Jean Valjean’s days of playing second fiddle to weddings are over.
The Cabaret, an Indianapolis hotspot for intimate, cocktail-friendly encounters with Broadway performers, will celebrate 10 years of bringing stars such as “Phantom of the Opera” virtuoso Ramin Karimloo and “Kinky Boots” darling Billy Porter to Indy with the construction of a permanent $1.4 million home in the downtown Metzger Building at Ninth and Pennsylvania Streets. The Cabaret’s new digs, which will share an entrance with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, will debut in early 2018.
The Cabaret has long been in search of a permanent residence. After outgrowing its long-time space at the Columbia Club last year, the organization is performing the 2017 season at the Indiana Landmarks Center’s Cook Theater. But the problems that led them to leave the Columbia Club—having to book shows a year in advance, competition from weddings, and the expense of tearing down and recreating sets—remain.
Next year, Cabaret will finally have a space all its own—and this one will be just right. In advance of the 2018 unveiling, Cabaret Artistic Director and CEO Shannon Forsell talks cabaret (not a strip club), the coolest features of the new space (Cocktail pairings! Edgier shows!), and the big (but not too big) ambitions of Indy’s hottest destination for visiting Broadway stars.
IM: What were some of your biggest challenges at the Columbia Club?
Shannon Forsell: The biggest challenge was date restrictions—at the Columbia Club, the weddings are where the money is. They’re less interested in sharing Saturdays with us because we’re not going to make them the revenue that a wedding would. But Saturdays are our prime night for cabaret—it’s difficult for folks in Indianapolis to come to a 9:30 show on a Friday night after they’ve worked all week. So now we can do shows on Fridays and Saturdays. And the time frame was so tight before between our two Friday shows that we couldn’t do a meet-and-greet with the artist after the first performance, so only the people that went to the second show got that experience.
IM: How is cabaret different from live theater?
SF: So many people think we’re a strip club— we’re not. Cabaret is a bit of a cross between a nightclub experience and a theatrical experience. You’re in a cozy atmosphere, and you can have something to eat or drink; socialize with your friends; wind down from your week. I liken it to if you had a star come to a cocktail party in your living room. Instead of sitting in row double D watching a performer, they might talk to you; they might react to you; you’ll react to them—they call it “breaking the fourth wall.” And the performers tie in a lot of personal stories, so you feel that you aren’t watching Alan Cumming do a concert, but you are getting to know—personally—Alan Cumming.
IM: What attracts these big-name stars to Indianapolis in the first place?
SF: That’s the question, right? When we first got started, we would try to book these performers, and they were like “Indianapolis? What’s going on there?” It’s not your first tour stop that you’re thinking about, right? But what’s happened over the years is that we’ve had these people come, and they’re like, “I had no idea Indianapolis was so fantastic. What a great city!”, and they’ve gone back and told all their friends. Now we’ve become a venue that people seek out to perform at. There’s only a handful of cabarets in the whole country, and they’ve always been on the coast—in New York or in California—and now there’s this Midwest center as well.
IM: What makes for the ideal cabaret space?
SF: Really intimate seating up close to the stage, so that everyone has a really good view. And we’ll have dressing rooms and green rooms, which we’ve never had before, so that’s going to be very helpful to performers.
IM: The old space at the Columbia Club was very opulent. Will you try to replicate that vibe in the new space?
SF: Ratio Designs has created something that’s old-school, classic cabaret—kind of Hollywood—but mixed with these industrial elements and urban-chic vibe that speaks to modern audiences. People are used to these old-school New York rooms that are very glamorous, but today’s audience also likes to have something that’s a little more hip.
IM: Is there anything you’ll be able to do at the Metzger Building that you couldn’t at the Columbia Club?
SF: We’d love to explore the edgier side of cabaret—when you’re in the middle of the Columbia Club, you have to be a little more thoughtful about what kinds of shows you bring in. I’m not saying we’re going to do burlesque, but just shows that might be a little more bawdy or have more of a statement to them, let’s say.
IM: What’s on tap for the new menu?
SF: We’re going to be a lot more focused on small plates, with just a few dinner options and full beverages. One of the things we’re working really hard on is pairing a wine with a show or a cocktail with a show. And we want to bring back table service for our audience.
IM: How many additional seats will you have?
SF: When we were in the Columbia Club, we could seat 142 to 150, depending on the night, and this will seat 172 to 180. We were selling out all our shows at 150, so we knew we either needed more nights or more seats. We want everyone that wants to come and see cabaret to be able to come. But we also don’t want it to be much bigger than 180, because intimacy is the key to cabaret.
IM: What’s your target number of performances?
SF: Right now we’re shooting for 40 performances next year, and we’d like to build upon that as audience demands. I’m not sure that we’re going to see an every-weekend cabaret for a little while. First we just want to get in and get doing business, you know?
IM: Anything else I should know?
SF: It’s going to be our 10-year anniversary next year. We never in a million years would have believed that we would be needing our own space in 10 years. We never expected to have the kind of growth we have. So, we’re just really excited that people in Indianapolis love this art form as much as we do.
The Cabaret will kick off its 2018 season at the Metzger Building early next year. Stay tuned for ticket announcements. www.thecabaret.org