“What good is sitting along in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, oh chum. Come to the cabaret.” Those lyrics by Fred Ebb from the musical “Cabaret” now carry such irony during the pandemic. The song came to mind when I received a news release from The Cabaret regarding schedule changes and the online addition of The Glick Philanthropies Broadway at The Cabaret Series on its YouTube channel. The series will feature 12 performers, all of whom hand-selected songs from their performances at The Cabaret to be released over the course of six days, beginning on the Sunday, June 7, the originally scheduled date for the Tony Awards.
In the release, Shannon Forsell, artistic director & CEO said, “The shuttering of venues means we have already lost one of the things we love—live performance, which we rely on to enlighten us, connect us, and to comfort us. And now, with something as iconic as the Tony Awards being postponed, we thought it was time to offer a new form of entertainment and celebration of the artists we love so much.” Forsell went on to say, “We have always compared the intimacy of cabaret to that of having a Broadway star, jazz diva, or chanteuse singing at a cocktail party in your living room. Now that can literally be the case. It will be a while until we can all come together in person, but we are doing all we can to recreate that feeling of togetherness.”
Alongside my producing partner Dustin Klein, I manage Magic Thread Cabaret. MTC is a not-for-profit incubator, which showcases local talent, promotes diversity and inclusiveness and exposes Central Indiana audiences to the cabaret art form. As a result of our shared interests, we couldn’t be more supportive of the mission of The Cabaret and heartily cheer its success.
That success has placed The Cabaret on the map nationally for the caliber of its artists and performances. It has also become renowned as a highly innovative institution, operating as a not-for-profit model, under the vision of Forsell, who has led it since 2009. Prior to that, she was a featured performer with its predecessor American Cabaret Theatre. Forsell, a long-time friend and colleague, recently replied to a series of questions I sent her via email. Below is a transcript of our exchange.
What impact has the pandemic had on The Cabaret?
Like most arts organizations, the pandemic has had and will continue to have a deep impact on our business. The safety of our artists, our patrons, our staff and the community is our priority and will continue to be top of mind as we explore the best ways to move forward. We have not presented live shows since March 8 and all shows through July have been postponed. While the city is opening up, research still indicates intimate venues like The Cabaret are a risk and will be until there is a vaccine. Our very mission and the very essence of what makes cabaret special—a shared experience of connection, up close and personal with an artist and group of people in a cozy setting—is in direct opposition with the “new normal.”
Are you juggling various scenarios regarding when you’ll reopen?
We are in regular contact with our 2020 scheduled performers to determine which performers are willing to travel when the time comes. Some have already requested to postpone their performances until 2021. We are taking it one month at a time right now, preparing a variety of scenarios so that we are at the ready.
While the theatre is dark, we are using this time to retrofit all public bathrooms with touchless faucets, toilets, soap dispensers and doors. We are also assessing the ventilation/HVAC systems and purchasing PPE equipment, such as special microphone sanitizers, fogging/sanitizing machines, masks, sanitizer stations, etc.
Research indicates outdoor shows may be safer than indoor shows and are certainly perceived as such. The Cabaret is exploring presenting a few performances offsite/outdoors in August and September. We are also in the midst of creating an additional outdoor space. Funded by Lilly Endowment and in partnership with the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Buckingham Companies, we are working to transform the underutilized, adjacent alley and street as a vibrant corridor and space to experience community, art and live music. This new outdoor space is currently in construction with a kick-off art and music event set for September.
The Cabaret is also analyzing the viability of presenting shows in our venue at 50 percent capacity—mixed with a live stream option for those who would prefer to watch the performance from their home.
How has it affected the organization financially?
The staff of The Cabaret has been working diligently—weekly—in concert with its executive and finance committees to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Significant efforts have been undertaken in order to sustain the organization through this crisis. That being said, without the ability to present live performances and utilize venue rentals at full capacity until the summer of 2021 (projected vaccine date), The Cabaret will likely be navigating significant financial challenges over the next year.
The Cabaret has had to make and will continue to have to make hard choices until we are on the other side of this. We were lucky to have secured a PPP loan to help us to get through to June with a full staff at full pay. As such, we had to make the hard choice to eliminate two staff positions this month. All other staff members, including the CEO/Artistic Director, have taken what we hope will be a temporary 20 percent pay cut. Continuing to take steps to sustain the organization so that we can come back strong is vital.
How have your patrons, board members, donors and sponsors responded?
