The main stage of Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre is rocked with a symphony of saws buzzing through wood and hammers banging nails into place. The focus of this activity is the construction of Oceania, the dystopian realm of George Orwell’s “1984” where even the slightest dissent against Big Brother’s omnipresent authoritarianism is met with arrest and torture.
Oceania is a far cry from the 300-seat theater’s previous make-believe metropolis, the plucky New York City of “Annie,” where Daddy Warbucks and his wallet saved the day as the eponymous orphan cheerfully reminded everyone that the sun will come out tomorrow. The transition from “Annie,” which concluded its run on Dec. 30, to “1984,” which opens Feb. 1, is even more jarring when one considers the theater’s 2018-19 season also includes feel-good frothy musicals “Legally Blonde” and “Sister Act.” But Executive Director Hugh Hallinan explained it is a tradition at the theater to put the song and dance on hold to enable one offbeat work per season.
“I feel that sometimes we have to ground ourselves,” Hallinan said. “We do four musicals a year and one play. The musicals are what puts butts in the seats and we like to do something that is a little more artistic and risky once a year, and that’s what the play is about. This is our way of trying something a little experimental without spending too much money on it.”
Money is an interesting challenge for Hallinan, who admitted the theater – which has been part of Bridgeport’s arts scene since 1975, when it relocated from Sacred Heart University in neighboring Fairfield to the former YWCA building – relies very heavily on its audience to help meet its $1.6 million annual operating budget.
“Ninety percent of our revenue is from ticket sales,” he continued. “The nonprofit model is usually 65 percent, so ours is pretty high. That means we can’t take a lot of chances. I have to do my homework and see which titles are pulling well. I have to rely on the title to fill the seats, so name recognition like ‘Annie’ fills the theater. Some people might call me a sellout or just being commercial – so be it, as long as I can keep doing what we’ve done.”
But even though Hallinan said plays like “1984” carried risks, he doesn’t select titles without researching audience awareness and appeal – the Orwell book, for example, has been a required reading assignment in schools for years and could attract students and their parents. The local schools play an important role in the theater’s life via a long-running children’s theater line-up with shows that run concurrently to the main stage features. The current offering, “Rumpelstiltskin,” opened Jan. 12 and runs through Feb. 10, to be followed on Feb. 23 by “The Princess and the Frog.”
“We get about 4,000 school kids through here,” Hallinan said.
To fill gaps between the shows and generate extra ticket sales, Hallinan also books what he describes as one-night-only “pre-built concerts” that mostly consist of tributes to iconic bands. A Simon and Garfunkel-inspired duo dubbed Scarborough Fair played on Jan. 19, while a flamboyant Elton John clone calling himself “Captain Fantastic” will take the stage on March 9.
The Downtown Cabaret Theatre is committed to original main stage productions rather than touring companies of Broadway shows.
“Every show we do here, we produce it from the ground up,” Hallinan said. “It’s not like the Shubert or the Palace where a truck will show up and they unload it and break it down. We hire the directors and designers. We build the costumes and sets and the lights. We cast the shows, rehearse the shows.”
Hallinan’s core audience is based mainly in Trumbull, Fairfield, Shelton, Stratford and Bridgeport, while theater lovers from Westchester, Greenwich, Norwalk, Milford and Derby have also turned up. “Our core audience is 15,000,” he said. “There are repeat offenders, I am delighted to report, and we push out 55,000 to 60,000 tickets a year.”
Nonetheless, Hallinan faces a dilemma in reaching people who still adhere to the lingering negative perception of the city around his venue.
“Bridgeport is a unique challenge,” he said. “People who haven’t been here think it’s dangerous. You can go to Westport or go to Norwalk, but if you go to Bridgeport then people say ‘Oh?’ I have no problems telling anybody that crime is not an issue here.”
And while Hallinan is eager to welcome audience feedback on future presentations, he learned the hard way that there is sometimes a disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want.
“We tried ‘The King and I,’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “Everybody said they wanted to see ‘The King and I’ — we surveyed the audience for six months. We put on ‘The King and I’ at great expense and nobody wanted to see it. And I was like, ‘What?’ If we learned anything about the exit polls on the last election, we learned the same thing here when we surveyed the audience.”