Sunday, August 19, 2001

Cabaret coming to Newport

Shadowbox heads south to gain more exposure

By Anya Rao
Enquirer contributor

        There's a new theater about to open in the Tristate — and it's coming here as its first step toward taking its business national.

        But then, the Shadowbox Cabaret is not your typical theater. Audiences get a taste of all things entertaining under the cabaret's roof, including singing, dancing, one-act plays, rock 'n' roll and comedy. When not on stage, the performers serve food and drinks.

        It's also not a typical business — it has for- and not-for-profit branches.

        This montage of entertainment will open Oct. 3 at the developing Newport on the Levee.

        Shadowbox's slot in Newport on the Levee was driven by the success of its frequently sold-out shows at its theater in Columbus' Easton Town Center, said David Wechsler, a vice president at Steiner & Associates, the developers of both Easton and Newport.

        “Shadowbox has a great track record,” Mr. Wechsler said. “And there's really nothing like it in Cincinnati.”

The beginning

        The creation of what's being called Shadowbox Cabaret South is a significant step for Shadowbox, said Steven Guyer, executive producer, president, CEO and founder.

        Mr. Guyer has hopes of making it to one of the coasts. He sees the expansion to the Cincinnati area as an important steppingstone. “This is a good opportunity for us to make the transition from local to not-quite-so-local,” he said.

        The venture in Newport will be the third theater for the company, which emerged in 1990 with the production of Mr. Guyer's first rock opera in Columbus. At that time, everyone involved volunteered their time, and rehearsals were scheduled around day jobs, making it difficult to keep the group together between productions.

        To combat this problem, they formed the Shadowbox Theater in 1992 to expand their repertoire. They started performing one-act plays, including one show devoted to music and comedy. The audience response to this show pushed the group to focus on the combination of one-act premieres, comedy and music. Food and drinks were added, and the theater was renamed Shadowbox Cabaret.

        Mr. Guyer and company now operate the for-profit Shadowbox Cabaret in Columbus, which saw an audience of 46,000 in 2000. They also operate the nonprofit 2Co's Cabaret, which is considered a performance training ground for newer employees. 2Co's attendance was 7,000 in 2000, which was the theater's first year of operation.

        The 250-seat Shadowbox Cabaret South in Newport also will fall into the nonprofit category because there will be an educational component. The staff is made up primarily of performance newcomers, who will receive rigorous training.

The best of "SNL'

        Shadowbox combines so many different artistic elements into one production that even the 8,000 audience “regulars” in Columbushave trouble describing the cabaret, Mr. Guyer said.

        “Most comparisons are lacking, but it's like SNL (Saturday Night Live)when it was funny. But with food and drinks, with a great band that you'll know most of the music that's playing, and with theatrical premieres,” he said.

        “It's hard to encapsulate, which leaves it somewhat mysterious. People have to show up to see for themselves,” Mr. Guyer said.

        Shadowbox Cabaret's audience is even harder to pinpoint. There is no clear demographic, Mr. Guyer said. Ethnicity of the crowd is varied, audience members come from all economic groups, and their ages range from teens to late 70s.

        Whatever is drawing this diverse crowd to Shadowbox's Columbus theaters is proving effective. The company grossed $1.7 million in 2000, and the forecast for 2001 is more than $2 million. This gives it the largest budget of any theater company in central Ohio.

        Mr. Guyer's background is just as atypical as the cabaret itself. He participated in theater productions in high school but didn't particularly enjoy it. After school he spent six years in a rock band. He later worked as a landscaper, which gave him business knowledge, and he sold insurance, which he cited as the best teaching aid for acting.

        “I eventually went back to theater after I saw a spectacular show and I auditioned. It reminded me how much I liked music,” Mr. Guyer said. From there he began writing rock operas, leading him to the formation of Shadowbox.
Long days

        The more than 80 paid employees and several volunteers work hard to make the company a success, which sometimes requires a 12-hour workday, said Stacie Boord, general manager for the Newport location and longtime veteran performer with the group. Ms. Boord joined the cabaret at its inception, forgoing her planned career as an opera singer.

        Like Mr. Guyer and Ms. Boord, all employees have more than one job duty. Part of working at Shadowbox includes helping to run the day-to-day business, as well as perform in shows at night.

        While employees don't make a lot of money (the average salary at Newport will be $12,000 a year), they do receive free intensive, ongoing training, from vocal classes to comedy workshops.

        Mr. Guyer impresses upon the staff that he doesn't care if someone makes a mistake, as long as he or she is giving 100 percent effort.

        Much of the work performed is written in-house, but Shadowbox also has a network of theaters, playwrights and agents across the country from which it draws short plays.

        The performers for Newport's cabaret have already been selected and are spending the summer in “boot camp” training in Columbus, said Ms. Boord. Eight of the about 30 new employees are from the Cincinnati area.

Maintaining control

               Everything at Shadowbox started as nonprofit, said Ms. Boord. However, the theater at Easton became for-profit in 1999 with the opening of 2Co's.

        “We decided Easton should become for-profit because most of the training would be done at 2Co's,” Mr. Guyer said. “It didn't have that educational status anymore (to be a nonprofit), so it seemed more legit.”

        The group decided early on not to accept government grants so it wouldn't have to answer to anyone, besides the audience, regarding the show's content. That attention to the audience is an essential business focus.

        “We pay a lot of attention to our patrons,” Mr. Guyer said. “We supply them with extremely personal service, give it as much energy as we can and we never ever forget to thank them.”

        Mr. Guyer said the new theater is one of many goals coming to fruition for the company.House band BillWho? recently released a CD, and the company also produced a short comedy video.

        “We've got the future in our hands, it's what we make of it. We will stumble and make mistakes, but that's OK because we are very good at picking up and moving on,” Mr. Guyer said.


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