Creating Culture 

Mike Bachman divides time between local youth center & theater company

The winter wind can blow down East 10th St. like it bears a grudge, making people who have to wait at the bus stops flinch. A wind like that would once have seemed like yet another indignity in this neighborhood, like piling on. For some, undoubtedly, it still does.

But things are happening here that are good enough to help a person put the weather in perspective. The angular prow of the Boner Center [pronounced BAH-ner] jutting out over the street signals a new energy that's reinforced by the renovation of the Jefferson Apartments. Go a block south of 10th St. and you'll find a grid of newly paved streets and sidewalks.

The East 10th United Methodist Church has been part of this scene in one way or another since it was built almost 100 years ago in 1911. Today, many of the people who live around here know the church for its Youth and Children's Center. Every day there are 50 little ones enrolled in the daycare program; 50 more arrive once school's over.

These programs make it possible for parents in the neighborhood to hold jobs. And that combination is part of what's helping East 10th St. gain some traction.

Mike Bachman is director of East 10th United Methodist's Youth and Children's Center. He started working there during the summer of 2004. He had just graduated from Butler University - with a degree in theater.

"In my life today," Bachman says, "I am committed to things that I never thought that I would be. But you throw yourself in there completely, because if you don't, others will fail. People might fail around you, or you might fail."

Bachman says this understanding of commitment was instilled in him through the theater training he received at Butler.

He is still a theater artist. Bachman is part of the collaborative performance group known as NoExit — one of the city's most adventurous ensembles. He says it's his grounding in theater that has enabled him to succeed in his job at East 10th.

He is a living, breathing answer to every parent who has ever wondered what their son or daughter might do with a liberal arts degree.

The improviser

Mike Bachman was in second grade when his Dad, who had made it to the Olympic trials as a wrestler, started teaching him the sport. You can still see the wrestler in Bachman's compact build and close-cropped haircut. There's a trace of the wrestler in the economical way he moves and gestures.

It's early afternoon, naptime, and Bachman moves quietly down the Center's hall, gently opening doors and looking in at classrooms, where daycare teachers sit while their kids sleep on cushioned pallets on the floor.

"In working with kids, flexibility is unbelievably important," says Bachman. "You never know what's going to come at you. Every child is carrying something different with them. Being able to think on your feet and deal with those things and bring them to a place where they can be prepared for their day — because they don't come in prepared for that — you have to be able to switch and come up with something right there."

That sounds a lot like improvisational performance. But Bachman begs to differ. "I think for it to be a performance, I would have to be someone else and, for me, this has grown into a passion and a love. I really do love these kids and the people I work with. I want to make sure these kids are taken care of, that this area is taken care of." Then he laughs, something he does easily: "Maybe it's more like being a stage manager!"

Bachman started at the Center in 2004. He was just out of college and was hired for the summer. East 10th St. was alien territory for him then. "I never would have come to this side of town for anything."

In those days, the neighborhood was pretty raw. "Back then we saw crazier things happening. I remember that summer driving kids on a field trip and a prostitute tried to stop the van, even though it was full with 13 kids, and try to get some business. We would see drug deals happening. I was driving kids back one day down 10th St. and we crossed Rural and saw a man get stabbed in the cheek."

The experiences Bachman harvested that summer took a toll. "That was a really hard summer for me," he says. "I wouldn't eat much and I lost a lot of weight because my stomach was always in knots about the kids and what might happen. The unknown, I guess."

After spending a year continuing his theater studies in graduate school in Ireland, Bachman returned to Indianapolis and was offered a fulltime job at the Center. He began introducing the kids to theater activities. "I saw the kids being able to get up and talk in front of people. I saw them thinking more creatively and more abstractly as they went along. So I knew there was a way I could insert that part of my life into this and, if nothing else, expose the kids to something different."

Seeing the kids responding to his ideas gave Bachman a renewed sense of purpose. "These kids experience the world so much quicker than I ever did. They understand things about the world and say things that just boggle my mind."

