Pen to paper: How seven students brought ‘Gaieties’ to life

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Co-head writer of “Gaieties” Zoe Sonneberg. Photo by Keegan Livermore.

Students often joke that the annual production of “Gaieties” has had the same plot for the past 103 years. While this is an oversimplification, the basic storyline of the musical comedy is pretty predictable: “Gaieties” tells the tale of a ragtag group of Stanford freshmen who band together to defeat the villains of UC Berkeley, referred to as “Cal,” before the Big Game.

Every year, however, a team of seven undergraduate writers is given the task of reimagining the decades-old tale. Producing an entirely original script for the 90-minute production in a matter of months, they aim to to capture what it means to be a Stanford student at the current moment. In the Gaieties writer’s room, this often means spitballing ideas for raunchy jokes, gags and how to justify the inclusion of nudity in the show’s requisite musical numbers.

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Co-head writer of “Gaieties” Abby Brooke. Photo by Keegan Livermore.

This year’s Gaieties, provacatively titled “Chem31XXX,” was written by head writers Zoë Sonnenberg ‘18 and Abby Brooke ‘17, as well as a team of five staff writers. After applying and being selected to write for Gaieties in early February, the seven undergraduate students immediately began brainstorming ideas for this year’s show. During their first meeting in an Old Union conference room, they adopted the old school approach: Writing a list of possible heroes and villians up on a whiteboard with markers until they had settled upon a loose form. They then divvied up scenes amongst the writers and began their four-month writing and editing process, slowly piecing together what would soon become “Chem31XXX.”

While each year’s crop of writers aims to produce a relentlessly funny production devoid of self-censorship, the script must be edited and screened before being approved to be performed. The script is first screened by the board of Ram’s Head Theatrical Society, the producer of “Gaieties.” Throughout the editing process, a peer review board is used to vet the jokes and ensure that content is relatable. Finally, the script is edited and approved by Student Activities and Leadership board.

When asked about the controversial content that has come to define Gaieties, head writer Zoë Sonnenberg ’18 responded that, “Gaieties rides the line of finding humor and pushing the boundary to an appropriate level. We were very conscious of making sure that we had a show that was funny and raunchy and exciting and also going to be enjoyable for the most number of people.”

Although “Gaieties” has been produced and student written since 1911, it is constantly evolving. Having been a staff writer for the 2014 production “A Clockwork Cardinal,” one of this year’s staff writers, Abby Brooke, acknowledged that, “While there have been over 100 Gaieties, the most productions that one student could have possibly seen at their time at Stanford is four or five. Yes, we have an awareness of not repeating content, but we can’t get too bogged down by what has already happened.”

Using the long history of “Gaieties” as a loose framework, this year’s writing team hopes to deliver a fresh production. While using pop culture references to ground this year’s “Gaieties” solidly in the present, beloved characters from past “Gaieties” performances will be brought back. After all, “Gaieties” is, first and foremost, a tradition.

 

Contact Olivia Witting at owitting ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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