The middle of winter and you're in Indianapolis. You are indoors with a crowd of people and it is not a basketball game. This week features a wide array of artists and companies making work in the heartland. This series on Indianapolis, Indiana is curated by Courtney Sale, the Associate Artistic Director for Indiana Repertory Theatre.
On my first visit to Indianapolis, I quickly toured through the theatre, shook hands with all the staff, and then got plopped into their annual board retreat. There is no quicker way to get to know a company, than to see how the theatrical sausage is made.
From that first moment, The Phoenix seemed like one those theatre companies that could teach a thing or two to the business world about efficiency and sustainability. For over thirty years the Phoenix has mounted an average of ten productions a year, all while focusing on new work. Even though the next opening night follows hard on the previous closing night, they’ve maintained a tradition of risk, sharing untested playwrights with a hungry audience. Operating out of a converted church, they balance professionalism and scrappiness on both a main stage and a cabaret theatre in the basement. The artistic and producing center of the organization is Bryan Fonseca, who has been the leader of the company from day one.
As a newbie to the Indiana theatre scene I’ve had the good fortune to be the playwright-in-residence (thanks NNPN!) for the Phoenix’s current season. Here is a distillation of several ongoing conversations with Bryan.
Tom Horan: Hi, Bryan. One of the first things I picked up on here is how The Phoenix occupies an interesting place in the ecosystem of the Indianapolis theatre scene. You have actors and designers that cross over from shows at the Phoenix to shows at Indiana Repertory Theatre, in addition to actors and designers active in the fringe scene. How do you foster local artists and attempt to keep the theatre scene healthy?
Bryan Fonseca: I believe in the talent in this city. From our inception, a main goal was to provide work for the local artist. We rarely bring in talent from outside of the city or state. We have invested in the talent pool by looking for projects for specific actors while constantly searching for developing artists. I’ve always been aware that you can’t create in a vacuum, so the inclusion of new artists has always been important. I think there is a great crossover of talent between us and the IRT. We offer more opportunities for Indy actors to play major roles and they offer a much better, life sustainable contract. The artistic community seems to appreciate the balance. At least I hope so. I continue to make a commitment to many artists who have been with us from the beginning. It’s an informal company of artists. It’s great to work with a group that you’ve known for thirty-plus years.
Tom: Yet, at the same time I’ve noticed you take a chance on new artists.
Bryan: It’s much easier to invite new artists into the process when you’re surrounded with familiar faces. It quickens the process of becoming part of the tribe. Ultimately, I’m concerned with what’s happening with all of the Indy theatres. It’s necessary to always have startup companies. It’s a sign of a healthy theatre community. I strongly believe that if your artistic needs aren’t met by the existing companies then you should create the organization that will meet those needs.
We presented plays that angered much of the establishment—corporations, heads of family foundations, and various powers that be.
Tom: I think I remember you saying that for many years the Phoenix was labeled as “the theatre company where the actors got naked on stage”—how has the Phoenix evolved from that image and how is the past still part of the current company, for good or for bad?
Bryan: No other company pushed the envelope as much as the Phoenix did in this community thirty years ago. We presented plays that angered much of the establishment—corporations, heads of family foundations, and various powers that be. Topics, presentational style, language, and ideas were deemed too controversial for the leaders of this conservative community. It made it very difficult to secure corporate sponsorships and foundation support.
I think what’s interesting now is that we’ve redefined the center. We haven’t changed our programming or approach to shows. We have helped open minds and hearts to new ideas. Indiana is slowly becoming a little more open-minded and liberal (I know it’s hard to believe), and I think we’ve helped contribute to the new environment.
Tom: Moving from Texas to Indianapolis I definitely see a connection in the challenges of creating art in a more conservative state. Who are the kinds of people who come to the Phoenix and which segments of the population would you like to get into the church doors?
Bryan: Well the knee-jerk answer is that we play to a small “enlightened” patron base.
We target groups and individuals potentially interested in topics or themes of our plays. That’s been very effective and brings a diverse crowd.
Tom: You mean liberal?
Bryan: Exactly. But in reality, we look at our audience as a more diverse group. We have a loyal base of folks who have been with us pretty much from the start—now in their fifties and sixties. And we have a solid base of students from all of the surrounding universities for which we’ve developed programming specifically to include. We concentrate on show-specific marketing. We target groups and individuals potentially interested in topics or themes of our plays. That’s been very effective and brings a diverse crowd. But for the most part, it’s mostly the liberals, regardless of age or race, who populate our plays.
Tom: There are a number of younger companies in Indy: No Exit, Q Artistry, Shadow Ape, 3 Dollar Bill, The 4th Wall, etc. On my first visit to Indy, I thought it was telling that you took me to see a show at the Indy Fringe. Why do you feel such a connection to these companies?
Bryan: We were those companies thirty years ago. The artistic product or goal may not be the same but the passion is, certainly as ours was (and still is.) There is a learning curve to the business side of each company. I think we have a lot to offer in the area of management and organizational growth. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve never veered from our original mission.
Tom: So, how can they learn from the Phoenix? Essentially, what is the lesson to young companies who want to be around for thirty years?
Bryan: Well, I went to see one such young company’s production of Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo.” It was very well produced, acted, and directed. Sadly, less than a hundred people attended the three-weekend run of the show. Needless to say, the company was extremely disappointed and worse, discouraged.
I did talk with the director and asked a few simple questions:
How many people did they anticipate would see the show?
Was the answer to the question based on any research: how often is Albee produced in Indianapolis? When was the last time he was produced? What was the attendance for that production?
Why this show, why now?
Who, outside of the company members gave any indication of an interest in the project?
What marketing plan was developed to sell the project—who was the target audience?
I was not surprised by the low attendance. When I heard of the production, I thought they’d have a difficult time selling the show—no matter how well it was produced.
I feel strongly that we need to give up the notion that “if we produce it, they will come.” Our decisions as producers have to factor in more than the enthusiasm and passion of the company for a project.
I have as much passion for projects not selected for production as I do for the ones we choose to present. The decision not to produce something is more often than not based on the answers to those five questions. Is it the wrong approach? Who knows? But we’re still here. Some element of research and caution must be factored into the decision making process.
Tom: I’ve been floored by the quickness of Phoenix’s rehearsal process. Out of financial concerns, I believe you even scaled back the last two seasons. More time is always nice, but what are the benefits of a quick rehearsal?
Bryan: We did go from a two and half week rehearsal process back to three and a half weeks. Our contract allows up to twenty-eight hours per week. When necessary, we went into overtime. It’s not a good way to work and puts most of the burden on the actor. We did it for four years. It means you have to make decisions quickly. I don’t think we could have done it without having a solid base of actors who have worked together for thirty years.
A definite benefit to the schedule was that it taught us to trust first instincts. It kept the process fresh and definitely kept us on our toes. It tightened our production planning process—more focus on pre-planning—because once you started on a project, it went fast.
Tom: One final question: Where do you hope the Phoenix and the Indy theatre community will be in the next thirty years?
Bryan: This seems to be the toughest question to answer. I’d like to see Indy to be known for a city for the development of new plays. That certainly is our focus, and it seems to be the focus of most of the younger companies. And I’m heartened to see the long-term relationship Indiana Repertory Theatre has developed with James Still. I’d like to see the Phoenix as a driving force and bring some cohesion to the efforts of the other theatres in town to achieve that goal.