Change in the weather 

The unseasonably hot and humid weather we had here at the end of May prompted many of us to observe that it seemed like a chilly spring had suddenly given way to midsummer. One of the hottest race weekends in a century had all the earmarks of a holiday in early August. Neighborhoods hummed prematurely with the sound of central AC.

As far as most forms of recreation are concerned, the sooner summer arrives, the better. But when it comes to the arts in Indianapolis, summer has historically been a down time. While our theaters and concert halls remain open, they do so with lowered expectations. People, it is said, would rather be outside.

Today, in this first week of June, I’m hanging on to this bit of conventional wisdom as if it were a life preserver. That’s because for the past month or so almost every arts event I’ve visited has been under-attended.

I’d blame this on the weather, if I could.

Take, for example, the production of The Pillowman currently on view at the Phoenix Theatre. In 2004, this dark, deeply moral tragicomedy by Martin McDonagh was the toast of London. In 2005, the Broadway production won a boatload of drama critics’ prizes. Anyone with even a passing interest in what’s happening in contemporary theater should want to see what all the hooplah’s about.

So it was exciting to learn that Bryan Fonseca had snared The Pillowman for a run at the Phoenix in the first half of 2006. Even better was seeing what turned out to be a first-rate production, featuring a terrific ensemble cast. Here we had the Phoenix, rising to the cultural occasion that the city of Indianapolis has insisted it is ready for, bringing us a piece of cutting-edge theater fresh from the Big Apple. The only trouble was that hardly anybody was in the audience.

Nick Crews, The Star’s theater critic, had panned the play earlier in the week I saw it — that might have had something to do with the low turn-out. But while a thumbs-down from a Star critic could very well serve to dampen the enthusiasm of Brian Bosma’s fan base, you’d think there would be a sufficient number of people in this town hip — or just plain curious — enough to read a scowl from The Star as a badge of honor. In any event, it was just one person’s opinion. Where was that arts community I’ve heard so much about?

Not long ago, I happened to run across an article in Poets & Writers magazine, “The Law of Diminishing Readership” by Joseph Bednark, the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press. From his position on the frontline of this country’s literary arts, Bednark observes a paradox not uncommon to other artforms. While the number of people writing poems and literary fiction is growing every year, as reflected by the numbers of MFA degrees conferred and book contests entered, the number of readers buying literary books is in serious decline.

Bednark writes, “How can it be that MFA programs in creative writing flourish in a country where literary reading does not? I recall the writer who told me, without irony, that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want to be influenced. And the 8-year-old who, after I suggested we read some poems together, replied, ‘I like writing poems better than reading them.’”

Anyone who has ever worked in the arts understands a certain irony: You get so wrapped up in all the different aspects of your work that there’s rarely time or energy to go out and see what the other people in your home town are up to. It’s rare to see a visual artist at a dance performance, or a musician at a play. That’s the life.

But what about all those other folks who, ultimately, are the real lifeblood of the arts community? The patrons who keep the arts going by purchasing tickets and showing up?

Thanks to the Peterson Administration’s recognition that the arts need to be an integral part of any meaningful economic development package, this city’s cultural resources have enjoyed a period of increased attention and growth, particularly in the area of bricks and mortar. But whether the city’s audience for the fine and performing arts has grown proportionately with this effort may be in doubt.

The city could be about to find itself on the horns of a dilemma. It has set a dandy stage for a cultural renaissance. But it’s not enough just to have the spaces; you have to fill them with the kind of challenging works that command attention in the larger world. Works like The Pillowman, which, by the way, is up at the Phoenix through June 11.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t have the audience sufficient to support work like this, well, I understand the weather outside is just right for a barbeque.

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David Hoppe

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