Theater in the Hoosier State

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.

This article was written while suffering a tremendous case of imposter syndrome. I am the new kid in town. Who am I to play tour guide through the Indianapolis theatre community?

Before I moved to Indiana to begin working at the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IRT), five short months ago, a respected director and friend posed this question to me, “What ten plays do you want to direct at the IRT?” I did not have an answer at the ready and shamed myself both momentarily and for days following that I could not quickly list those top ten productions I was on fire to direct. Not that there isn’t a list, (my god, there are all sorts of lists!)—but even stumbling through titles for an audience, a community, that I was just beginning to know seems a supreme exercise in arrogance. Later reflecting on my stalled reaction to that question, I thought further past the impact of the pause. What I want those ten productions to do will be determined by more than the energy of new employment. The stories we need are the ones that offer us something new, that take us out of our comfort zone to an unfamiliar place of empathy and inquiry. Our audiences, our artists, and even our board all play a part in defining those needs. One person’s center is indeed another person’s edge. Defining “new” and locating our reach takes a tremendous amount of dialogue and messaging and collaboration. As art makers here our work can be only be as brave and as tireless as we are. Perhaps most importantly, looking for “the needed story” asks art makers to listen. I’ve been listening over the last five months—I’ve approached many artists in my organization about what they want to invent, what they value, and what must we get right together for the next generation of Hoosier art makers and audiences. I’ve relied on the generosity and spirit of our artistic community to help me put some thoughts together (primarily veteran actor, Millicent Wright, who also happens to be in her twelfth season as director of outreach at the IRT). I hope these thoughts might surprise or offer something new to you about the work that is made in the middle of the country. Five months in I’m reporting back on the listening and here’s what seems to be at the foundation of what we do.

Art Gets Made in Indianapolis
An outsider may be surprised to know that on any given night there are many stories happening all over Indianapolis’ stages, found spaces, cabarets, and book stores. The configuration of the Indianapolis theatres feels similar to other cities of its population and size. The IRT represents the LORT house with eight productions a season, the Phoenix Theatre commits its ten-play production schedule to new work. Both of these houses host playwright in residences; James Still at the IRT for sixteen seasons and National New Play Network resident Tom Horan at the Phoenix. Heartland Actors Repertory presents free summer Shakespeare in the park, and throughout the city there are many independent companies such as ShadowApe, NoExit, Eclectic Pond, and Q Artistry making devised work, reinventing Shakespeare, and featuring Indiana playwrights. The Indianapolis Fringe Festival infuses the balmy month of August with vibrant new work and energetic emerging artists while maintaining a yearly calendar of productions. Local critic Lou Harry and actor/director Bill Simmons curate IndyActors Playground—a reading series initiated by the local talent pool that occurs monthly at Indy Reads Book store. Our region also includes the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, which is the oldest continuously operating community theatre in the country.

Facade of Indiana Repertory Theater
Exterior of  of Indiana Repertory Theater. Photo by Do 317. 

Indianapolis is notorious for chain restaurants using its citizens as test markets—the theory being that if it goes over well in Indianapolis then it will go over well in the rest of the country.

In talking to season regulars about their long experiences performing in Indianapolis, one veteran actor commented that he feels the theatre artists in this town are a fabulous secret in need of a coming out party. When I pressed him further he framed his thought this way: Indianapolis is notorious for chain restaurants using its citizens as test markets—the theory being that if it goes over well in Indianapolis then it will go over well in the rest of the country. Through this particular function of capitalism we inherit an expectation of mediocrity. The mythology being that rather than a home grown and home cooked meal, our sustenance arrives neatly packaged via the Sysco food truck delivery. The middle-of-the-road litmus test on dining fare (or the huge galvanizing energy of our sports teams) may drown out the message that Indianapolis is an exciting place to make art. (And for the record, there are fabulous local eateries here in Indy. Come hungry!)

Our people and our regional narrative inspire the art we make. The Indiana Repertory Theatre magnifies and examines this identity through the Indiana Series. This commission structure has led to the creation of eleven original scripts, five of them written by our playwright-in-residence James Still. All of these works premiered at the IRT and, in some cases, enjoyed runs at other theatres. We utilize Indiana history as a springboard for dramatic discourse. So, the primary experience we gain in the theatre is not just the history, but the writer’s perspective on the history. And in the case with James, we engage in a long dialogue with that perspective as he has served as playwright in residence for sixteen seasons.

Even with all the work we create here sometimes we need an outsider to tell us more about ourselves than we can readily know. Last fall when John Lithgow was in town performing his one-man show at Butler University, he wandered into the IRT and saw An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Lithgow went backstage after, greeting Henry Woronicz who played The Poet. The next night, from the stage of his own performance, he told his audience he saw this wonderful play at a wonderful theatre in downtown Indianapolis and asked, “Do you know how lucky you are to have the Indiana Repertory Theatre in your city?” Perhaps its Midwestern politeness, perhaps we need a coming out party for our own city—we have to be reminded by an outsider that there is value right there in view.

