Saturday, October 31, 2015

We're Still Here

The Downtown Cabaret Theatre -- A Study in Survival

Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all
And, my dear, I’m still here
Plush velvet sometimes
Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here

Those are the opening lines of “I’m Still Here” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The show is about a group of actors reuniting in a Broadway theater that’s scheduled for demolition, but it could easily have been written about the Hallinan family and the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport. Through good times and bad, triumphs and trials, fanfares and flops, the DCT has managed to survive and is, hopefully, about to enjoy a renaissance under the leadership of Hugh Hallinan, the venue’s executive producer.

Located at 263 Golden Hill Street, just steps up from the Bridgeport police department, the theater has been “tempest tossed’ several times, and lesser folks might have allowed the vessel to capsize and sink beneath the waters, but the Hallinans are theater-folk, and as another song suggests, “There’s no people like show people.”

It all began in 1975, when shows first started being produced at the Sacred Heart University Cabaret. Initial success led to a search for a more permanent venue and a building in Bridgeport that once housed the YWCA was considered. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse.

Hugh Hallinan
In a recent interview, Hugh Hallinan explained what might be called the love-hate relationship the theater has had with the city. “When Richard (Hugh’s father) got here in 1980,” Hallinan said, “we had no way to measure what state Bridgeport was in, having just come from another country (Ireland). At that point, Richard stepped into a dark theater – as my recollection goes – and the mayor encouraged him and said ‘We’re on the rebound and in five years Bridgeport will be thriving. Well, Nineteen eighty-five came and went, 1990 came and went, and in 1996, when the state awarded us a million dollars, we felt the momentum was growing, we felt that there was a reason we had put 16 years into this theater. That kept us going until about 2005. It was hope and optimism that got us that far, and I think that’s the ultimate answer to the question of ‘Why?’”

From the beginning, the Hallinan’s have had to deal with the ‘image’ that Bridgeport presented to the rest of the state. “Let’s go to Bridgeport for a meal and then take in a show” was not a statement heard in many Connecticut homes. Right or wrong, lurking in the minds of many was the idea that Bridgeport just wasn’t “safe.”

A reminder of the building's history
Richard Hallinan died in 2006, and in 2007 Hugh had to begin the process of renegotiating the property’s lease with the city. He remembers walking up the steps of city hall to make a pitch to the city council to renew the lease and said to the chairman of the DCT board who had accompanied him, “You know, I think the city is coming back. It’s starting to happen.” The chairman’s response: “Not in our lifetime.”

Running a theater is a tough task at best, and Hallinan often ponders how much of his time and talents have been used, or ‘underutilized,” as he put it, to deal with being in Bridgeport rather than focusing on making the Cabaret thrive, questioning if he’s “been using his time wisely.” He paused a moment to calculate the years he has given to the Cabaret and then said: “This year I’ll be 53, and you kind of wonder – you’ve got probably one good fight left in you to do something sizeable.” He went silent for a moment.

Should he leave Bridgeport, move on? Hallinan isn’t sure. “There’s a method to doing business in Bridgeport and it uses up about one-third of your mental resources. The flip-side of that is that if you were in a town where you don’t have to deal with an image perception, your resources could be put to better use.”

And yet, though he has the talent and the “creds” to earn a living in the theater world – he has, for example, done the lighting for many nationally touring shows – there are things that have held him in place and motivated him to keep DCT afloat.

A view of the theater from the stage
“Part of the equation that slowed me down, at a point when I might have made a change, was I had my son in 2000 and that took me out of the national lighting design field because I had to be home for him. Basically, being a single parent, I needed to be around for him. I had to step away from designing so many national tours, which was really my bread and butter at the time, and start focusing on the theater here.”

And yet…there’s something else, perhaps less tangible than the responsibility of raising a son but no less real, that holds Hallinan in place, and that is measured in the years he, his father and his mother, Susan, have devoted to the Cabaret. It is something that you don’t walk away from easily. “There’s a part of me,” Hallinan said, “that believes that Bridgeport can turn the corner.

And yet…Hallinan does not lay all of DCT’s past troubles at Bridgeport’s doorstep. He recognizes that he and his parents have sometimes loved the theater not wisely but too well. In the past, when DCT was producing its own shows, Hallinan suggested that in an effort to give the audience what it wanted the shows were over-produced, perhaps by as much as thirty-five or forty percent. He estimated that back then, each show cost around $300,000 to board. The telling point was in 2006, when DCT staged Sweet Charity.

“That was the last show we fully produced under our Equity contract,” Hallinan said. “Business wasn’t good. We actually cut the run short. We closed the production in the beginning of May and two weeks later Richard died. We had pulled every last favor, we had scraped together every last dime to mount that show and do it in such a way that no corners were cut. We wanted to make sure – it was always our philosophy: never cut corners.” It didn’t matter.

The children's dressing room
Quite simply, DCT ran out of money and the question obviously arose, why not reorganize? To add salt to the multiple wounds, DCT’s children’s theater was, in Hallinan’s words, “floundering.” So, he turned his attention to that aspect of the business while asking himself, “What can we bring in that wouldn’t be as expensive as an Equity show?” The answer was tribute shows – pre-packaged productions with a limited cast that would require DCT to essentially just provide the space and technical support. The first show was a tribute to the Beatles – She Loves You -- and it was a success. This was a followed by a Johnny Cash show – again, a success, and both were produced for about twenty-five percent of what a full Equity production might have cost. These two were followed by a tribute to the Rolling Stones. Hallinan said he hadn’t been sure about this one.

