Shannon and The Cabaret

Contributing editor, Urban Times

Remarkable Women of the arts
Second in a series on women who have built arts organizations into the successes they are today. Part I, in the April issue, focused on Victoria Lyras of the Indianapolis School of Ballet and Indianapolis Ballet Co.

‘People are like, where’s The Cabaret now?” Shannon Forsell sat in the middle of a ’20s Deco time capsule, gesturing to the room around her – the fourth venue for The Cabaret since it rose from the ashes of the old American Cabaret Theatre a decade ago.

“Where is The Cabaret now? Forsell repeated. “This is where we are. There is no mistake!”

Forsell, the artistic director and CEO of The Cabaret, recounted the journey the organization took to get to this place, figuratively and literally. For her, the culmination came by way of the restoration of the historic marquee on the exterior of the building. The main performance room, designed by Ratio Architects, features a golden arch over the stage, glam chandeliers, champagne-colored chairs around small tables, and just enough of an industrial feel to keep guests rooted in the 21st century.

An anonymous donor sponsored the stage and declared it be named for the still-living (and somewhat happily embarrassed) Forsell, whose name is painted on the walls in large gold letters. “I also think that when I am gone, I’m going to put my urn under there, with a little spotlight on it, so I can still be, like, watching over it. They’re going to be, like, ‘how creepy is that!’ Bedazzled, a little bedazzled urn,” Forsell said with a laugh.

Located at 924 Pennsylvania Ave., an address and main entrance shared by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, this permanent home of The Cabaret went through many iterations over the last century.

“It’s a ’20s building, I think,” Forsell explained. “I feel like there was a printing company and I think there were things in between – but for the longest period of time, from the ’40s to 1979, was Rollerland Then was Jimmy’s, which was a very popular gay bar in the ’80s and ’90s. Forsell admitted she performed cabaret there during that time, performances that might not be appropriate today on The Cabaret’s stage. 

Past uses of the building included a bar called The Jaguar, and, most recently, as indoor parking for the Arts Council of Indianapolis. Building owners Buckingham Companies, a Downtown developer, restored the marquee, lighting it back up for the first time since Rollerland closed in 1979.

“So, a unique history is appropriate,” Forsell said. “Roller skating, a gay bar, now jazz bag pipes…”

That’s right. Jazz bagpipes.

Swedish musician Gunhild Carling brought the concept to Indianapolis and The Cabaret in November 2018. For the uninitiated, jazz bagpipes sound more like a quickly played saxophone than the kilted Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers. Forsell lit up when describing Carling’s performance.

“She can play three trumpets at the same time. She’s like a one-woman Vaudeville show, but super talented, and then she plays jazz bag pipes. She’ll play all 11 instruments all within the same song,” Forsell said. “I’m mesmerized by just the talent. That is so uncategorizable [sic] that it can only be called ‘cabaret.’”

Shannon Forsell has lived her life in cabaret. She knows cabaret. She loves cabaret.

Forsell received her music degree from DePauw University, intent on becoming a performer. Shortly after graduation, she was hired by the American Cabaret Theater, the predecessor to The Cabaret. She found a home and a place to grow, especially in the larger ensemble, review-style shows performed during that time in the Athenaeum theater.

“There were many people in the show, but they still had a cabaret edge to them. They made you think about things a different way, look at a song a different way, because that’s one of the markers of cabaret. If you’ve heard this song, a lot of performers will do it in a way where you’re like ‘Wow! I never thought about the song that way!’ That’s just something totally different,” Forsell said.

“They were a resident company for 20 years and I was in almost all of their shows for ten years, when I was young and skinny,” Forsell said with a laugh. “Then I retired from

doing that, and went on and got a communications and marketing job. And then a whole bunch of things started to collide. The (American Cabaret Theatre’s) founding director retired and he was the person who kind of created those shows, and the agreement for the original lease went up, more than doubled, and the economy tanked. All in the same year, 2007 and ’08.”

Forsell described a large and storied organization undergoing an identity and financial crisis. The lease was unaffordable, many of their usual audience members were suffering the instant loss of home value or savings, and preserving large ensemble performances without a permanent home just felt untenable. The American Cabaret was at a turning point.

“Are we just going to say this was fun? Or are we going restructure this whole thing? And how can we have the magic of what was sort of the heyday of this organization?” Forsell said.

Forsell was tapped to help with artistic work, reimagining the performance style and what the new Cabaret would offer. But on her first day, she discovered the executive director had resigned, and everyone remaining had gotten a good look at the financial situation. “I’d already left my other job, so they said how do you feel about helping us restructure? And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have anything else to do! Let’s try it!’” Forsell said.

