The Oregon Cabaret Theatre is hitting full stride with the introduction of their latest show Picasso at the Lapin Agile. A truly immersive play, the audience will enter the environment of a Parisian cafe in 1904 and be treated to a show that places them front and center in rich cultural immersion. There is no bad seat in the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, and to make it even more real, the show serves a themed dinner menu of traditional French cuisine. In today’s interview I speak with Managing Director Rick Robinson and Artistic Director Valarie Rachelle about the growing art of immersive theatre. We reflect on the 2018 season and are introduced to the 2019 line up. Get ready for a truly interesting and engaging theatre interview.
Hi Rick and Valerie, congratulations on the success of the 2018 season and welcome back to LocalsGuide!
Val: Thank you so much! It’s been an amazing year and we continue to be inspired by, and grateful for, the fantastic audiences we have had. We keep pushing ourselves and breaking new ground for OCT, and the response from our patrons has just been wonderful!
Rick: We continue to learn and grow with each season, and I think we’ve reached a place where audiences really trust us to deliver a top-notch theatrical and dining experiences. We entertain, delight, and feed our patrons, but also provide the soul food of artistic depth and nuance that fulfills them in a different way. We couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of this terrific artistic community.
To begin with, how about giving us an overview of highlights from the 2018 season?
Rick: We feel like we tore the roof off with our first show of the season – Million Dollar Quartet. It was a rock and roll musical about the true story of a night in 1956 when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis all found themselves at the same recording studio. The cast was truly spectacular and when those four titans of rock were on stage together our audiences went wild! I honestly haven’t seen anything quite like it at the Cabaret and after the first week word of mouth was so terrific that we quickly sold out the run and added performances to boot – and that was just the first show of the season!
Val: Then we upped the ante again with our beautiful production of one of my favorite musicals, Once – another Tony Award-winning musical that digs deep into what it costs to be an artist and to have the courage to live with your heart open. What made this production extra special for the Cabaret was the cast of 11 actors that all also played multiple instruments. At one point we had close to 40 instruments in the rehearsal room and it was absolutely spectacular. With Avenue Q, Associate Artistic Director Galloway Stevens, who, as an actor, is a favorite with Cabaret patrons, had an opportunity to direct, and he created the fun and funny (if not always sunny) world of “Sesame Street for grown-ups”. We took a risk with Avenue Q – its straightforward approach to taboo subjects like race relations and sex definitely pushed boundaries for us, but again our audiences responded enthusiastically!
Rick: One indicator that we are providing quality theatre to our patrons is the response we have had in 2019 season subscription sales. Our subscription sales through the end of September are higher than they have ever been.
Picasso is also opening up new territory as an immersive theatre experience and a themed menu…wow!
Rick: Yes! We have been moving in this direction for the last couple of shows and are going a step farther with the inspired French cuisine for Picasso at the Lapin Agile. We have so many patrons that come again and again to our productions that changing at least some of the menu offerings for each show has always been the idea, and now we are moving towards menus themed for the setting of each production. This not only keeps the dining fun and exciting for our patrons, but also allows them to connect to the world of the play before it has even begun, creating a more complete theatrical experience. Our new head chef Chris McSevney, has really been instrumental in the new direction for our menus. A native of Scotland, Chris brings to the Cabaret a decade of chef experience in restaurants all over the world. For Picasso he will be drawing on his extensive experience with traditional and modern French cuisine, and yes, we will be offering a delicious preparation of rabbit, or as the French would say, lapin, on our menu for Picasso! It’s an exciting new way for the Cabaret to continue to create a unique and immersive theatrical experience that other theatres can’t provide.
How did the smoke effect your season this year?
Rick: For us, the show went on – thanks in part to our new air conditioners. The Cabaret was able to stay cool and smoke free! We, like OSF next door, certainly noticed a decrease in overall tourism that affected the number of patrons, but it certainly didn’t ruin our season. For folks coming to the Cabaret, the trip didn’t have to be ruined just because of bad weather.
That’s good to hear!
Val: It is! The Cabaret was a place for people to get away from the weather – and so our season proved to be pretty smoke-resistant, which we are very grateful for!
I am curious to hear how you assembled the cast for this diverse season – Million Dollar Quartet alone must have really pushed the boundaries.
