”
It may sound cheesy, but it’s an oft-repeated sentiment for a reason, and it could use some more repeating at Stanford. For a school whose famous application essay questions ask you, essentially, to define yourself and your passion, our student body has a rather complicated relationship with the whole idea of being defined by specific things. We formulated how one or a couple things define us so well that it “set us apart” from thousands of other high school seniors. Maybe this is why so many of us feel so lost here.
There’s a strong inclination to hide within a comfy label, lest we be lost floating in a space that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorization. At one point the Tree looks out at Mausoleum Party and remarks, “All these young people dressed in such silly costumes. What are they trying to hide under there?”
We should feel comfortable trying things on as we please, experimenting with things we may not be experts in or define ourselves by. Stanford has so many great things to try, and too many of us are scared to do it.
Jokes are a gentle way into talking about challenging topics. This year’s Gaieties embodies that truth, reflecting many of the serious issues that have been broached recently in a way that’s inviting to those who haven’t wanted to consider them yet. The veil of enthusiastically off-color jokes, strobe-lit club music interludes, and hashtag-saturated dialogue successfully jabs every Stanford “type,” but it also provides a level of comfort as the story addresses some real issues. The structure of Gaieties will always be the same, but the heart of this show was beating just for 2014.
Gaieties 2014 – A Clockwork Cardinal. Presented by Ram’s Head. Runs Wednesday, Nov 19 – Friday, Nov 21. 8pm. Tickets at gaieties.stanford.edu.
Photo credits: Frank Chen