As soon as I received the all-student email introducing the upcoming independent production “How to Be Famous,” I knew I had to cover it. The unpretentious and emoji-filled email, which introduced an “elite influencer” character named Sadboi Cashbags, gave me the impression that “How to be Famous” would be unlike any Kenyon production I had ever seen before. And my impression was right — but not in the way I thought it would be.
“How to Be Famous” is the brainchild of Sam Hafetz ’23 and Ava Gruskoff ’23, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in the project, with Melody Wagner ’23 doing costume design and Ricky Alavarez ’24 doing choreography. The show was publicized by Persimmons Magazine, where Hafetz is an editor. It ran on Nov. 12, 13 and 15 in Samuel Mather 201, a medium-sized lecture hall. I went on closing night.
Going into the show, I was expecting irony. I was expecting detached social commentary. And I was fairly certain I was on the right track when I was handed my program, an 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper featuring clip art of Nike’s #Equality campaign and a special thanks section that included Lil Peep, the Department of Justice and Joe Rogan.
The one-act performance opened with Hafetz introducing himself as Sadboi Cashbags and rapping about his come-up as an influencer to the tune of the intro from the musical “Hamilton.” The packed classroom was bursting with laughter, eager to spend the next two hours or so watching Hafetz and Gruskoff lampoon cringey Gen-Z stereotypes. Then the song ended. Hafetz and Gruskoff began trading explosive, hostile lines of dialogue at lung-topping volumes. I quickly realized that “How to be Famous” was not intended to make anyone feel comfortable.
Ultimately, Sadboi Cashbags (real name Sam, although Hafetz clarified that the character is not a self-insert) is a tragic figure. His desire for fame and money is hollow, as the show reveals the only reason for his current circumstances is that his parents have always seen him as a product, and parenthood as the role of a lifetime. In a series of flashbacks, Gruskoff plays Sam’s calculating, businessman father and Hafetz plays his deceased actress mother — a casting switch-up that is one of the play’s more brilliant artistic decisions.
Hafetz and Gruskoff’s passion for the project shone in their sincere commitment to multiple roles, as well as the little details they included to enrich the story. There’s a pause in the action while Hafetz recites a monologue from Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” There’s a surprisingly sweet, choreographed performance of “Makin’ Whoopee.” None of the characters in “How to Be Famous” are particularly likable, but I got the sense that Hafetz and Gruskoff have a unique love for all of them.
Don’t get me wrong, though: As much as “How to Be Famous” is sincere, it is equally as edgy. Despite its two-person cast, the script is loaded with weighty dialogue, the majority of which is performed with the volume and intensity of a speech at a political protest — Hafetz and Gruskoff deserve props for both their memorization and voice preservation skills. The play includes topics of suicide, substance abuse and body image issues, but never slows its roll long enough to fully discuss any of them. There are references to the conflict in Palestine, corrupt billionaires and other left-leaning ideas. The audience reacted positively to these, perhaps because they weren’t sure how they were supposed to react to anything else. Several times, characters in the play expressed pain or hopelessness and were met with audience laughter.
“It’s the tension between laughing and pain,” Grukoff and Hafetz wrote in the shared Google Doc where they kindly answered the plethora of questions I had for them. “All we know is as we use laughter to cope, we also demonstrate a loss of control, which is moving.”
They communicated a desire to push past the bounds of traditional theater, to leave the audience with something deeper than an impression of whether or not they liked the show. “We aren’t looking for checkpoints, we’re trying to collectively feel with you. That’s what makes theater community, right?”
This ethos is reflected in the way Grukoff and Hafetz interacted with the audience throughout the play. In one of the show’s first scenes, Grukoff, playing activist character Mar, moved throughout the audience asking for signatures on a petition. There were a few cases where Hafetz, in character, berated audience members who showed up late. Although obviously improvised, these moments felt so natural that it made me wonder what else was being made up on the spot. The relentless fire in Hafetz and Grukoff’s performances made it impossible to tell.
When the show came to a close, Hafetz and Grukoff asked the audience if the play brought up any questions or feelings they wished to share. Nobody seemed to know what to say. Perhaps this was because a project as dense as “How to Be Famous” takes some time to digest. I left Sam Mather confused about my own feelings. But one thing I knew for certain is that I was wrong to assume “How to Be Famous” would be detached. It was the most sincere performance I have seen in my time at Kenyon.
In the future, Hafetz, Gruskoff, Wagner and Alvarez plan to further flesh out the project with a film, which will include sections of the play, interviews and commentary. “Our biggest hope is that everyone tells the stories they want to tell, how they want to tell them, because the infinite experiences that exist make life beautiful,” Hafetz and Gruskoff wrote.
It’s the type of philosophy that leads to brilliant theater. Whatever your takeaway, “How to Be Famous” is the type of risky passion project that Kenyon could use more of.