Stage courage 

Scot Greenwell and Shawn Whistler are leading a new kind of local theater

Scot Greenwell and Shawn Whistler are leading a new kind of local theater
The first time I went to the former LAMP Gallery, I drove past it without realizing where I was. Its location on East Street put it on a cusp between the gentrified housing of Chatham Arch and downtown. Since I don't often go to art galleries, LAMP was an unfamiliar venue for me. But that night, my role of theater reviewer was taking me there.
The same thing happened on my way to another play, this time at Ruschman Gallery. Nights spent at English Ivy's, right down the block on Alabama, should have clued me in - I had walked by Ruschman on my way to and from the restaurant. Still, I had to drive around the block before I realized where it was. Entering these spaces made me hesitant about what I would find inside. Though both galleries have been lauded for their visual art, the thought of going to either one for theater seemed strange. I simply didn't know what to expect, and I felt out of my element. But something magical was happening. The companies putting on these shows were willing to take a chance - a chance that is making a mark on Indianapolis' theater community. I bought into that chance and was rewarded with two of the best shows I have seen in this town.
Original theater, innovative places
Last year, Indianapolis saw an emergence of what could be considered a new kind of local theater. What had begun in 2001 as a breakthrough with ShadowApe Theatre Company, a conglomerate of Indianapolis' best of the best in theater, and their awe-inducing second show, Gorey Stories, came to a head with the top two shows of 2004 being from similarly upstart companies. While tried and true theaters with their own houses - Phoenix Theatre, Theatre on the Square, Indiana Repertory Theatre and many more - have continued to bring quality productions to their stages, small groups of people are creating original theater of their own, choosing innovative places as venues. The last few years have seen many small companies take shape. Some lasted for only one season, but others have managed to keep shows coming. Just a few of these include NoExit, Theatre People Productions, the Beckmann Theatre, Red Dragon Theatre, Arden Theatre Co., Loose Cannon Productions and Inklings Theatre. The plays I had to seek out at art galleries, Two Rooms from PEOPLES Playhouse and The Shape of Things from Ganas Theatre Productions, were produced in October 2004. Both productions were at the very top of my 2004 year-end best-of list. They exemplify an exciting local trend: Instead of going the traditional route with well-established theaters, younger artists are going out on their own. This method of creating theater gives them more flexibility, more creative control and a better chance to create a kind of theater Indianapolis has been lacking. Choosing alternative venues isn't new to Indy: Ganas' premiere production Bus Stop was performed in the City Market in 2003. Local modern dance company Susurrus has performed in a variety of site-specific locations around the city, including the catacombs of the City Market (in 2002). And then-local wunderkind Blaine Hogan took over a Broad Ripple alley for a performance in 2003. This work has attracted audiences and is now being viewed as a serious alternative to traditional stages. It also gives companies with no permanent home an outlet. But free-standing theaters are also making spaces available to newcomers: The Alley Theatre opened last year and serves as a space for hire, as does the performance space at the Wheeler Art Center. Theatre on the Square is making plans to renovate its Stage 2 in order to open it up to theater-makers looking for a space.
Getting it out there
Ganas Artistic Director Shawn Whistler, 26, says the choice of venue "is different depending on whether you ask me as a producer or as a director. As a producer, the location is a way to make the theater product different, affordable and increase the chance for profit. "As a director, the venue is inherently tied to my production concept for the specific show. For example, the theme for The Shape of Things [Ganas' second show] was the question, 'Do people constitute art?' By staging it in an art gallery with performance artists recreating art tableaus from the start of the show, I am engaging each audience member regarding their personal experience to 'art' within the emotional context of a staged play, not in the traditional theater setting. "For the actors, the challenge of site-specific theater is one of learning the invisible relationship between actor and audience. When the audience and the actors are both searching and experiencing together, each performance is amazing to watch, even having rehearsed every day with the actors." Scot Greenwell, 27, artistic director of PEOPLES, says, "Two Rooms was at LAMP because that just seemed to work, because it takes place in two small rooms. It's incredibly intimate so I thought, hey, let's do it there. I also had gotten to know Jennifer Kaye [artistic director of the LAMP Gallery], and she said it sounds really timely because of the election, and that's how it all came about." PEOPLES' second show, Shopping and Fucking, was set at the Alley. Whistler reports that "Both [my] shows did financially better than projected. Each show teaches me something new about the art of direction. Artistically, I am very proud of the results, and the feedback from the audiences is encouraging for more site-specific performance in the near future." Many of the people starting these companies are young innovators who want to stay in Indy, and see the need to create a place for themselves. "We want to stay here," Greenwell says. "I feel very passionate about this. Theater is a social mechanism; look at Hair back in the '60s and '70s: It was controversial, it was eye-opening and it said something about those times. That's what's exciting to me about things like Angels in America. You read or watch that play and you get the '80s - you understand the '80s. Likewise I feel so excited about sitting here living life; history books are being written now. Let's express ourselves - get it out there. "Theater is a social mechanism and it's covered in New York, it's covered in L.A., it's covered in Chicago. I would rather [do theater] here. I look around and I just see so many things like the brain drain. It's a conundrum. You want Indy to be a cultural destination, yet you don't know how to fix the brain drain? Cultivate your artists. These people who spend thousands on their education and want to change their environment, Indianapolis, aren't getting the work or the kudos or whatever to stay here." Both Greenwell and Whistler found it tough to break into the local theater community. Both are college-educated, but without