Mad Cow Theatre's David Mink has difficulty saying no.
At least when he's talking with singers interested in participating in Mad Cow's annual Orlando Cabaret Festival. This year's fest — the 11th and the first in the theater's new home on Church Street — will be the biggest yet.
"It was not planned," says Mink, laughing, at the size of the festival. "I just kept saying yes. The next thing you know we had more talent than we knew what to do with."
The festival, which opens Thursday, boasts three headliners: Broadway singer-actresses Emily Skinner and Shoshana Bean, and critically acclaimed singer-pianist Tony DeSare.
There are also four featured artists, including a musical-comedy team and a former Mouseketeer.
Four more artists, all from Central Florida, are contributing "Local Spotlight" shows. Some of their shows will be presented at noon weekdays as part of the popular "Out to Lunch" series, in which a box lunch can be ordered in advance and eaten during the show. That series also features two versions of the annual "It Was a Very Good Year" concerts, one saluting 1955 and the other 1965.
If all that weren't enough, there are two new events: An opening-night catered cocktail hour with special performances, and a Mother's Day brunch featuring a tribute to Lena Horne.
That's 40 events in 18 days.
"It tires us out, but the energy is so much fun we keep doing it," says Mink, Mad Cow's director of audience development who spearheaded this year's festival.
Skinner, who was Tony-nominated for her role in "Sideshow," says performers feed off that energy, too. She finds a freedom in cabaret-style shows that playing a theatrical role can't allow.
"In theater, you have to do a script you didn't write, you have to follow direction," she says. "For an actor, there's a wonderful element of control with cabaret: 'This is all me!'"
Cabaret also creates a unique bond between performer and audience, Mink says.
"It's storytelling through music, and it's just so intimate," he says.
"In cabaret, what you choose to sing tells people who you are," Skinner agrees. "I think you will get a good sense of who I am."
Mink says theater fans appreciate the opportunity to get to know the people they see onstage.
"It helps connect patrons to performers," he says. "You can see an actor in show after show after show and yet never know who they are."
Mink hopes Mad Cow Theatre's new location will encourage patrons to mingle before, after and between shows. The company moved to a new location in October — a location that boasts a bright, spacious lobby overlooking the Church Street entertainment district.
"The audience will love the atmosphere," Mink says. "We'll have music in the lobby, we have a new bar."
The new space has also allowed a reconfiguration of the smaller of Mad Cow's two theaters. Dubbed Club Moo, it will feature traditional cabaret tables, along with about 20 single seats. Those seats will have a "drink rail" — a place to set that glass of wine — to keep the cabaret vibe.
New social events are also on the agenda.
A Mother's Day brunch, on May 12, will feature food and drink at a Church Street restaurant to be determined, then a 2 p.m. show by Jayne Trinette, star of the theater's upcoming "Dreamgirls." She'll perform a tribute to jazz vocalist Horne.
An opening-night gala, April 25, will start with a catered cocktail hour at 6:30 p.m. Trinette, local actor Robby Pigott and festival guests Michael Walters will then perform, along with Skinner.
Mink hopes cabaret newbies will give the growing art form a try.
"When the festival started, there wasn't a lot of cabaret-style entertainment in Central Florida," he says. "Now we have cabaret happening all over. It's wonderful."
Orlando Cabaret Festival
What: An 18-day celebration of music and comedy
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 55 W. Church St., Orlando
When: April 25-May 12
Tickets: Most single tickets are $25; headliner tickets are $35 ($45 premium seating); lunchtime shows are $10-$15. The opening-night performance is $65; the Mother's Day brunch is $38 ($45 premium). Various packages with tickets to multiple shows are available, starting at $85.50.