For Twin Cities Director Peter Rothstein, All His World's a Stage

Pioneer PressBy: Chris Hewitt January 16, 2014

You could argue that Peter Rothstein began directing "Cabaret" a couple of months ago, when rehearsals started. Or that he began directing it two years ago, when he visited a concentration camp where artists were sent around the time "Cabaret" takes place. Or when he attended the 1998 Broadway revival and thought it was one of the best things he'd ever seen. Or when he was a kid in Grand Rapids, appearing in 12 musicals in three years and dreaming of a career in the theater.

Rothstein keeps notebooks of ideas he jots down while on vacation or when he wakes up in the middle of the night, and some of those ideas probably date back at least as far as high school.

"I always have the notebooks by the side of my bed, and in the middle of the night, I'll wake up and it's, like, 'That's how I can solve the mirror ball problem,' " says Rothstein, who is artistic director of Theatre Latte Da and has directed dozens of Twin Cities productions, including Latte Da's blistering "Spring Awakening" and the Guthrie's "Other Desert Cities."

The mirror ball problem is whether the glittery baubles would have existed in Berlin in 1931, when "Cabaret" takes place. The seedy glamour of the mirror ball is one of many concepts that will find their way into the production of "Cabaret" that opens Saturday at the Pantages Theatre.

Rothstein's "Cabaret" also has the framework of voyeurism, which is why "Cabaret" audiences will see actors changing into their costumes; the idea that the Holocaust never could have happened without railroads; the scary whimsy of merry-go-rounds; the notion of characters who are trying to expand the definition of "beauty" at the very moment Nazis are restricting that definition to "blond and blue-eyed"; the question of what the emcee (the character Joel Grey plays in the "Cabaret" film) does when he walks out the stage door.

"All of the ideas I've had over the years, I'm trying to hone all of that," says Rothstein, interviewed a week before the opening of "Cabaret," which goes back and forth between the Kit Kat Club, where the emcee and Sally Bowles perform such memorable numbers as "Money" and the title song, and Fraulein Schneider's boarding house, where Sally lives with her possible love interest, Cliff. "Right now, I want to make sure that we're not losing anything."

A co-production of Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, "Cabaret" finds Rothstein working with more collaborators and a bigger budget than he does with most Latte Da productions.

"I feel so lucky to be doing this piece on this scale at this beautiful theater," Rothstein says. He thinks the beauty of the Pantages, even the trashed-up version of the Pantages that will be on view in "Cabaret," inspires the cast and crew, as well.

The main inspiration, of course, is one of the most treasured musicals in American theater. "Cabaret" has been rewritten several times since it debuted almost 50 years ago and, according to Rothstein, who came to Minneapolis to assist director Garland Wright on a Guthrie production of "A Woman of No Importance" in 1993, it shows.

"In the rehearsal room, I keep thinking, 'This is a really great scene,' " says Rothstein, 47. "Sally (Wingert, who starred in Rothstein's "Other Desert Cities" and plays Fraulein Schneider) said, 'This doesn't feel like a book musical where you're just waiting to get to the next song. This is great writing.' "


In a production designed to remind audience members that they are voyeurs, the director is perhaps the show's first voyeur. Even when he was an actor, Rothstein says he sometimes felt like he was observing the production rather than fully a part of it.

"That's why I wasn't a great actor, I think. It's too hard to get to that place where you feel like you're inside the character and also in the room with the audience at the same time," Rothstein says. "As a director, I always get to be observing it."

But Rothstein's experience as an actor -- he's perhaps best known for "Love! Valour! Compassion!" at Park Square Theatre in 1998 -- informs his acting.

It's an actor's instinct, for instance, that led to his suggestion to Wingert that, during a song, "I felt like her character was feeling gravity more than she had ever felt it." Wingert unabashedly says she loves the director.

"Peter Rothstein is one of the finest directors I've ever worked with, and his amazing theatrical mind is due, in part, to the fact that everything he's done informs his work," Wingert said via email. "He has an ability to respect the work you're doing but ask the next question to deepen the work, the character, the scene."

Wingert adds that Rothstein is a great observer: "I always feel seen when I'm working with Peter. I do something, follow an impulse, make a change, and he sees it, comments, approves or expands the idea."


Perhaps the most amazing thing about Rothstein's attention to detail is that it comes from within a maelstrom. Rothstein works a lot so he is always in the middle of several projects.

Here's his schedule on the day he carved out a couple of hours to talk: Looking at possible actors for "Romeo and Juliet" for Ten Thousand Things in the morning, followed by a meeting about how to scale down Latte Da's recent "Steerage Song" for a Minnesota tour, followed by script meetings on the upcoming Latte Da "Our Town," a meeting about a possible future collaboration with Hennepin Theatre Trust, design discussions about "Shrek the Musical" (he's directing it this spring for Children's Theater Company) and -- oh, yeah -- a "Cabaret" rehearsal.

It's no wonder the man utilizes even his workout time to make theater: "I always do my blocking (choreographing the movement of actors) on the Stairmaster. I don't like exercise very much, and I always feel like I can create movement better when I'm moving."

All of that activity may be intended to distract Rothstein from what he knows always happens on opening night, when he turns the show over to the cast and crew.

"You go from having so much power to having absolutely no power at all," Rothstein says. "Meanwhile, you're saying to audiences, 'Here is my baby. Is it cute or ugly?' and you have 72 hours before someone will tell you whether they think it's cute or ugly in a public forum."

Given that he is working on a half-dozen shows and probably scribbling notes on a half-dozen more, no one will be surprised to learn Rothstein deals with that opening-night loss of power by diving into a project where he still has control.

"I have a little tradition on opening night," Rothstein confides. "I go home and do a little work on the next show."