You could call the actor/director Michael Shelton the Indianapolis equivalent of a child star. He's a local showbiz lifer who began his career in the theater at the age of six, when his parents took him downtown to audition for a role in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol in 1980. He didn't have to be persuaded to participate. Shelton knew almost immediately that this was the life for him. He's been on local stages ever since.
In 2006, Shelton was part of a group of local professional actors who founded the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre. The group's intention has been to create additional opportunities for local theater artists by offering staged readings and full productions of contemporary and classic plays. HART shows have included Death and the Maiden, In a Dark, Dark House and Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
HART has also made a name for itself by with its outdoor productions of Shakespeare plays in the White River State Park amphitheater. Originally booked as the theater component for the Park's summer Family Arts series in 2008, HART's production of The Merchant of Venice was so well received that the company was invited back last summer, where they drew crowds of over 1,000 people for Much Ado About Nothing.
HART returns to the park August 6, 7 and 8 with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Shelton, who now serves as HART's Artistic Director, is also the director of the company's latest outing. He took a break from rehearsals last week to talk about HART and his hopes for an outdoor Shakespeare festival.
Shelton: It was a dream of mine, personally, to get summer Shakespeare on the Canal downtown going because I think the city needs it. Given the turnout [the last two years], I may have been right. It's been incredibly well received. But HART is only about four years-old. This is our third year in White River State Park doing summer Shakespeare. There are growing pains and some changes have happened in terms of people that are with us and people that aren't – like with any organization in the early years. But [summer Shakespeare] has turned into a flagship event.
NUVO: It's great to see a group made by actors for actors. What's it like to create your own venue?
Shelton: Any time we go anywhere, it's always treading new ground. There's something exciting – not only for us, but for the audience – abut going into a space where they're not used to seeing things. Don't get me wrong: It would be lovely to have a permanent home. There's something wonderful about people knowing where to find you. But there are interesting challenges and opportunities to being a nomadic troupe, as we are.
NUVO: You can be nimble.
Shelton: And you can find spaces that fit whatever show you're trying to do. Midwestern Hemisphere was perfect for the Artsgarden because it's about living in a big dome. Something very intimate, like In a Dark, Dark House, the Neil LaBute play at the Fringe space, where it's tight, puts you in there with the characters. Then there's Shakespeare, where it's huge and vast and turned into this festival atmosphere out there in the park, where we use up every inch of green space we possibly can.
NUVO: What's it like working out there?
Shelton: Any time you're working outside, you have certain obstacles and challenges to deal with. Weather is one of them. Noise. But, in general, it's lovely being outside. It's a really cool environment from both sides of the stage. From a performance standpoint, it's crazy, the scope of the audience – it's like you're playing a rock show. It's wonderfully bizarre, when you're doing Shakespeare, to look out and see a crowd of a thousand-plus people. It's a phenomenal experience. Being on the bank of the river and having that as a backdrop creates all kinds of opportunities. Shakespeare fits perfectly because so much of it is happening outdoors anyway.
NUVO: You say you felt the city needed Shakespeare. Why is that?
Shelton: There are certainly organizations that do Shakespeare – most notably the IRT (Indiana Repertory Theatre). But their take is always to take things and put them in a contemporary environment, which is not a bad thing. I don't mean to knock it. I love the idea of doing Shakespeare traditionally, as an introduction for people, to show them what it can be. I don't personally feel that you have to cater down to an audience. I don't think you have to set it in a contemporary environment to get them to understand it. You just have to do it well. You just have to be clear. You have to tell the story. You also have to get the right people to do it, and that's where I've been very fortunate in having the connections, knowing the actors I knew as an actor before any of this started. I guess that's where it came from. There wasn't anybody putting it out there in the way, at least I believe, it was originally intended.
NUVO: There seems to be something about performing Shakespeare outdoors that makes it especially accessible to people.
Shelton: I think so. The whole environment down there turns into a festive thing. Not that I'm encouraging this, but if you get bored with one scene, you can get a drink and come back. It's very different than if you're in a dark theater and you can't think about anything else.
NUVO: How did you come to choose The Two Gentlemen of Verona?
Shelton: Each year I probably read half the canon over again to try to figure out what we're going to do. The hope was – and still is for next year – to expand this into a larger festival. The park is behind that. But, like everything else, it's a matter of finding the financing. We were hoping to do two shows, including one of the tragedies. But when we came to realize we could only afford to produce one show again this year, we decided we better keep it light and entertaining and not try to do anything too heavy. We also wanted to do something different from Much Ado About Nothing, which we did last year.
Two Gentlemen is so fun. It's start-to-finish entertainment that keeps you laughing through the whole piece. It maybe doesn't have the substance that Much Ado has, though there are things going on. It's really just a good time. I would say it's one of Shakespeare's funniest plays.
NUVO: This year you're also offering a pre-show where different musicians (Bobbie Lancaster, Tim Brickley, and Dan Holmes, respectively) will play a set before each performance. Isn't the idea of a pre-show Elizabethan?
Shelton: Yes, but I'll be honest, I didn't come up with it for that reason. I was amazed people were coming so early the first year and camping to get their spots. So we realized we better do something because everybody showed up two hours ahead of time. But it's the same basic principle as in Shakespeare's time: Come out for the entertainment – and see what we've got.
HART's production of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Directed by Michael Shelton
White River State Park
Aug. 6 & 7 at 8 p.m.
Aug. 8 at 2 p.m.
Come early for musical entertainment
Admission is free