Free Shakespeare in the Heartland
This series of articles explores the rich variety of theater in Indianapolis. The series is curated by Courtney Sale, Associate Artistic Director at Indiana Repertory Theatre.
I recently became producing artistic director of the Heartland Actors’ Repertory Theatre (HART), an Equity theatre company founded in 2006 by a group of actors in Indianapolis, which produces free outdoor Shakespeare in downtown Indianapolis’ White River State Park. 2013 marked HART’s fifth year of producing Shakespeare with our production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by founding artistic director Michael Shelton. Our Shakespeare productions have become beloved Indianapolis events that draw over one thousand people per evening. We offer pre-show bands, food trucks, and beer and wine vendors. Audiences also bring their own picnic baskets: there are couples with tablecloths, candelabras, caviar and champagne, and families with buckets of chicken. People arrive early to stake out their territory and enjoy the preshow festivities. They stay for the Shakespeare which audiences have described as accessible, exciting and fun! Many audience members happen upon us by chance while they are out biking, running or riding the park’s Segways; they enjoy stopping and checking us out as well.
What is our niche in the community? A primary niche is that we offer a terrific work opportunity for professional theater artists in the city of Indianapolis. One of the reasons HART enjoys strong foundation support is that we employ some of Indy’s best actors, designers, and stage managers during a time of year when most of the local Equity companies are not producing. HART helps stop the “brain drain” of locally based talent by offering paying work in high profile productions. Another niche is that we offer high quality classical theater to our community for free. Many of our audience members have never seen Shakespeare before—and many have never even been to the theater. The fact that our professionally produced shows are free is very meaningful. One gentleman stopped me this summer saying he had been out of work for a long time and he and his wife were depressed. He wanted to thank me for giving them a date night where they could bring their own dinner and a six-pack and see some great art without paying. Huge family groups come to our productions, clearly appreciative that they can bring the whole gang for free! And much of our audience is comprised of theater goers who enjoy our work as individual artists during the year at the Phoenix Theatre and the IRT and are excited to follow us outdoors during the summer.
What is our future? I have been working this year to build an infrastructure in order that we might be sustainable for the long haul. Like so many start-up theaters, we have too few people wearing too many hats, and we hope to rectify that as we move forward. We’re also working on developing revenue streams, such as corporate support, more in-kind donations, premium paid seating (the vast majority of our audience area will remain free), and individual donations.
Our future also contains plans for programming in addition to the Shakespeare work. HART began in 2006 by producing contemporary and even brand-new plays—and we would like to get back to that. Also, one of the reasons I was happy to take on the artistic directorship of HART is that I believe there is potential for great synchronicity between HART and the Butler University Department of Theatre, where I am chair. Our idea is that HART could benefit from the infrastructure of the university while the Department of Theatre could benefit from having its own Equity theatre in residence. We’re working on developing that partnership now, and we’re off to a good start. The university has given us space to rehearse and several key Butler faculty and staff have joined HART’s Board of Directors including the Director of Butler’s Arts Administration Program, the Associate Director for Public Relations at Butler University, and the Project Manager for CFO Services at the Butler Business Consulting Group.
I have been working this year to build an infrastructure in order that we might be sustainable for the long haul. Like so many start-up theaters, we have too few people wearing too many hats, and we hope to rectify that as we move forward.
These wonderful people are bringing their formidable skills, not to mention their interns, to our organization. In return, Butler Theatre majors and alumni have participated in our production process in a variety of ways onstage and behind the scenes. We believe this partnership will grow into something fruitful for both organizations—and all are excited to see how this partnership will grow.
Meantime, we are planning to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday in style in 2014 in White River State Park. Our dual goals are entertaining our audiences and creating a sustainable infrastructure so that we can continue to entertain our audiences for years to come!