Shannon Forsell and The Cabaret are Nomads No More

Posted by kbrueckmann on August 9, 2017

By Tom Alvarez, On The Aisle with Tom Alvarez

August 6, 2017

There was a flurry of excitement not only in the arts community but throughout Indy on July 28. That’s  when The Cabaret and Buckingham Companies announced plans that will give The Cabaret a prominent, permanent downtown location in the Metzger Building at 9th and Pennsylvania Street. The new space, which also houses the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Gallery 924, and once served as the Rollerland skating rink from the 1940s to the late 1970s, will provide an ideal venue for The Cabaret. Renovations will begin in August.

The Cabaret has engaged RATIO Architects to create an intimate urban setting that combines the industrial nature of the building with stylish touches to rival cabaret rooms around the world. The new location will also house The Cabaret’s administrative offices and will allow for ample, adjacent free parking. The Cabaret plans to move into the Metzger Building by the end of 2017 and will open for performances in early 2018.

Recently, and because she had back to back meetings with RATIO, I spoke by phone with The Cabaret’s visionary artistic director and CEO Shannon Forsell.  Forsell has been with the organization from its first year of operation in 2009 at the Connoisseur Room,  through it’s tenure at the Columbia Club from 2010 to 2016 and it’s current temporary home at the Landmark Center Cook Theatre.  Below is an edited transcript of my far-ranging interview with her.

What sort of feedback have you received regarding the Cabaret’s new home?

We have been overwhelmed with wonderful feedback. It’s been very humbling and very exciting. Folks are thrilled about the location and very happy we are still going to be downtown, and that we are going to be part of a new cultural corridor. Especially with the Phoenix located so close and all the other things the Buckingham companies have planned for what is being called, “Library Square.”  It’s a story hat is much bigger than just us moving there. And we are also very excited about the Arts Council partnership. We have been very pleased and honored.

You have been blessed with an audience that includes a lot of decision makers. Isn’t that true?

We are very lucky to have a great audience that supports us. From the foundation community as well as our audience. I am not sure we expected it to be as strong as it is now. We have been very humbled by that because it is very scary to take on such big project. We are used to being nomadic and having very low overhead. We started our whole business model based off of that. It is a bit of a shift but in doing all our business plans we came to to the realization that we had just gotten too big to remain nomadic and serve our audience. Having so many restrictions about dates, times and all of those kinds of things, we had to make a decision. Are we going to be exactly what we are right now? Or are we going to grow, expand, be community oriented and take the Cabaret to the next level in our next ten years. It is hard to believe but next year is our ten-year anniversary. It baffles me. I can’t believe it.

Grow  or go, right?

Right. I am very conservative given where the cabaret has come from. When you come from an organization that has to be restructured, as I did, I felt I had to be conservative about our growth—just plain out of fear (laughs).  We have been working with Karen Kenelley who did our business plan. We vetted it so many times that we feel confident that it is doable and that it is the right thing to do. We didn’t take it lightly. We started working on our business plan several years ago and luckily, when it became obvious that we were not going to stay at the Columbia Club, that we had already done a lot of pre-work and pre-numbers and pre-studies that we were a little ahead of the game when it was time to take this step which we didn’t anticipate taking quite as soon as we are. But these things happen the way they are supposed to.

Will the new space make you nimbler?

Yes. This is new thing for us so we are going to have to figure out how that will work. In the meantime, we remain a season based organization because that really works well for us but now we can add shows. We are working on how that operate. Our subscriber may receive subscriber discounts on all the shows that get added. We have a lot of folks who will call, a lot of folks who will be coming through or coming into town or going to Chicago, or going to Louisville and say, “we can stop in at your place.” Up until now, we have never been able to say yes, let’s do it.

Will your new building ultimately serve as a new cultural attraction for the city? 

Yes. The new space will be a new cultural space.  The Cabaret will be able to present expanded public performances and educational programming and serve as a resource to other cultural organizations that may need rehearsal and performance space.  The partnership with The Arts Council will also provide new arts partnership opportunities, including creating greater visibility for Gallery 924, which presents the work of local artists.  Gallery 924 will now be open for all Cabaret performances and our post show receptions will take place in the gallery.  We are also planning a First-Friday series partnership as well.

Does this new development place you squarely on the map as a leading Cabaret presenters in this country?

The Cabaret has over the years solidified itself as a leading cabaret presenter in the country—and has effectively begun to create a hub for professional cabaret in the Midwest.  Cabaret had primarily been located on both coasts in major metropolitan cities.  Even cities such as Chicago do not have a major professional cabaret venue.  The Cabaret has consulted with several Midwest cabarets in order to create a new Midwest cabaret hub.  Our partnership with Columbus Philharmonic has resulted in a very successful sister cabaret series in Columbus Indiana.  We also consulted with Cabaret 313 in Detroit to help them to start a new cabaret, which is now going very well.  And, one of our very first employees, Mackenzie Travers has created a cabaret series in, of all places, Grand Forks, North Dakota!

