Last summer, Indianapolis theater-goers were disheartened to learn that the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre wouldn't be back for their free Shakespeare on the Canal at White River State Park series, a then-annual mainstay on its calendar. Having lost funding from The Clowes Fund, which decided last year to discontinue sponsoring an arts season at the park, the company found it impossible to mount the show using what was then in their coffers. But HART has soldiered on, and returns to the park this weekend with their production of Othello. I had a chance to sit down with HART Artistic Director Michael Shelton, who opened up about the challenges HART faced to make this comeback.
NUVO: Take us back to last summer, when the Family Arts Series was canceled. What steps did your company take?
Michael Shelton: The immediate reaction, of course, was disappointment; everyone sort of went into emergency mode. There was tremendous support with everyone in the company. The first steps that we took were to find emergency funding so we wouldn’t have had to cancel last year. We turned in an official grant request to everybody we could think to talk to. Luckily, this year, we found support through the Lilly Endowment, the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation and the Central Indiana Community Foundation.
NUVO: Why the decision to keep it free?
Shelton: I love the whole Shakespeare in the Park in New York City thing. There’s a generation in the world right now that doesn't have the appreciation for theater that I would like for them to have. Look around at the audience base of any of the professional theaters in town: the median age is getting up there. To see the crowds that come out, the families, the little children running around beforehand, listening to the pre-show music and dancing, and then sitting down and watching ... you see these wide eyes staring up at you like: this is a spectacle I had no idea existed. It is wonderful to see.
NUVO: HART is known for using Equity actors. How do you explain the cost of that decision?
Shelton: Part of the reason the company was founded was to provide another opportunity, in a city with very few opportunities, for professional actors to be employed. Believe me, it would make my life a whole lot simpler if we were a non-equity company. A whole lot simpler. But not worthwhile: you pay for what you get. I dream of having the funding to be able to do a season of shows, to have an operating budget for a season. I could’ve done [David Mamet’s] Race a year ago if I wasn’t sure that I wanted to use David Alan Anderson. But it always becomes about how to finance it. Difficult as it is to find the funding to do Shakespeare on the Canal, it is much more difficult to get anyone to contribute to a professional production of a new David Mamet play.
NUVO: Do you think Indy sustains an audience for work like Race?
Shelton: It’s a different audience, but that audience does exist. It’s just a question of finding the things that appeal to them, in making sure they know about them, and doing them really well. Audience is different from support. It’s just finding someone to take that risk and put the money into it.
NUVO: Can you speak about your concept for Othello this year?
Shelton: It’s pretty straightforward. My theory on Shakespeare is that it’s just about storytelling. These are fabulous stories. They’re just beautifully crafted. I feel that our job is to dig into that incredibly rich text, pull out everything we possibly can and tell that story as well as we can tell it.
Correction: The print edition of this story suggested that Indy Parks was involved in funding Shakespeare in the Park until last year. In fact, Indy Parks has never funded Shakespeare in the Park, and it was last year's decision by The Clowes Fund to discontinue funding for the Summer Arts Series, of which Shakespeare on the Canal was a part, that led to last year's cancellation.