Bachman relates a recent story about doing a free-writing exercise with a fourth grade girl. He asked her to make up a fairy tale. "She wrote about a mom and a dad and their kids. They were walking home from a movie one night and a man came up to them and tried to sell them his food stamps. They refused, so he broke into their house and he kidnapped the children, saying that was because they didn't buy the food stamps so he could use the money to do other things.

"How a fourth grader can grasp that and know so much about their environment... that's not a world I want them to live in when they've been asked to write a fairy tale. But that's what had to come out. That's what she had to say."

Being someone else

Bachman appreciates that his theater training doesn't automatically suggest the path he finds himself traveling. "I don't have an education background. I don't have what most center directors have."

But the theater turns out to have been a good place to develop the kinds of skills that have served him at the Center. "I had never managed a staff before. But having worked as a stage manager, in that kind of environment where you were, at times, put over people, over your peers, and people who knew more than you, and having to instruct or direct them — I had a feeling of comfort. It never really pushed me outside of my box because I knew this was something that was in me. I just had to learn."

It turns out Bachman's theater experience has built a bridge to the work he does with kids. "I think a lot of the plays I read, direct or produce are informed by environment. That is how I approach things here. I have a great awareness that when the children come in, the way they are behaving is not because of something in that moment. It's because of something they are bringing along with them. And I'm no longer surprised by the stories that I hear and the things that they say because I'm well aware of everything that's happening around us. It's like the plays of Sarah Kane" — a playwright known for grotesque and graphic depictions of violence, whose work Bachman admires and has directed — "they were shocking the first time I read them but, after awhile, they aren't shocking any more."

The theater also taught Bachman important things about himself. "I don't think that you know who you are until you try to be someone else. When you invest yourself so much in becoming someone else you really do have to step back and ask 'how much of me is a part of that? How much of me wants to be that?' And from there you start having realizations about your own life and who you are. I am very comfortable and confident because of theater. And it's not just being up on stage and being able to present. It's something that's instilled in you through the training and having to commit yourself to something that there's a good chance you don't wholly believe in."

After graduating from Butler, Bachman did graduate work in theater at University College Cork, in Cork City, Ireland. Ireland's second largest city, Cork was designated a Capital of European Culture while Bachman was there, making it an international melting pot. Bachman's fellow students came from Spain, France, Norway, Italy and Malta. The experience provided him with a valuable perspective on his own point of view.

"Learning to see things from every side has helped me in working with families. You can't have tunnel vision in any way. I am allowed to have emotions. I am allowed to get angry. But that's not the way to approach situations. It was the same way in Cork. You never knew what was coming at you because people came from so many different backgrounds."

John Green's kids

Bachman was born in Elkhart, Indiana, and grew up in a house his Dad built himself. "I lived a very sheltered life," he says. "Mom, Dad, always together, brothers doing great things." It was a world far removed from the experience of East 10th St.

But that world was not immune to tragedy. Bachman's best friend was killed when he was 12. "It changed a lot of things for me. The world opened up when that happened. I began to look at things differently — that there's not as much time as we think we have, that everything can change in a day."

The youngest of four brothers, Bachman allows that he was always in search of the spotlight. He discovered theater when he was a sophomore at Elkhart Memorial High School. The school had an active theater department with an inspirational teacher in charge, Sherry Hoover.

Bachman's first part was Hansel in a children's production of Hansel and Gretel. He was given a knife as a prop and managed to slash his hand in the first act. Somehow Bachman camouflaged the bleeding throughout the performance. "I figured if I could endure that, this is something I should consider."

Soon he was involved in choir, singing and taking dance lessons. "Opportunities just kept coming along."

Bachman auditioned for theater departments at several colleges and universities before settling on Butler University, where he became one of "John Green's kids." Green, the London-born head of Butler's department at the time, was known for his spirit of experimentation and demanding work ethic. "You got in there and you learned on the job," says Bachman. "You felt fully invested, like you had control over what was happening, though I know he had this great vision of what it was going to be."

Learning to learn

Bachman says the most important thing he learned at Butler was how to learn. "It was ingrained in us there was more out there and I knew I wanted to learn those things."

That thirst for knowledge led Bachman to Ireland where, in addition to the experience of diversity, he also encountered a society open to an unconventional approach to theater. Work considered experimental here — like devising a performance from diaries or other nontheatrical materials — was readily accepted in Europe, where entertainment and thought-provoking experience are not considered mutually exclusive.