Val: Yes it was an incredible challenge to cast this season, especially because the needs of each show were so specific. Like you mentioned, for Million Dollar Quartet we had to find Elivs, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins – and these actors needed to BE these icons of rock, in their look, their acting, and their playing. We did find them through an extensive national search, augmented by over 2,000 video audition submissions from around the world. We literally had performers who were headlining cruise ships, submitting auditions from the middle of the ocean. I also make annual trips to New York to do large casting calls with my NY based casting director Jonathan Hoover. Our reputation as a place that treats its artists well has grown, so we have had more and more success in our NY casting trips – we now have to expand to two full days of auditions just to see everyone we want to see. Actors who come once want to come back, and as the positive word of mouth continues to grow we get more and more submissions, and more and more talented professionals from all over coming to the Cabaret.
Your show Once also took things to another level requiring eleven live instruments being played at one time.
Val: Once was really exciting for many reasons, but the ensemble instrumental aspect of it was perhaps my favorite part. The show really deals with the power of music to express difficult emotions, to expand our awareness, and ultimately to heal us and make us whole – and those moments when the entire cast was up there playing their hearts out together were some of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced at the Cabaret. What was really crazy, from a backstage perspective, was the unseen ballet of swapping instruments behind the scenes as guitars had to be quickly switched to accommodate the need for new tuning between songs, or instruments had to be restrung or traded out for a completely different instrument.
Rick: Another exciting element of the production was the immersive pre-show experience. The cast acted as a group of buskers playing music on the streets of Dublin for “passersby” – which in this case meant the audience. They would take turns leading the group in their favorite songs, each pre-show was unique, and they would even take song requests from patrons; it was a great way to draw audiences in and make them a part of the music and the sense of community in the show from the very start.
Rick and Val, what feedback are you hearing from your customers as you continue to evolve the Oregon Cabaret Theatre?
Val: Patron response has been amazing! You always hope that as you continue to grow and evolve as an organization, your customers will trust you and go with you even if things don’t stay exactly the same – and we have really found that to be overwhelmingly true! Once and Avenue Q were pushing some thematic and artistic boundaries for the Oregon Cabaret and our audiences, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive and an affirmation that we are on the right path as a theatre.
Rick: Yes, people have really come to trust our vision and us over the last few years. Audience members have personally stopped me to tell me on many occasions this season that these are some of the best shows they’ve seen at the Cabaret.
Do you think that the culture will be moving more and more towards immersive theatre models?
Rick: I think so, yeah. It’s getting so almost everyone has access to an endless library of film to watch, stories to absorb on the devices they carry with them, so how do you differentiate? How do you capture the imagination of people in 2018 and beyond? And I do think that immersion is key. Ours is an immediate, present, shared experience. You can taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it. When you laugh, it’s a shared experience with others. It’s not something that can be replicated on a device, and I think the fact that we’re seeing younger people come in to our theatre speaks to that.
Val: Yes, Avenue Q did indeed attract more of the twenty-something crowd, and they really responded to both the show and the overall experience of the Cabaret.
Val, what would you say continues to inspire you and Rick to keep pushing forward?
Val: The short answer is the Art! The art that we have been able to create in the last four years has been incredibly inspiring, and every year we are able to do a little more. The way we’re going to bridge the gap to where we want to be is by getting better each show, by bringing in these amazingly talented professional actors, designers, and technicians who enable us to create better art. Every year we see new potential in OCT and work hard to see that potential realized – but the most inspiring part is that you’re truly never done when you create art. You can always dig a little deeper, reach a little farther, and connect a little more to the human experience. We love what we do and we won’t stop pushing ourselves to make OCT the very best it can be on every level. The support we’ve had from our audiences has also been crucial to keeping us inspired and on-track – we truly couldn’t do it without them!
I am also curious to hear what it means to be a professional theatre company and how this differentiates the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in the Valley?
Rick: Yes, the Cabaret is a professional theatre company, which really means that everyone is paid professional, competitive wages for their work in rehearsal and in performance. In the Rogue Valley, there are only two resident companies of which this is true – the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’re also excited to announce that we’re moving to a transitional Actors’ Equity contract for 2019, which will mean more Actors Equity professionals in our shows moving forward.