Our artists invest not as transient jobbing actors/designers/directors but as members of a community: they own houses, send their kids to public schools, participate in neighborhoods.

Artists Grow Here—Personally and Professionally
Artists live in Indianapolis for the same honorable reasons as most do both inside and outside other cultural capitals: for raising their children, taking care of aging parents, supporting partners who are pursuing careers in various fields. However, perhaps most surprising is we have strong performing artists making their home in this city and state because they want to. They enjoy making art here and see their role as vital for this city’s cultural health. The commitment to stay here in some ways resembles the original intent of the late sixties regional theatre movement. Our artists invest not as transient jobbing actors/designers/directors but as members of a community: they own houses, send their kids to public schools, participate in neighborhoods. This investment fosters deep levels of trust, fulfillment, resonance, and connection. Small companies have come about from artists finding like-minded collaborators who share common ideologies of theatre, literature, similar working vocabularies, and yes, Indiana upbringing. At last count, there were nearly 100 Actor’s Equity members in Central Indiana, making it possible for us to construct a mid-sized city hub of the union.

Indianapolis foundations have offered oxygenating resources to its hometown artists. One of the first events I attended in my new home city was the Indianapolis Art Council’s “Start with Art.” This was a lively annual event wherein all the arts organizations and major funders share a meal and discuss the respective upcoming seasons. Palpable in the room was a sense that our viability as an arts community heavily depends on one another and not just theatre to theatre, but theatre to orchestra, orchestra to ballet, ballet to art museum, etc. Additionally, the Arts Council administers the Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship of which many established Indy theatre artists have been awarded. This resource is used for exploration and advancement for an individual artist in their discipline. It recognizes the artists that continue to work in this city and invigorates them to continue sharing their talent on home stages. This is one of the few awards in the country that supports simply the renewal of individual artists—both those affiliated with institutions and those that are not—in every discipline.

Indianapolis nurtures them, encourages them, challenges them, and provides a soft landing when they fail.

Our richness also stems from young talent that chooses to make Indy home after graduating from local colleges and universities. Indianapolis nurtures them, encourages them, challenges them, and provides a soft landing when they fail. Moreover, when there isn’t work at the long running theatre houses or when the work does not venture into areas they want to explore these energized young actors form independent companies that showcase their young talent and ingenuity. Companies like NoExit, Eclectic Pond, QArtistry, and Ganas play an important role in Indy’s artistic vitality. Indianapolis is a perfect research and development location with Arts Council grants for emerging artists, low-rent to no-rent theatrical spaces, schools that support their alumni as much as their current student body and local business partnerships. These benefits have allowed artists to make long practices here in Indy. Many of the mid-career artists working in Indy “grew up” as artists here in a similar way.

Wrapping Up
Indy is very seductive in its size. Any trip out of the house, particularly for folks who live downtown, is an opportunity for a “bump into” with an audience member or fellow artist or staff person. There is one grocery store downtown. One! So if you are hungry or need beer on Saturday (because it is illegal to buy beer at the grocery store on Sunday) then you’ll probably run into someone you know. To be a maker of work in a community of that size presents both challenges and opportunities. Dialogue with your audience extends beyond the post show discussion to the produce department as you select your Indiana produce.

I’m delighted that you will hear from Indy artists this week. I’m excited to see what we can do together. The Hoosier state is an exciting place to be as an artist and there’s no need to keep it a secret.

 

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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from in and around Indianapolis's theatre community.

Indianapolis, Indiana

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In addition to the merits of individual productions, Actors Theatre of Indiana and Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre have both contributed to the growth of the Indianapolis talent pool through Equity productions. Worth noting.

Smart comments :).... it's lovely to work with so much wonderful talent--and I so appreciate the ways they showcase and encourage one another (rather than compete).. Hoosier Bard Productions benefits immeasurably from these amazing artists.

Oh, now I feel a little remiss in my title. Other organizations to know/love: Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, Bloomington Playwrights Project, IU Theatre and the New Harmony Project.

Certainly there are many more---let the road trips begin.

As someone who grew up in local theater in Indy, I think it's great to see IRT referencing the whole theater community there. There used to be such a divide between the professional and community theaters, but no more. Indy's lucky to have you, and lucky to have a continuing proliferation of stages and venues.

Thank you Courtney. I second your high regard for Indianapolis as a vibrant and visceral city in the new-theatre-making world. Let the secret get out. And let the pilgrimages to the heartland continue.

When I first pitched Indianapolis as a location for a 2013 American Theatre Critics Association conference, I was met with, well, politeness. But the combination of Hoosier hospitality and quality work on stage turned the event into a major hit with the organization. I hope that--and opportunities like this HowlRound week--help draw more attention to the work being done here. Keeping in mind, of course, that engaging audiences and furthering the art is far more important than a national profile. Let the discussion begin. --Lou Harry, IBJ.com/arts