“Just bringing in a Rolling Stones tribute show that we had no control over, that we hadn’t been a part of the artistic process, made me nervous.” However, his focus was now on the children’s productions so, a bit hesitant, he booked the show.

“You know,” he said, smiling wryly, “I stood in the back of the theater and I looked at the audience and I said, ‘Well, there’s a lesson learned.’ The audience was enthusiastic. They were up on their feet.” So Hallinan actively went in search of other tribute acts. There was little or no work involved – all DCT had to do was provide the stage, the lights, “and, of course, the cabaret atmosphere,” an atmosphere that, Hallinan admitted, he had come to take for granted, perhaps not recognizing just how important that aspect of the theater-going evening it was to DCT’s survival.

So, DCT was still breathing, and the children’s theater was alive and again well. Hallinan believed that at least this aspect of DCT’s existence was stable, would go on forever but, of course, nothing goes on forever.

“A situation arose,” Hallinan said, “that made us aware that we had no choice. It was mid-season, it was mid-run of a show, and the people who were primarily responsible for the production, the acting, the writing and directing, the costume designs – well, we had to terminate our relationship.”

With that, the children’s company was, as Hallinan put it, “turned upside down.” As Hallinan remembered it, the company stumbled and staggered for several years, relying on book productions that were very uneven. Standards declined and the audience sensed it. Attempts were made to stabilize the situation by using some Disney Junior shows, but they were very expensive. And then…well, in the theater business you just never know. One day, a man named Phill Hill, who had been the stage manager for the children’s theater since 2007, dropped a script on Hallinan’s desk. It was for a show called Robin Hood that Hill had written. Being a bit dyslexic, Hallinan turned the script over to his mother for perusal with less than high expectations.

“About three hours later,” Hallinan said, “she calls me up and says, ‘It’s brilliant.’ Phill now is in his second full season of writing all of the shows. And the accolades are coming in, we’re hearing people say ‘You’re back to where you were.’ That was a long ride from 2007 to 2013.”

Serendipity. In theater as in life, if you stay the course, sooner or later something will happen, something will change. Hill had been there all along, watching, learning, and he had talent. The children’s theater was once again in good hands, but what about the main stage productions? Yes, DCT could continue to bring in tribute shows, but Hallinan was starting to get the urge to once again stage musicals.

Having recognized the over-production syndrome, Hallinan realized that if DCT was going to once again stage musicals it would have to do so with a closer eye on the bottom line, which meant that productions would have to be staged on a more limited budget but, as he suggested, “You can enjoy a great steak, but you can also enjoy a hamburger if it is well made.”

As Hallinan began thinking about once again staging musicals, across town the Bridgeport Theater Company was out on the street after Playhouse on the Green closed. Hallinan met with Eli Newsom, who asked if BTC could use DCT’s theater. Hallinan had concerns, primarily about what he called “branding” – in other words, would the audience know who was doing and responsible for what? So Hallinan said no, but that didn’t deter Newsom. Three weeks later Newsom was back and again asked if BTC could use the theater.

 “I’m a bit of a pushover,” Hallinan said. He agreed, but stipulated that it had to be clear that they would be BTC shows. He was also honest with Newsom: “I’m going to give you some pretty crappy time slots, you know, like when it snows a lot.” Eager for a venue, Newsom agreed.

The productions went forward, but Hallinan was still concerned about image – not that BTC was producing inferior work, but rather the confusion among patrons as to whose work they were actually seeing. However, Hallinan gave BTC a second season and, as these things happen, he was slowly drawn into what BTC was doing.

“I was starting to get involved,” Hallinan said. “My artistic eye was starting to contribute to the production standards, and towards the end of last summer – May of 2014 – well, it was a significant time.” It was significant because DCT had to shut down so the building’s owner could attend to asbestos abatement. In other words, the building had to essentially be torn apart. During this time, Hallinan once again attempted to say goodbye to BTC with the idea that DCT was, once the building was again up to code, about to start producing its own shows again. If so, there would be a conflict. Hallinan said that Newsom seemed to understand, but…there’s always a way. So…

Hallinan explained: “I said, Eli, if you agree to come in and run what we want to do, pretty much do what you’re doing now, but for us…well, that’s what turned out to be the case. He agreed. And so, we started planning. I would have had to go out and hire someone to help produce the shows, but I couldn’t think of anyone better to do that than Eli. He’s sharp. He’s artistic. He’s got youth and he’s got energy, and that’s what we need. So he has become the artistic director and I am the executive producer.”

And so it goes. At one point, DCT was bringing in 80,000 patrons a year. That fell to a low of 35,000 per year. The patronage is now back up to 60,000. Memphis was successfully staged in the fall. Coming up will be Fiddler on the Roof (December), The Great Gatsby (February), Evita (March), and American Idiot (spring of 2016).

The children’s theater is once again on target and there will be a series of Main Stage Concerts, single evenings that will continue to offer tribute shows. The building where DCT is housed is now asbestos-free, there are new offices, and a staff that had once been reduced to three is now back up to seven.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix was a bird that cyclically was regenerated or reborn, arising out of its ashes. The Downtown Cabaret Theatre is currently not considering changing its name, but if it ever does, it might consider that magical bird.

I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here

Look who’s here, I’m still here.