I think all of us have been able to witness first-hand how important the arts are to our lives—and what a void there is without them. We have been blown away by the outpouring of support from everyone, even our artists. So many people have shared how much The Cabaret means to them (and why) and how much they miss coming to The Cabaret. We have been so moved that people miss us…that we make a difference.
How are you engaging your patrons?
We have been keeping patrons in the loop through regular e-blasts, social media, and through personal contact. We are working on creating regular Zoom sessions, with small groups at a time, in order to have more personal contact so that we can update patrons and allow them to ask questions, provide feedback, etc.
In May, we surveyed our mailing list in order to gauge the readiness of our audience to return to The Cabaret and to test what actions would need to be taken to ensure their safety and comfort. Our survey results were consistent with national research findings that most patrons will be most comfortable attending indoor arts venues once there is a vaccine for the virus.
In May, we pivoted from presenting live performances to serving as a resource, using social media and e-blasts to connect patrons and the public with curated lists of national cabaret/Broadway viewing opportunities.
Are you streaming any content?
While I think virtual programming can fill a void in the interim, it simply cannot replace the live experience. That being said, while it does not replace the experience of a live show in our venue, it does allow us to serve our current audience and reach new audiences on a global scale. Our YouTube page has a global reach, with some performances reaching a viewership of 650K plus, with a total YouTube viewership of over 2M to date. We have publicized this nationally, so we hope to have a wide reach with our new virtual programming!
In order to keep the spirit of the Tony Awards alive (originally scheduled for this Sunday night) The Cabaret had been scheduled to release archived performance footage of Tony winning/nominated stars who have graced The Cabaret stage as part of The Glick Philanthropies Broadway at The Cabaret Series.
While many virtual Tony celebrations are being postponed in light of this week’s devastating events and protests, we will continue with our weeklong programming, but shift our schedule to focus on celebrating and amplifying the incredible black artists who have shaped Broadway and inspired audiences at The Cabaret.
From Sunday, June 7 through Saturday, June 13, videos of Tony winning/nominated black performers, with their permission, will be released daily on The Cabaret’s YouTube channel ( www.youtube.com/thecabaret121 ), via social media and posted to The Cabaret website (www.thecabaret.org). While the complete schedule is still being finalized, it will be curated from such artists as Tony winners Rene Elise Goldsberry (“Hamilton”) Jennifer Holliday (“Dreamgirls”), Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”), La Chanze (“The Color Purple”), Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Kiss Me Kate”), Patina Miller (“Pippin”) and Tony nominees Norm Lewis (“Porgy and Bess”), Joshua Henry (“Violet,” “The Scottsboro Boys”), and Valeri Pettiford (“Fosse”).
The Cabaret has also brokered a partnership with Broadway HD, a national streaming service that has long been bringing Broadway performances to people’s living rooms, with the goal of making high-quality theatre accessible to everyone globally. Besides Broadway shows, there are numerous Lincoln Center performances that feature many of the artists who have performed at The Cabaret. The partnership allowed us to offer our patrons 50 percent off of a subscription to the streaming service.
How is the pandemic affecting you personally?
This pandemic has been a big lesson in just letting go and doing what is next instead of thinking you can control ANYTHING. On the upside, while most would assume I am an extrovert, I am actually more of an introvert, so being more of a homebody has been a bit healing for me. I have so enjoyed being with and reconnecting with my husband. It is also interesting that I have connected with neighbors, friends and family more during this time, which has been lovely.
What are you learning from living in the pandemic?
Aside from learning how to let go and just do the next thing, I am also learning how to cook, which has sometimes been a humorous, sometimes successful experience that definitely keeps me humble!
What would you like the “new normal” to be once the pandemic has passed?
For me, personally, I would like my life to have more balance between work and home life, so I would like to see that continue. I needed more quiet time…
What do you miss the most?
I miss our audience, which is like a family. I miss the buzz of a crowded room filled with laughter and joy. And I miss being inspired by the artists.
Is there a silver lining to the pandemic?
I think the pandemic has been a great time of reflection—assessing what matters most and considering change where needed—both personally and professionally. This has been a time to take stock. There are so many things that we do or keep doing just because it is easier or we don’t have the time to make a change.
What is your message to your fellow artists?
You matter. Your voice matters. Your work matters. The world is not as manageable without you.
What is your message to the public?
Take care of yourselves and those you love. Go easy on yourselves and others during this difficult time. Experience simple joys when you can. When the time is right, we can’t wait to see you back at The Cabaret.