Maven to Know: Shannon Forsell

The CEO and Artistic Director of The Cabaret shares how her world is powered by creativity, what she loves most about Indy, and the surprising product she can’t live without.

shannon forsell, CEO & Artistic Director, The Cabaret

Shannon Forsell is the CEO and Artistic Director of The Cabaret, Indiana’s only nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of professional cabaret performance. Their mission is to elevate and promote the art form by presenting the finest performances and developing the next generation of cabaret artists.

The 53-year-old is an Indianapolis native who lives just north of Broad Ripple with her husband of 30 years, David.

As someone who spent much of her childhood dreaming of becoming a performer, I was excited to learn more about Shannon and how she turned her love of the stage into a career.

Maven Superpower: Tenacity.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a graduate of DePauw University. While I had initially thought I wanted to perform full-time, I found the lifestyle of a performer difficult. I don’t have a thick skin, so constant rejection wears me down; I wasn’t willing to starve for my art, and I enjoy spending time with friends and my husband. 

Now I have the perfect fit. I get to experience some of the best performers in the world, perform when I want, and have a more balanced life with friends and family. As such, my solo cabaret show is titled Songs I Have Never Sung on Broadway: Confessions of a Star in Indiana and parts of Illinois. (Although I did sing on Broadway—as I grew up at 51st and Broadway in Meridian-Kessler.) Being a big fish in a small pond is good.

Briefly walk us through your journey of the past 11 years as the CEO and Artistic Director of The Cabaret.

My degree is in communication, with a minor in vocal performance. I knew that I could likely get a job performing without a degree, but I also had other interests and wanted to ensure stability.

It turned out that knowing marketing and public relations would be a good thing. My first performing job was as a repertory performer at American Cabaret Theatre, where I worked for over a decade in the 90s. In 2008, I was hired by American Cabaret Theatre to assist with marketing and start an intimate cabaret series, not unlike what we are now doing at The Cabaret.

Within a month of my tenure, the board announced that The Cabaret would have to change its model to survive, or shut down. The board asked if I would lead the charge with the intimate series. We experimented in a small venue, The Connoisseur Room (later Chef Joseph’s), to see if this would be something audiences wanted. They did. We then moved to a bigger space in the Columbia Club’s Crystal Terrace. In 2018 we moved into our very own, award-winning venue. 

What are the top skills you recommend learning for a role like yours?

Marketing. We are always pitching something—whether it is ourselves, our ideas, or to raise money. And relationship building. A leadership tip: Focus 80% of your work on your strengths and surround yourself with talented people who are better than you for the rest.

“Creativity can be used in almost any situation from problem-solving to creating beauty and joy in the world.”
Creativity is mostly associated with writing and art, but it’s also essential for coming up with innovative ideas and solutions to successfully run an organization. In what ways has being creative helped with the leadership side of your work?

Transforming American Cabaret Theatre into The Cabaret required (and still does) tremendous amounts of outside-the-box thinking. We had to take a beloved organization that was failing and keep what people loved about that organization, but give it a fresh, new life—all during an economic crisis, with the organization in debt.  That took creativity. 

I believed right-sizing the organization could help economically, while also offering a unique, high-quality product in the marketplace, and it worked. We took a $1 million budget, and shrank it by half, relieved the debt. Today the organization is still delivering unique, high-quality artistic experiences with a budget that has expanded to $1.3 million, in a venue unlike any other in Indianapolis. I didn’t do it alone. It took a variety of creative people. The creative process is more joyous with a group of like-minded people, each bringing ideas to the table to create something wondrous.

Can you name other ways your creativity comes in handy in other aspects of life?

Creativity can be used in almost any situation from problem-solving to creating beauty and joy in the world. My husband and I like to be surrounded by beauty, indoors and outdoors. We’ve lived in three homes, and we’ve transformed each landscape for the natural world. We love supporting birds, bees, and pollinators with our landscape, especially in a time when species are disappearing. I love interior design, and our last two homes have been completely different, one a Tudor and another a mid-century ranch.  As you might imagine, our furniture in the tudor wasn’t going to translate well to the mid-century home. So we sold all our furniture and started over. Definitely creative, and just a bit crazy, but we got it done!  

What do you do before bed?

I catch up on the day’s news with my digital Washington Post and the New York Times. Lately I have found that’s not a very restful habit, so I am going to make a change on that one.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

Getting to experience the performers we bring to The Cabaret stage. In a world where tough realities bombard you every day, being awed is a good thing. Also, watching the audiences and getting feedback from them that their lives have been made better by The Cabaret. 

What is a product you swear by that makes your day go smoother or you just plain love to have?

Conair blowout hair dryer. Sounds crazy but the large brush rotates so you have a smooth blowout in a snap! 

What do you love most about Indianapolis? 

I am a native of Indy. Like many feel about their hometown, I always thought I would leave, but the more I grew deep roots here, and the more I traveled, the more I realized the greatness of Indianapolis. You can carve out a niche, you can make your mark and make a difference. The people are warm, earnest and genuine. There is an amazing amount and variety of cultural offerings. There are great restaurants. And with the lower cost of living one can enjoy all of these things.

What is something you want people to know about you? 

Many people see me as an outgoing person always on the stage, as that is my public life. I am actually more of an introvert and need a lot of quiet and contemplation to balance and sustain a public life. Walks with my husband, birdwatching, gardening (except mulching), reading…I love and need these quiet pursuits. People who run organizations often have very busy minds and it can be exhilarating or exhausting, so I am trying to meditate more to clear out the clutter. For me, my greatest success is not going to work, but coming home to my husband.

Photo: Polina Osherov Photography

Lenie Tsakonas is a regular contributor to Indy Maven.

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