Shannon Forsell: Reinventing Cabaret 

click to enlarge Shannon Forsell, artistic director of The Cabaret at the Columbia Club
  • Shannon Forsell, artistic director of The Cabaret at the Columbia Club

Jane Monheit, the Grammy-nominated jazz diva, played the Cabaret at downtown's Columbia Club last September. During a break between sets, Shannon Forsell, the Cabaret's Artistic Director, took the stage to make a few announcements.

The high-ceilinged room, which holds 125, was packed. Monheit's performance, as technically sublime as it was emotionally robust, had lit up the place.

Forsell was beaming as she stood in front of the towering curtain that served as backdrop for Monheit's first set. "Isn't this room beautiful?' she asked.

Forsell was actually stating a fact. The Columbia Club was built on the Circle in 1925 in the grand, handcrafted style that might make you wonder whether its founders – the state's Republican leaders at that time – were republicans at heart or royalists.

But never mind. On this night, patrons in the Cabaret, whatever their political persuasion, were happily partaking of the magical feeling that used to be known as "class." When Forsell said that she felt like Cary Grant could walk into the room, we all knew exactly what she meant.

Then Forsell added an exclamation point to her presentation. Her assistants drew aside that enormous curtain, revealing the vertical thrust of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, glowing through a leaded glass window from the Circle across the street.

If anyone had doubted it before, they didn't now: The Cabaret at the Columbia Club is one unforgettable room.

Bloom where you're planted

How the Cabaret came to take up public residence at this once private preserve is one of the Indianapolis arts scene's great success stories. Just two years ago, in its original incarnation as the American Cabaret Theatre, the performing arts organization had all but imploded. Without a home and deeply in debt, in the midst of the greatest American economic meltdown since 1929, the enterprise's future seemed bleak.

That it was able to turn the situation around and successfully reinvent itself in so short a time shows what can happen when a singular, highly focused idea is given a chance to find its niche. In the case of the Cabaret, that idea found expression through Shannon Forsell.

"Bloom where you're planted," is one of Forsell's favorite sayings. She grew up in Indianapolis, the daughter of a dancer (her mother) and a scientist (her dad). Her first years were spent in Broad Ripple, at the corner of 51st and Broadway. Forsell's parents moved to Noblesville when it was time for her to go to high school.

This was in the '80s, the era that inspired the hit show Glee. Forsell participated in swing choir, although she's quick to say, "We were not singing like the kids on Glee, I can tell you that! Nobody sounded like that when I was in high school."

It was there that she met teacher Lynn Lupold. Lupold introduced her to cabaret singing and, when Forsell was a senior, helped produce her first cabaret show, a performance they called "Shannon On Her Own," a collection of show tunes and popular songs of the time.

Lupold offered Forsell the strongest encouragement a young performer can get: "She said, 'You should think about doing this for your livelihood,'" recalls Forsell. It was the beginning of a friendship and creative collaboration that continues to this day.

At that time, Forsell was listening to the likes of Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee. "I've always been in the wrong generation," she says.

Forsell studied music at DePauw University. But she bridled at the school's heavy emphasis on classical training. "I always felt like I didn't fit in the scene," she says. "I could do it and I could learn it, but I wanted the other side of it, too. If you were better suited to jazz or popular music or musical theater – which is what I wanted to do – there were so few opportunities for learning in that style."

When Forsell graduated from DePauw, she felt the need to relearn how to sing the music she loved the most. "When you learn classical singing, you learn to sing exactly the way it's written. But with cabaret or jazz, all that's out the window because if you sing it exactly as it's written it is the squarest thing ever. You have to learn intuitive singing."

Learning to sing popular forms of music also had a different physical dimension. Forsell credits local voice teacher Jeannie Logan with teaching her the fundamentals of vocal technique. "A person who sings soprano uses the voice in different ways. It's a different placement of how you use your instrument and where you place your power. If you don't learn how to do it right, you can damage your voice because you're using your throat instead of having everything open."

Forsell discovered that some things that had appeared to be drawbacks in her classical training could work to her advantage in other musical forms. "I don't read music that well," she says. "I'm kind of slow at it. In some ways that was good because I had to learn by ear. You phrase things differently and do things as a story, rather than as a song."

It was that storytelling aspect of singing that attracted Forsell to certain singers and types of material. "I'm a person that wants to listen to things that have a soul to them. I'm drawn to the stories of people living their lives. What I love about cabaret is that it doesn't fit a particular category. It's not just musical theater or just jazz, or folk – but it could be all those things. The commonality is that cabaret artists have something to say that you listen to. You are engaged in what is almost a conversation, as opposed to a passive engagement with a performer."

Understanding cabaret

Forsell had the good fortune to graduate from DePauw at almost the same time that Claude McNeal was starting the American Cabaret Theatre at the Athenaeum in downtown Indianapolis.

A cabaret pioneer, McNeal arrived in Indianapolis from New York with his own highly developed approach to cabaret performance. McNeal created what amounted to original revues that assembled a variety of musical styles around different topical themes. It was a style well suited to the Athenaeum's large performance space.

Almost immediately, the American Cabaret Theatre accomplished two things: it gave the Athenaeum — an historic building that had fallen into disrepair — a new lease on life, and provided young performers like Forsell with steady work – a rare opportunity in Indianapolis.

"We were blessed to have a place where we were working all the time," says Forsell. We were a core group, so we had to do it and do it well and learn what it meant to do it well."

Working in the Athenaeum's theater was a learning experience itself. Cabaret is typically an intimate kind of experience, where a premium is placed on the close proximity between artists and audience members. The Athenaeum's layout made this almost impossible. "That space taught me to be bigger than life," says Forsell. "At the same time, how to connect with the audience – not looking out toward them, but at them."

Ultimately, the ten years Forsell spent performing as part of the ACT company served as her gateway to cabaret itself.

"I can honestly say [ACT] is where I grew my love for cabaret and began to understand what it was," she says. "It was a wonderful place to learn the craft."

That craft has its origins in 19th-century Paris. The first cabaret, Le Chat Noir, was located in Montmartre and offered musicians and poets a chance to perform in a casual atmosphere where people felt free to eat and drink. Over time, cabaret evolved a number of forms, including comedy, burlesque and sociopolitical satire.

In the United States, speakeasies offered a jazz-inflected version of cabaret. New York City nightclubs like the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, the Café Carlyle and Feinstein's – the club at the Loews Regency founded by Michael Feinstein, now the Artistic Director at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts – feature singers associated with music from what's known as The Great American Songbook.

Cabaret, says Forsell, "is a cross between a nightclub and a theatrical experience. It's about being authentic, as opposed to being someone else. The older you get, the easier that is, in some ways. That's another reason I like the artform: you don't have to be an ingénue. In fact, being an ingénue is harder because you may not have as many experiences to build upon."

According to Forsell, cabaret is a theater of self-exposure, where there is nothing between the artist and audience. "It's not about a set. It's not about a costume. There is nothing there to either help or distract from you, the performer. So you better be able to captivate the crowd."

The best cabaret artists, she says, have stories to tell. "There will be a song you've heard a million times. The cabaret artist's job is to make you hear it for the first time. They'll use it in a story or connect to something you've never seen before."

Forsell believes the intimacy afforded by cabaret performance is an experience that many people are hungry for. "For a while, pop music was all flash," she says, "but we're finding that people are coming back to a more intimate take on life that allows them to bring it down and be drawn in, instead of having things coming at them."

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