Arts Guide 2012: Phoenix Theatre at 30 

click to enlarge Bryan Fonseca at home. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO

Bryan Fonseca, longstanding Artistic Director of the Phoenix Theatre, says he doesn’t drive a Mercedes, but a Ford pickup truck. “It gets me where I need to go.”

Fonseca chuckles when he says this. But, like the new plays he’s been choosing for the Phoenix for the past 30 seasons, there’s a message just below the surface of this remark. Like his Ford pickup, the theater he helped found in 1983 has proven to be remarkably durable, able to survive and even thrive, in a city that hasn’t always taken the arts seriously.

But, in many ways, Fonseca’s sturdy approach to theater has provided living proof of what Indianapolis arts advocates have argued creative enterprise can do here.

When the Phoenix moved into an otherwise forsaken church from its previous site on 9th St., it laid the cornerstone for what would become the revitalization of the Mass Ave. corridor, attracting people to a neighborhood that had fallen into disrepute.

More important, the plays Fonseca and his collaborators keep producing have arguably broadened the city’s social vocabulary, making topics like race and homosexuality, formerly considered taboo for local audiences, part of the community’s working language.

Although Fonseca is quick to say that the Phoenix story is composed of many characters, there is no getting round the fact that he has been at the center of the action for all three decades of the theater’s life.

NUVO met Fonseca on the Phoenix mainstage, where he was getting ready to audition actors for an upcoming show. He reflected on the theater’s history and looked into the future.

click to enlarge 'Baktun 13,' a 2012 Phoenix production.
  • 'Baktun 13,' a 2012 Phoenix production.

NUVO: How does 30 years feel today — and what did it feel like in the beginning?

Fonseca: It’s amazing to think sometimes in terms of how fast time flies. I know it’s a cliché to say, “while you’re having fun,” but the truth is I’ve been concentrating on each season, each play, and when you do that, all of a sudden, you realize, “My God, time has flown by.”

So you have to give some thought to everything that has happened, the work we’ve done, what it’s been in response to, and how we may have made a difference. I think the measure of success isn’t so much that we’ve survived, we’re financially stable, own our own building. It’s what kind of difference did we make in the lives of the citizens of this community, in influencing changes — socially, politically. I think we have made a difference. We’ve opened a lot of doors for dialogue, and that has created a greater awareness and acceptance for so many issues.

It’s hard to believe how closed-off the city was 30 years ago. How fragmented, how ultra-conservative it was.

NUVO: When you were contemplating your first season, what were you thinking about?

Fonseca: Thirty years ago we were just a group of artists thinking about what show would be fun to do. I think maybe in the back of our minds there were some things that were driving us, but it took a couple of seasons to start realizing we had a greater purpose, that there was something bigger than just a group of people putting on plays. In our third season we were starting to recognize that we were doing things in response to what was happening, as opposed to simply liking a particular show or playwright.

NUVO: You found your mission through the work itself?

Fonseca: And then embraced it — and very quickly started thinking in terms of how that defines us and what’s important about staying true to that mission. The interesting thing is that our mission statement hasn’t changed in all of this time.

NUVO: Talk a little more about what the city was like — and the theater — in those days.

Fonseca: There were a lot of closed doors in the city. If you were part of a minority community or a community that didn’t have a voice in any of the power structures, you were pretty much ignored. On the other hand, as far as the people with power were concerned, if you’re not exposed to other ideas or other cultures, and you are very conservative, maybe part of the reason you keep those doors closed is because you are unaware there are problems out there.

So we started doing plays to say there were problems that we, as a community, needed to address. In 1985, we were doing As Is, a play addressing the AIDS crisis that, at the time, we were not accepting as a problem that might be bigger than we realized.

Theater’s purpose is to do that. The great thing about playwrights is they are writing about issues of the day with alarming clarity. They’re working in a medium that doesn’t have to be distilled for the masses. They are the truth-tellers, the prophets, the people who say, ”Here’s what’s going on right now.” We wanted to give a voice to those playwrights that were exposing issues.

I think our purpose was to say, “All right. If you don’t know about these issues, if you don’t understand this culture, we’re gonna put it on stage, where we think it’s a very safe environment to come in and learn.”

That’s our whole purpose. We’re going to create a dialogue where you can hear about things. You don’t have to feel like you’re confronted by anything. The problem with any controversial issue is that people yell at each other and there’s no longer a sense of people listening. But in theater, I think you can really explore ideas.

Thirty years ago, downtown closed on Friday night. This was before Circle Centre Mall. I remember fences being up in areas of downtown where renovation was going to begin. But it hadn’t happened yet. It was still an area people were afraid of. Before Mass Avenue became Mass Avenue, there was prostitution on the street, there were people passed out and sleeping in doorways. There weren’t a lot of people living down here. It wasn’t a vital commercial district.

We took a big chance. But that’s true of artists across the country that come in first, don’t have the money to make all the gentrification happen, but once they’re there, make it OK for everybody else.

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