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IRT conference explores the role of theater 

Spirited conversations surrounded development of four new plays for young audiences during a four-day conference at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. While the main focus of the sponsoring organization, Write Now!, is to hone each script for eventual production through a process of rehearsed readings, the 18 playwrights and 32 other theater professionals attending engaged in a series of shared learning and teaching experiences about the current state of making theater for young audiences.

In an interactive presentation, Liz Lerman challenges theater artists to rethink the way they meet challenges through a process of "creative research." It's not just about asking "small questions" and gathering facts from usual sources for a credible answer, rather it's asking big questions and seeking information from sources outside the norm and then situating facts within meaningful context and content. It's not merely what you do but how you go about the doing that places work within the realm of meaningful creativity.

"Knowledge happens when we ask questions," posits Lerman. For her, big questions start with, "Who are your ancestors who can make you feel comfortable in this world?"

When she tells us, "You are not alone, you are part of the world," the inference is that we are mandated to make art for the greater good, not to satisfy our egos. Bringing "new" plays to audiences is a community effort, and building honest working relationships between members of the creative team gives an audience more than an end product — they feel the humanity that surrounds the birthing of that new play.

"Action with meaning" leads to "powerful transmission," says Lerman. So the really big questions are "What is it that's important about live theater? What can theater do that nothing else can?"

There's no recipe to making good theater, says Lerman. Rather there's a time-honored process that becomes part of the value.

This sentiment was evident in the town hall programs that introduced three working relationships. Talleri McRae of Stage One and Tom Arvetis of Adventure Stage shared their experiences of making community-centric theater in Louisville. The take away: "It's not what the playwright and producing theater thinks is important for an audience to see and hear." Rather it's about taking to the streets and asking people what stories about their community are important for them to see on stage.

That's essentially what Hallie Gordon and Lisa Portes of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults did by commissioning a new play about graffiti art. But then two critics from Chicago's daily newspapers took Steppenwolf to task for not emphasizing the dollar cost of graffiti to owners of buildings. Community conversation beyond the seats in a darkened theater brought to light a festering issue — why do young people feel empowered to engage in graffiti art?

The third town hall panel discussion brought forward questions about placing Theatre for Young Audiences within the realm of the League of American Theatres. Bruce Sevy of Denver Center, Wendy Bable of People's Light (Malvern, Penn.) and Henry Godinez of Goodman (Chicago) shared their positive working relationships with playwrights for young audiences. For us in Indianapolis, that's nothing startling. IRT has been a youth theater leader for 30 years and just about every other professional theater in Indianapolis creates a season that welcomes audiences of all ages with plays that entertain and address issues of consequence.

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

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Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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