Forsell had spent some time in the previous year traveling to New York City and Ireland on a grant via the Arts Council of Indianapolis, studying cabaret in different settings. She said she based the “vibe” of this new, stripped-down plan on what she considered to be the best New York cabaret rooms. The new, reimagined Cabaret then spent a decade moving around to various locations, hosted by other venues such as the Connoisseur Room, the Columbia Club, and Indiana Landmarks – gaining momentum and a strong following no matter the address.

But a dedicated location would allow The Cabaret to host more performances, and to not have to compete with the more lucrative rental activities that often took place on prime performance days.

At the same time, Forsell decided to take The Cabaret down a path different than similar organizations around the country. She recognized that most cabaret rooms were for-profit entities, and she felt that a non-profit status for The Cabaret in Indianapolis would be a stronger way to go. An educational component became central to the non-profit mission, and a partnership was established with Ball State University and area high schools.                                

Forsell doesn’t find that many opportunities to perform anymore, but she’s okay with that. So much of her time is taken up with administration duties – and she loves seeing the results of her current work. She fully appreciates how hard it can be to be up on the stage, and how hard the regular staff of eight (including herself) works to pull off the newly expanded calendar.

All of that hard work frames the vulnerability the artists offer on stage. With no “fourth wall,” as in plays or musicals, cabaret artists can either be at the mercy of their audience, or find a way to connect with them.

“First of all, you have to decide, what am I going to share? And what am I going to say that is worth saying, and how vulnerable am I going to be – because they (the audience) want you to be vulnerable, and if you’re not, then you don’t have anything to give them,” Forsell said.

“We don’t have a connection if we don’t have any sort of common connection, so you have to be willing enough to put yourself out there and know that some people might not like it. People will like it, and you’re close enough to see their faces if they don’t.

“We all have these universal joys and struggles, it seems like, and you find out they’re human just like everyone else, but then they mesmerize you in the middle of it,” Forsell continued. “It’s just really about common humanity in this room and that’s what I love about it. It’s just real.”

The scheduled performances at The Cabaret are varied in their genre and tone, making for an eclectic set of offerings. Forsell described the various types of cabaret, based on their regions of origin. The “European style” of the art form is typically more “saucy” while the “American style” has an intertwining history with jazz. There are other cabaret rooms in Indianapolis, focusing on other styles or incubating new local acts, but Forsell sees The Cabaret as centered more on the American style, sometimes stepping into the European style, but always with the mission of presenting the best of the best in cabaret.

Her efforts have paid off. American-style cabaret has, historically, been centered on the coasts – New York and California – with even Chicago lacking a large cabaret presence (despite a musical portraying otherwise). The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently declared Indianapolis to be the cabaret capital of the Midwest, due to the success of this dedicated venue.

In mid-March, and as part of Women’s History Month, Broadway star Capathia Jenkins sang alongside Louis Rosen, her friend and composer. For the opening act, true to the educational mission of The Cabaret, a pair of students from the Asante Children’s Theatre sang to piano accompaniment as their classmates cheered from their section. The lead-in is most frequently handled by Ball State students.

Jenkins and Rosen took the stage, often sitting on or leaning against stools, with only Rosen’s guitar, or a piano and stand-up bass to carry them. To older millennials, or to Generation X, the presentation style recalls “MTV Unplugged,” complete with side stories (called “patter” in the cabaret world). Jenkins and Rosen told or sang stories of their work together, their backgrounds, and their families. Some songs were touching (“I sing for you, I sing for me, I sing for love…”), and others offered witty exchange (“Like Michelle needs Barack, like Barack needs Michelle, I need you like a preacher needs hell…”).

On that particular evening, Forsell was home on a rare sick day, but The Cabaret hummed along, a testament to her hard work; that the show can go on without a need for micromanagement, with no hiccups is evidence her staff trusts her, and she trusts her staff.

“Shannon is fantastic,” said Greg Showalter, as he ushered guests to their seats. “She’s an artist. She comes from the American Cabaret Theatre. She had many leading roles as the ingénue, but she decided to stay in Indianapolis instead of going to Broadway. She’s a realist, but also her heart is in the right place and she stayed home. So we’re really glad to have her.”

Even the guests were very impressed by their experience. Cabaret first-timer Terri Ware was taken by the elegance of the setting and the intimacy with the performers.

“When I started reading about it after I knew I was going to be coming, I was pretty impressed with everything I read. I just didn’t realize we had something quite like this,” Ware said. “But it’s very impressive. Fabulous job. Fabulous job. It’s perfect. I can’t think of anything I’d change of it.”