Are agents and managers, nationally and internationally,  now more aware of the Cabaret?

There are only a handful of cabarets so everyone is looking to go the cabarets that are out there. One thing that we have always talked about which we are just now, ten years, are just beginning to implement. Most performing arts centers and jazz clubs utilizing this thing called routing which means they will work together. The agent will say “I will take them to S.F., then to Phoenix, and Chicago, etc. and they get used to this route and so this artist gets on this route. The Cabaret doesn’t have routing like that because we don’t fit into those categories. Now we are beginning to connect and even help start other cabarets so we are starting to work together to say “Hey who do you want? Who are you looking at? Here’s who we are looking at. Let’s figure out if we can work together.”

Will you have openings in your schedule? 

Oh, we’ll have plenty of openings. We are a venue that started out as forty shows and that leaves plenty of leeway to add plenty of performances throughout the year but we are not going to go from A to Z.  We are going to get in, get settled and gradually. People will begin to see gradual shifts. Some of them will be right away and some of them will be more gradual as we get to the ebb and flow of that phase.

Could you have imagined when you started at the Connoisseur room that you would reach this point?

No.  I always believed that we would be a small arts organization putting on a limited number of good shows.  We actually started The Cabaret at a time when many in the business believed that cabaret was dead.  We quickly learned that cabaret was not dead, however the business model of cabaret was a detriment to its success.I never would have believed that this somewhat niche art form would take off so quickly.  I think that the secret to our success has been that The Cabaret is one of the only non-profit cabaret’s in the country.  While most cabaret venues run every weekend, and sometimes up to 16 shows per week, we have a limited number of shows with a subscription series–a bit of a hybrid between theaters and cabaret.  The challenge with the business model of cabaret as a whole is that the very nature of what makes it special, also makes it extremely difficult to make a profit without supplemental funding through grants, sponsorship, etc. A venue cannot pay Alan Cumming or Leslie Odom Jr. with a $20 cover charge, a food and beverage minimum and only 150 seats.  We believed that cabaret is a legitimate art form–just like ballet or symphonies and that those who love it would indeed support it.  We gambled on this, but it worked.

How has making the Cabaret a non-profit model helped you achieve your goals?

It has helped us elevate the art form by presenting the best of the best in the business. We have been able to educate and train artists in the art form to create new generations of cabaret artists We limit the number of shows presented to keep it as a special night out, as opposed to something you could do any time. Thus, we do not compete with ourselves—as the cabaret audience is very loyal but niche audience.  Our growth has been fast and furious and not without its challenges.  Having a home base was indeed our number one challenge.  We are so very grateful that our audiences have followed us wherever we have gone and we are looking forward to settling into a home and staying for a while.

Will you expand your staff?

We won’t need to at this point. We have a decent size. In fact, we feel like we are the exact right size. I could see some part time people for occasional things but we don’t fee like we are going to be at that point just yet. We have a lot of people who want to intern with us and we are very excited about that.

Will you continue your educational partnership with Ball State?

Absolutely.  We will be able to expand on the opportunities with our educational programs can grow quite aa bit because we now have room for classes and classrooms, room to do shows that are not there to make money so we can build upon the education program and we are excited about those options. Before, we had to rent the room to conduct workshops so it was not easy to do the educational program. We don’t do them to make money, however. We are doing them to provide a service.

Does that mean you will be able to showcase the students more rather than just have then as opening acts?

Yes, we are also planning on an incubator series that will have to grow because there is not a huge amount of Cabaret performers in the city so we have some plans for doing some expansion of our local performers.

How will that work?

I am not 100 per cent sure yet but we want some of the local performers to tell us how we can be helpful to them. We are exploring a lot of different ideas and hope to find the right fit for us.

Do you think your facility will create a domino effect in terms of development in the area you are moving to?

We hope so. But it is already happening. Buckingham companies who own this space already doing that with its Library Square. 110 apartments are going up right behind our building and next to them is Pat McAfee’s Heartland Barstool headquarters. Behind those apartments is a green space. All of this is on our website. The alley that is to the south of us will be a living arts space— pedestrian alley full of art. Now I think there is going to be a larger cultural corridor associated with that beyond our square to include the Phoenix. We hope the next Mass Ave will take root and think this is going to be a quickly emerging area. It is so close to downtown and all the new apartments that are going up around it. The Buckingham apartments are supposed to be open in March as well as the living alley as well as the green space It’s already going to look very different by the time we get in there.

Will you still be able to balance your personal and your professional life? In the past you have always stressed how important that is to you.

Oh yes. If I am still alive after this year, (laughs). I will be fine next year. Getting to this is much harder than next year will be when we’re up and running and just doing one job—running the shows and things. This is the hardest part and certainly there has been little balance associated with that (laughs).

For tickets and information about the Summer/Fall season at The Cabaret visit thecabaret.org or call 317-275-1169.

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