Val: Our actors are professionals, meaning they primarily act for a living, as are our designers and technicians. Art belongs to everyone, but when art is your career you have to hold yourself to a very high standard in order to be hireable in a very competitive market. I would say there are few careers more difficult than being a professional artist, but what it means to the Cabaret is that we get the best local talent and are a draw for talented people nationally. Thanks to our New York audition tours, thousands of video auditions, and the extensive network of professional connections I’ve built over the years, we have really been able to hire amazing artists from around the nation and beyond that come to OCT to make some amazing art – I think the shows we’ve done so far this year is a testament to that. It also doesn’t hurt that Ashland is such a beautiful place that many working artists in New York are eager to take a break from the city.
We are now moving towards the holiday show Every Christmas Story Ever Told. What can we look forward to?
Rick: I’ll take this one! I’m really looking forward to directing this show – it’s going to be a great time for the whole family! The show is essentially a delightful buffet of beloved Christmas stories, performed with glee by a company of only three actors. It’s a celebration of everything Christmas, the silly to the somber moments, the hectic to the heartfelt, and is full of the laughter, the joy, and the traditions that make the season so special. Folks coming to Every Christmas Story Ever Told are going to get everything they need to jumpstart the season – the stories, the songs, delicious food, and plenty of good cheer. We are also bringing some well-beloved actors back to our stage, Matt Koenig (last seen in 2017’s Baskerville) and Katie Beck (‘SWonderful, 9 to 5, The 39 Steps, Chicago), as well as newcomer Eleise Moore!
And now for the moment everyone has been waiting for! Please introduce us to the 2019 lineup.
Val: Yes! It’s going to be an incredible season. We open our 34th season with Beehive: the 60’s Musical, the ultimate celebration of 1960’s female empowerment and featuring classic songs from 60s icons like Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner. With hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back”, “Be My Baby”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, and “Me and Bobby McGee”.
Rick: After Beehive, we will present a show I’m working on – a fast-paced, comedic, world premiere adaptation called Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of the Four. It’s a fast-paced, comedic adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel. The show will feature quick changes, a plethora of memorable suspects and allies, and an onstage boat chase. Matt Koenig returns to the Cabaret stage as Holmes and Galen Schloming returns as Watson, the two having previously played the iconic duo at the Cabaret in 2017.
Val: And then another one of my personal favorites – Mamma Mia! – and I get to direct it! Thanks to the recent movie sequel, Mamma Mia fever is still hot, but for those who don’t know the show, this smash hit musical features the music of ABBA, and tells the story of a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her wedding. She brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they had last visited 20 years ago. We are once again raising the bar on how many people we can have on the Cabaret stage. This is a big, bright joyous musical and we’ll be bringing in the Cabaret’s biggest ever cast of triple threat professional talent. This thing is going to absolutely lift people out of their seats with big production numbers like “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Money, Money, Money” and “Take a Chance on Me” – I can’t wait!
Rick: The fourth Cabaret show will be Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, featuring Cabaret favorite Galloway Stevens as Sweeney and artistic director Valerie Rachelle as Mrs. Lovett.
Val: I’m so excited for us to be doing this!
Rick: The Tony Award-winning gothic masterpiece tells the story of Sweeney Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, who returns to London seeking vengeance on a lecherous judge who framed him. It’s really going to be an incredible show – and just wait to see what Chef Chris has planned for the menu!
Val: Then the Cabaret will finish its season with Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play. It’s the holiday story about Santa that everyone knows and loves, but this show includes live music in a radio studio setting where out patrons are the studio audience watching the Foley effects produced live. We’ve received a lot of attention for the shows we’ve produced so far in 2018 – Million Dollar Quartet, Once, and Avenue Q, but if you think we’ve reached the top of what this professional theatre company is capable of, just buckle up for 2019. We’re going to blow you away.
Right now is the time for members to renew their subscriptions to the Cabaret. How do we do this? Please, also tell us about your new ticketing system.
Rick: Absolutely! We just switched to a new system designed to make purchasing tickets and renewing subscriptions easier than ever. Simply go to our website: oregoncabaret.com and click on subscriptions. This is the first time we’ve been able to offer a full ‘pick your seat’ ticketing system online, and it should make booking your Oregon Cabaret Theatre experience even more convenient. We are also always happy to help you get your tickets over the phone (541) 488-2902 or send us an email at email@example.com. I think our subscriptions are the best ‘bang for your theatre buck’ value in town – we’re giving you 7 phenomenal, professional shows for $165. Compare this to other companies’ offerings and then we’ll see you at our box office.
Oregon Cabaret Theatre
241 Hargadine St, Ashland, OR