"Over there, the devised pieces, the movement-based pieces, were considered entertainment. People expected to be entertained in the theater and to think and to ponder at the same time," says Bachman. "I saw a midnight show of [Sarah Kane's] 4:48 Psychosis and the place was packed. People were waiting to get in. They were hungry for theater, for something different."

Bachman found that this environment also fed his taste for spontaneity. "You could just go out and do things. Guerrilla art over there is so much fun. Many times a few of my classmates and myself were in a room together and it was a really cool night so we'd just go out and do something, anything. And you never had to worry about criticism or the police coming round. You didn't have to worry about passersby messing with you or trying to stop you. People were interested."

Back in Indianapolis, Bachman found a creative niche with the NoExit ensemble. Founded by fellow Butler Theatre alums Nicole Gatzimos and Ronald Gilliam in 2004, NoExit has grown into a collaborative project involving a number of Bachman's other Butler classmates, including Alyson Mull and Georgeanna Smith.

NoExit's most recent production, a site-specific performance of the Greek tragedy Antigone, adapted and directed by Smith and presented outdoors, on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was both a critical and popular success.

"Antigone showed us we have the talent to become a company and a force," says Bachman, who acted in the piece. "It's taken us five years to get there."

Next up for NoExit will be an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds by new member Ryan Mullins, followed, in the spring, by Alyson Mull's take on children's classic The Phantom Tollbooth.

Meanwhile, Bachman is working on an interactive piece about the Lilly family's history of philanthropy in Indianapolis. "I'm very interested in the Lillys and where this philanthropic spirit came from. What moved them." He wants to produce the piece at the Lilly house at the IMA and construct the play so that the audience can follow several generations of Lillys through the building, "The audience will choose what they see and create their own piece by moving through the house and being in different areas at different times."

Creating culture

Eventually Bachman would like to direct his own version of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis. The play, the title of which refers to the hour in the early morning when Kane, who was clinically depressed and, ultimately, killed herself, would habitually wake up, has been called "a 75-minute suicide note."

But, for Bachman, the play is a complex metaphor. Kane's work, he says, represents "so many different pieces of the mind trying to speak out and have their say about what happens to the body."

This metaphor, Bachman continues, has a timely relevance to what he sees happening in his Center's East 10th St. neighborhood. "You can relate that to what's happening in this area now, with more money being put in and more affluent families and more diversity here in the Center. We're not having to charge people along our sliding pay scale as much. We have parents now who can pay the full price for services, which didn't happen in the past. We're seeing $250,000 homes in Woodruff Place.

"And all of these voices are starting to speak out, especially those that have been here so long, saying, 'hey, wait a minute, what about us?' Some of these voices are in different languages, but they're trying to inhabit the same body — giving control and taking control, allowing others to have control when necessary."

At one time, Bachman says, people in this neighborhood felt discarded by the city. "They felt they were on their own, living a street life, where they had to defend themselves and protect what's theirs, whatever it takes to do that."

Now, perhaps, that self-reliance is turning to more positive ends as the city and local businesses are beginning to invest in neighborhood redevelopment projects like installing new windows in many nearby homes. "I am seeing a lot more investment by the people that live here," says Bachman. "I'm seeing people take care of their neighborhoods, take care of their yards."

At the Center, this energy is manifest in the implementation of a Reggio Emilia early childhood curriculum. Bachman and Emily Nauth, the Center's Daycare Program Coordinator, have started in partnership with Butler University's education department and St. Mary's Child Center. The Reggio Emilia approach engages children and their parents in a hands-on, experiential process wherein they learn how to learn. Reggio Emilia creates a kind of laboratory where culture is something students are enabled to construct for themselves.

For Bachman, the theater major who once would "never have come to this side of town," but who finds himself committed to it now, the energy in this place is fed by what he understands to be a creative process. "It's a good blend of everything that I've done. The kids come in and smile and they come in and laugh. If nothing else, we're giving them the opportunity to do that. To be somewhere they can feel secure enough to let their guard down and have fun."

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