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  • Whetting the Appetite

    Oregon Cabaret Theatre set the stage for a revival of musical productions across the Rogue Valley
  • Craig Hudson says the theater he created out of an old Ashland church in the mid-1980s was part of a trend that was emerging nationally toward more musical productions.
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  • Craig Hudson says the theater he created out of an old Ashland church in the mid-1980s was part of a trend that was emerging nationally toward more musical productions.
    In turn, his Oregon Cabaret Theatre spurred a new trend in Southern Oregon: regular stagings of musical theater.
    Oregon Shakespeare Festival rarely did musicals back then, while Rogue Music Theatre in Grants Pass offered only summer productions. Other than a few local amateur shows, that was about it.
    Now, OSF offers musicals regularly. So does Camelot Theatre in Talent. And the Craterian offers traveling productions.
    "We thought at the time it would be something pretty focused on entertainment and it would be a good fit with the festival," says Hudson. Someone who went to a couple of serious plays would get to laugh for a night, he added.
    Hudson purchased the Old Pink Church at the corner of First and Hargadine streets in the early 1980s and began remodeling in 1984. The first show, "Dames at Sea," opened in 1986.
    A professor of theater arts at Southern Oregon University, Hudson taught set design.
    He'd wanted to have his own musical theater since a venture with college friends running a saloon that offered musical events.
    "Ever since then, I was certainly thinking about it," says Hudson, who wrote a monograph for his Master's of Fine Arts degree on creating a space much like OCT.
    "He had the dream of this kind of theater/restaurant combination," says Jim Giancarlo, OCT's artistic director and a partner in the business. Hudson, Giancarlo and other business partners had produced "Grease" in 1985 at the Britt Festival.
    After two shows in 1986, the cabaret began doing five shows per season, a schedule it still maintains.
    "It's kind of a combination of old-fashioned night out and supper club and theater," says Giancarlo. "I think that's the brilliance of Craig's vision. The whole idea that you can have a night out."
    OCT does most of its casting out of the area.
    "We brought in actors from all over," says Giancarlo. "It's always been about having the best talent, the best production."
    "It took a while to develop an audience," says Hudson. But the venture moved into the black in its third season, he added.
    Live music has played a large part in the cabaret's success, says the founder, who noted some shows require a pre-recorded soundtrack.
    "The presence of a real band, even a piano and another instrument, it's different," says Hudson.
    Food and drink, whether dessert and coffee during intermission or meals and wine before the show, add to the venue's appeal.
    "I never realized that food would become such an important part of what we do," says Hudson.
    Retired from teaching, Hudson now splits his time between Ashland and Mexico City, where he and his partner operate a private home converted into a tourist hotel.
    While Hudson remains the building owner, he is out of the show side of the business, which is handled by Giancarlo, although he sometimes designs sets. Much of the set design can be done by computer from Mexico, he notes, although he returns to Ashland to oversee lighting details.
    "They like me," jokes Hudson, "because I'm fast and cheap."
    Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.
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