the right experience, they didn't find many open doors. "Without an undergrad in theater, I found it difficult to land a 'job' in theater, lacking references and experience. I couldn't afford to do it without pay," Whistler says. "Also, establishment leads to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy does not offer much potential to an inexperienced artist wanting to start his career. So, I put my own money where my mouth is. I believe that if opportunity doesn't come knocking, you go knocking on doors to find it. I've learned so much more about the artistic process this way and wouldn't trade it for the world." Greenwell took a similar path. He inherited some money, and with it, he and Brian Hartz began Rough Magic Productions, a project he has since turned over to other hands. "The reason I got into it [independent theater] is because I wanted to direct, and I can't go into the Indiana Repertory Theatre and say, here's my resume, I'm a director, help me out. I can't do that at the Phoenix; I really couldn't even do that at TOTS. That's the reason I was so into doing my own stuff. I knew I needed to build a resume and I knew that I did have good ideas but my biggest advocate was going to be me," Greenwell says. "The [established] theater community doesn't fulfill us artists. We go [to big theaters] and see really polished performances, but we're not moved. And also it's too safe. "I think the Phoenix does do the work that several of us are interested in - none of us are Equity [the theater performers' and workers' union], that is a problem - but it takes a while for them to warm up to you before you get a role." Whistler sees the two worlds as just too different: "As small as Indianapolis and the theater community in it is, we all lend support to one another in whatever way we can. Yet we all have a message to say through our own artistic endeavors and some people's messages dramatically differ from one another. "The small scene I believe has the greatest potential for growth both as an artist and as an audience member. Smaller budgets and smaller talent pools require greater amounts of compromise, and in my opinion, greater creativity in solving the constraints of time, money and artistic resources. American culture is always looking for the newest, hippest thing and that need draws a wide variety of people to the smaller venues."
Threshold of a new era
Both Whistler and Greenwell have to make sacrifices for their art. Both must hold down lackluster day jobs. "I can't see myself being happy in the corporate world," Whistler says. "I could certainly make a better living by keeping theater a hobby, but I believe I was born to be a performance artist. Only a small minority of theater artists get the luxury of not carrying at least a part-time job to at least supplement their income, no matter where he/she lives." Greenwell says, "I think why the projects I've been involved with haven't panned out into something more substantial is because you don't have the time and resources to devote to making it real. You've got to get up the next morning and go to work. And then you get home and you take care of the dog or kids and now it's time for the show. It wears you out. Not only are you doing a show but you are trying to put together a company that has a marketing plan? I'm sorry, but something's gotta go. Unfortunately, it's the marketing plan and then we don't get a lot of butts in the seats. It's all a big conundrum. "I had made mistakes, I knew that, but I was just like, God, it's hard trying to live your life and hold down a full-time job because these shows are not paying the bills, and it's just so difficult, but Bryan [Fonseca, artistic director of the Phoenix] was very encouraging and he was like, that's just what I did." Given the drive of these two young men, as well as the dozens more out there, Indianapolis theater could be on the threshold of a new era. Greenwell says, "I think we have the makings of another Steppenwolf here - and I don't think that's a pipe dream. I think that's really a reality, we could do that."
'Keely and Du' Projects for Shawn Whistler and Scot Greenwell are diverse. Whistler just finished acting in the run of Impossible Marriage, and has been asked to act in the Beckmann Theatre's next project. "For me personally, I will be writing, producing and directing A Midsummer Night of Fairies and Asses, a gay parody of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, for the Indianapolis Fringe Festival Aug. 19-28." PEOPLES Playhouse is also participating in the Fringe Festival. Currently, Greenwell is directing Keely & Du with Theatre Non Nobis as a fund-raiser for the Julian Center. The show is a bit of a shock, coming from TNN, a Christian company. Keely & Du is about a rape victim, Keely, who is kidnapped by a radical Right to Life group while on her way to an abortion clinic. She is imprisoned in a basement room with Du, who will look after her until the child is brought to term. However, part of TNN's mission statement is "present[ing] theatre which breaks out of the bonds of traditional Christian drama." Theatre Non Nobis board member Kirk Fields comments, "The play itself does not provide a resolution to the abortion debate, nor do we claim to know what may be right or what may be wrong. Our primary goal is to get people to realize that not only are there many viewpoints to examine, there are no easy answers. "We also feel that by presenting the play as a fund-raiser for the Julian Center, we could help the audience realize there are women right in their own town who are struggling with similar issues every day. Although the primary focus of Keely & Du is on abortion, the events are triggered by domestic abuse. While we cannot claim to know whether abortion is right or wrong, we can speak out against domestic abuse." The play doesn't take a pro-life, or a pro-choice, standpoint, but shows consequences of both. The cast of Keely & Du includes Angela Steele, C. Elise LeBrun, Alan Shepard, Matthew E. Graber (founder of Arden Theatre Company), John Mercer and Jenifer Henry. The production staff includes Greenwell as director, Mary Ferguson as stage manager, Nash Kegley as technical director/master carpenter, Jeffrey Barnes as set designer, Aaron Seelig as lighting designer, Jared Duymovic as props designer and Rissa Guffey as costume designer. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Arts Center Theatre, 1035 Sanders St., through May 21. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, and are available in advance or at the door. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit the Julian Center. Additional donations for the Julian Center will be accepted at the performance as well. Call 979-7697 for tickets, or visit www.nonnobis.org for more information.

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