Audiences at the Indiana Repertory Theatre's Going Solo festival may not know it, but they're seeing two of Indianapolis's most successful artists at work. Rob and Ryan Koharchik, designers and twin brothers, have the theater market in Indy cornered, at least in terms of sets and lights.
Their combined resumes include virtually every major performance company here: the IRT, Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre, Beef and Boards, Butler University, just to name a few.
The Koharchik brothers currently showcase their visual talents in three overlapping one-actor shows at the IRT: I Love to Eat, Nobody Don't Like Yogi and Lost. Each show is staged in the same space, necessitating flexibility in the designs, which serves a different purpose for each show. Rob must create a set that can be transformed into virtually any location by Ryan's lights. The brothers have tackled this Going Solo challenge together for three years running.
"I try to sum up the three plays with one image," Rob says, "and put that image on stage. This year we are concentrating on the individual details of the three plays. These three shows are a lot more specific in their place."
Meanwhile, Ryan creates specificity and flexibility in his light plot with a singular focus. "The lighting is actually based on a common element: home." Ryan explains. "Whether they are reconnecting with home, trying to find home or coming back home, there is that home environment."
A shared vocabulary
As the two combine forces to create a range of atmospheres for three very different stories, they fall into a natural shorthand.
"There is a shared vocabulary," Ryan admits, "because we've worked together so long. I already know what he is planning on doing when we get into the shows."
Rob adds, "More so than [with] any other designers I try to back off so I don't cross that line. We try to keep it entirely professional. Even though I can be a little more blunt about what's happening, I try not to get to that sibling rivalry."
Both brothers point to the danger of letting that professionalism break down during the collaborative process. "There are a bunch of other people around us as well, who are all collaborating," Ryan notes. Adds Rob, "I want to make sure that shorthand doesn't become so short that everyone else is not included."
Though Rob specializes in scenic design and Ryan focuses on lighting design, each is adept in both fields and each has a residency that involves exercising the two skills: Rob as a professor at Butler University and Ryan as Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's resident designer. But as Rob explains, "I won't take work away from another lighting designer. When I'm working on the outside, I only take on work as a set designer. I think it'd be too confusing: two Koharchiks designing."
Their older sister, Christine, gave the twins a first taste of life behind the scenes, finding them work in their high school scene shop. After high school, the twins left their hometown of Hammond, Indiana, for Muncie and the Ball State University theatre program.
"As undergraduates you establish yourself as the twins," Rob jokes, "because that's who you are."
After earning their undergraduate degrees, the twins applied to the University/Resident Theatre Association interviews. The URTAs put young theater professionals in front of several grad school programs at once.
"When it came down to it," says Ryan, "we had a number of offers from similar schools. We just decided to land on the same one because we thought it was good. We never sat down and said 'Oh let's go to the same place.' We just happened to get accepted to the same places. We were never conscious of it." Rob received his MFA in scenic design and Ryan got his MFA in lighting design from Boston University.
Stay and build something
After graduation, Rob and Ryan set off to find careers. "I did a summer theater gig in Tennessee; then I ended up in Hammond for a little while," Rob recalls. "I was driving through Indianapolis, and I had some friends who could get me some work [here]. I've somehow developed a career here. It's not a natural path for a designer to move to the middle of the country, in a small theater market. Especially then, downtown was kind of like a ghost town. I remember being able to drive downtown and park anywhere."
After spending some time as an assistant to a designer in Chicago, Ryan, too, made his way to the Circle City. "I would drive down every now and then for design work," Ryan says, "and found work freelancing as an electrician. Then Civic offered me full time back in '95. I was going to pay off my student loans and head back to Chicago. But I ended up staying here. I have family here; I have jobs here. So why would I move?"
Both Rob and Ryan opted to help create the burgeoning Indy theater community. "When we saw all of the neighborhoods being rejuvenated downtown and theater being sparked," Rob says, "we didn't want to leave that. We felt like we were part of that growth. We can stay and build something."
Ryan adds, "You establish a career and find out you have a lot of relationships. You become part of developing that city... It's no longer about my career and finding work. It's about building that community.
"I'm not going to do Broadway sitting from this seat," Ryan adds. "But if your goal is to create a career in the field, that's what I've done here. But more than that, because I have the option to explore within that field."
"I think the quality of life is better. I have a life," Rob says. "I assisted a designer in New York [during] my last semester of grad school, and that really did affect me. Do I really want to move to New York, live in a small apartment and battle for work day in, day out? Or can I make a living doing what I really want somewhere else?"