Q Artistry, a theater company based in the east side neighborhood of Irvington, first made waves in 2009 and ‘10 with the original musical Cabaret Poe. Ben Asaykwee is artistic director of Q Artistry, contributing both on stage and off as a writer, director, composer, actor and more. I talked with him at their Irvington headquarters, the Historic Irvington Lodge, where he and his company have found an artistic home.
Life before “Q”
Asaykwee, an Indiana native, moved to Chicago in 2005 to join, in his words, “a thriving arts community, instead of a growing arts community.” While there, he worked successfully as a professional actor, yet felt unfulfilled by the ensemble roles he tended to play.
“I was constantly getting cast [as] Sailor #3 in South Pacific,” explains Asaykwee [pronounced ah-SAY-kwee]. “It was just tiring doing the same old stuff over and over again. At the same time, I started writing more.”
In 2007, Asaykwee created an alternative artistic outlet. “Some friends and I decided that we were going to start a company, just to write things and create things that we wanted to do. Because if Chicago wasn’t going to offer it for us, we were going to offer it for ourselves. That’s when I started writing Cabaret Poe.”
Q Artistry debuted this musical interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories at Chicago’s 2008 Looptopia Festival. Though they were booked into a mall setting, with escalators gliding up and down behind them, audiences praised the show.
“This was before it was in its final capacity.” notes Asaykwee. “It was a one act version with “The Raven” and a couple other things. But people loved it, and it was incredibly inspirational to me.”
Around the time of the 2008 economic nose-dive, however, Asaykwee’s acting schedule saw sudden lapses. He was at a crossroads: “Do I live somewhere where the cost of living is twice as much, and yeah, there is twice as much opportunity, or do I move close to my family?” That year, he returned to Indiana.
Irvington, a new “Q-mmunity”
He continued to nurture his artistic baby, Q Artistry, and with an interest in the macabre, Asaykwee was drawn to Irvington for their ghost tours. When he discovered the Historic Irvington Lodge, the American Romanticism of the building’s architecture struck him. “Coming up into this space, and just the building from the outside… it kind of looks like something Edgar Allen Poe would have put together,” he recounts. “We walked into the space and my imagination went wild.”
A piece of Poe’s world sleepily nestled in this Indy borough was too good to be true. There was no question in Asaykwee’s mind; he had to remount his homage to the literary master for local audiences.
“I loved [Cabaret Poe], but I thought people would be like, ‘Oh my god, you are massacring a master,’” says Asaykwee. “[It’s] a hard sell until you show them some of it. When you first say ‘Edgar Allan Poe set to music,’ people start backing away with hands raised because it sounds either cheesy or dumb.”
Asaykwee has a mantra tailor-made for those occasions: “I can’t make everybody happy, but I can certainly make a whole hell of a lot of people mad.”
Audiences were slow to come at first, drawn mostly from the neighborhood crowd looking for entertainment close to home. Q Artistry depended on word of mouth to sell the show.
Asaykwee praises the support from the Irvington community and points to businesses and the Historic Irvington Community Council as factors in the show’s initial success. He is the first to admit that without the goodwill of Irvingtonians, Q Artistry might not be alive today. Through this support, Q Artistry programmed a season of new work and also remounted Cabaret Poe the next year (2010).
Communities and theater companies often enjoy a symbiotic relationship; Irvington and Q Artistry is no exception. The audiences that come to Q Artistry’s shows bring dollars to Irvington businesses. “October 2010 was a record month for us,” says John Robertson owner of The Legend Classic Irvington Café, “a lot of it was due to Q Artistry.”
Asaykwee continued to build on this community support throughout Q Artistry‘s first season in Indianapolis. He mounted his first ever “Q-mmunity” show, a send up of the Harry Potter franchise called Perry Haughter. Families turned out in droves to be part of the first ever Irvington community production. And that’s just how he wanted it. “If you have zero talent and experience, we will find some place for you,” says Asaykwee.
In his mind, it was something fun and cheap for neighbors and friends to do together. Of the experience Asaykwee says, “There wasn’t a single moment of that process, and I can’t say this about every project, that I did not find completely joyful.” After the show’s opening, Q Artistry’s Irvington roots went deeper.
Asaykwee was happy, finally, to be part of Indianapolis’ “growing arts community.”
A future for “Q”
Asaykwee has set lofty goals, describing the company as “the only organization with a residency that does original works by Indiana natives.” Asaykwee‘s company fills a niche. He explains: “Indianapolis needs more original work. TOTS and Phoenix do a great job of supplying new works… That’s one of the things I look forward to, is for Q Artistry to fill that void.”
Asaykwee often finds himself playing multiple creative roles within the company. For Cabaret Poe alone, he wrote, composed, directed and acted; not to mention the full plate of work he accomplished as the company’s artistic director. Making those transitions are a constant battle for the artist. He acknowledges the team around him as the foundation for his successful multi-tasking.
“[I] must trust everyone in the room to tell the truth to the question ‘Do I look stupid?’” he says.
The easiest transition for Asaykwee is from writer to performer; he finds pleasure in melding his voice on the page with his voice on stage. In Cabaret Poe, for instance, he says, “I wrote it for myself, wrote the music to fit my voice.” Transitioning from writer to director, he describes as, “They argue sometimes.”
While Q Artistry has yet to produce work not written by Asaykwee, he hopes to open the company up as a platform for other Indianapolis artists. The future of Q Artistry, he envisions, is as an “inspiration center,” a place to combine dance, theatre, visual art and more. In five years he wants to have “the freedom to let go of the reins, to let creativity soar, to let things happen.”
In addition, he has big goals for the Irvington community: “For people from all over Indianapolis to think of Irvington as not only a place that is haunted, but also as a culturally centered neighborhood.”
Next up for Q Artistry: The Bunny Spectacular, an idea that came to Asaykwee when he found a good deal on a bunny costume. For this artist, inspiration strikes randomly but is always welcome. The show is his attempt to de-commercialize Easter. “The only place that you can get your picture taken with the Easter Bunny is the mall. [I] wanted to give a more affordable, entertaining, artistic option for kids and families.”
He also makes mention of an upcoming fundraiser: “The Q-ball,” he grins, “get it?” Proceeds from the event will fund items on Q Artistry’s wish-list: lighting and sound systems.
As Q Artistry develops, Asaykwee promises to continue grow artistically. “We try to either bare truth or bare enlightenment. If we are not pushing at least a little bit in theater, there is no point, because you can just stay home and read a book.”