The most important thing for Joe Cook about his Garfield Shakespeare Company is that it be free for all.
"It's no secret to any of us how tough the economy is these days," says Cook, the company's founder and artistic director. "I don't know anyone that isn't struggling. There are some wonderful things going on in the city, but a large part of our population really can't afford the price of those theater tickets."
Garfield Park had a reputation for doing Shakespeare in the Park in the '80s and '90s, but had ceased such productions by the time Cook moved into the park's neighborhood in 2004.
"I knew that particular program ended, so I was watching to see what else was going on in the park. There were concerts and festivals but no theater really," explains Cook. "So I went to the powers that be over at the park and we set up a partnership."
In exchange for free use of Garfield Park facilities, including the Arts Center and amphitheater, Cook's company provides free theater to visitors. Over seven seasons Garfield Shakespeare Company has produced a variety of the Bard's plays, starting in 2008 with its first full-scale production, The Taming of the Shrew. Now Cook is steering the company in a new direction.
"In seven full seasons, we've only done two non-Shakespearean plays," says Cook. "So this year, we decided to just go for it. We're calling this the modern classics season. It's a little ironic [that we're not doing a Shakespeare play] because this is a key year for Shakespeare, it being the 450th anniversary of his birth."
Those modern classics are Jean Anouilh's Antigone, based on the classical Greek tragedy by Sophocles, and Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, based on Arthurian legend.
In addition to providing a free experience to theatergoers, Cook is also intent on offering new opportunities to performers of all skill levels.
"What makes us different is that we have opportunities for a wider range of people," he says. "We provide a place where people of all ages and walks of life can participate. We've run the gamut in terms of our actors from people who this is their first time on stage doing anything to actors with an equity card who are working with us because they want the opportunity to play a specific role."
Cook's instinct toward inclusivity stems from his former career as a high school teacher. He has retired from teaching Latin and Spanish at Ben Davis High School.
"People are a little surprised by [that I did not teach theater], but it was my refuge to get away from the problems of school," he says. "If I had been doing it during the day as part of my teaching, it wouldn't have been my release from it. I did theater in the evening as my avocation."
What was once a hobby is now a full-time focus for 73-year-old Cook.
"I still look at everything as an opportunity to work with young people and to provide them opportunities and help them explore their talents and dream about what they can do," he says.