If you’re looking for theater in the Circle City, you’ll find everything from tried and true Broadway musicals to thought-provoking plays about gentrification.
Let’s start at Beef & Boards, the dinner theater on Indy’s northwest side that has been operating since 1973. It’s where you can catch a Broadway-type musical like, say, 42nd Street (opening date April 4), after scarfing down a plateful of roast beef, if that’s what you so desire.
But Beef & Boards isn’t the only venue in the Greater Indianapolis area to offer such traditional fare. (We’re talking performance here, not food.) Footlite Musicals, showing continues to demonstrate that community theater is alive and well in the Circle City. Ditto for Epilogue Players, which emphasizes inclusion of senior citizens in its theatrical productions.
Actors Theatre of Indiana, based in the Studio Theatre at the Center for Performing Arts—just north of Indianapolis—also offers traditional fare. But they also offer slightly edgier stuff like Forbidden Broadway, a send-up of dozens of well-known Broadway plays (opening April 26). Also at the Center for Performing Arts you’ll find the ornate musical performance venue The Palladium—and the Tarkington Theatre which hosts Civic Theatre (among their upcoming shows: To Kill a Mockingbird opening Feb. 8 and The Importance of Being Earnest opening March 22.)
The compact CAT Theatre, also located in Carmel, can’t really be said to be giving the neighboring The Center for the Performing Arts a run for its money, But with its six resident theater companies, it can be said to be keeping community theater alive north of 96th St.
Moving south from Carmel, we come to Clowes Memorial Hall and Schrott Center for the Arts on the Butler University Campus, venues which host musicals, plays, orchestra performances, and guest speakers. You can catch a performance of The King & I at Clowes opening March 5, 2019.
Closer to Downtown Indy, you’ll find the Phoenix Theatre. The biggest theater story this year was the relocation of the Phoenix from a repurposed church in the Mass Ave theatre district to a multi-million dollar Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre and the aftermath. Not long after the move into the new space, longtime artistic director Bryan Fonseca left the theater and Bill Simmons was named artistic director.
The dust is still settling over that shakeup, but the move into that venue has certainly had repercussions for the theater scene in Indianapolis.
One thing’s for sure: the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre has allowed for the expansion of the Indianapolis Theater scene in Indianapolis.
Evidence of this expansion can be seen in the existence of the brand new performing arts organization Summit Performance, a member of the Phoenix Theatre Performance Collective. Summit, which bills itself as a theatre “by women, about women, for everyone”—held their very first performance at the Cultural Center in June. Also utilizing the Phoenix as a performance space is Q Artistry, creators of the remarkable Cabaret Poe for ten years running.
It used to be that much of the edgiest theater fare in town could be found at the Phoenix Theatre (along with Theatre on the Square which ceased to exist in 2017).
But then came the inaugural IndyFringe Festival in 2005—which has grown into an 11-day festival every August featuring 5 dozen + performers and performing groups. In 2008 the IndyFringe Basile Theatre repurposed an historic church at 719 E. St. Clair, just off Mass Ave., and became a year-round theater space.
And then IndyFringe began hosting other annual festivals as well, such as Onyx-Fest, celebrating African American Playwrights. In 2018, IndyFringe took over day-to-day management of The District Theatre, located in a storefront space on Mass Ave., a venue that was in danger of being turned into another bar or restaurant and diminishing the area’s importance as a theater district after the demise of the aforementioned Theatre on the Square in that space.
The District Theatre is where you can catch a performance of Tennessee Williams’, “and Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens...” put on by Be Out Loud Theatre, Indy’s only exclusively LGBT theatre, opening Jan. 4.
You may wonder where amidst the tall buildings in Downtown Indy where you can catch a theatrical performance. There is in fact such a place, and that place is the the Indiana Repertory Theatre. There’s something there to suit just about every taste, from The Christmas Carol to Pipeline, Dominique Morisseau’s challenging play about race and class.
Also offering challenging fare is the newly created Fonseca Theatre Company, opening up a new storefront venue in January, 2019, run by the former artistic director of The Phoenix, Bryan Fonseca. If you check out their 2019 season lineup, you’ll see plays notable for their focus on urgent social issues. In their performances, you’ll also notice gender and race diversity.
If you’re in the mood for gritty, challenging theater, keep an eye out for Pilgrims opening Feb 9 at the Storefront Theatre’s brand new storefront theater in Broad Ripple.
Editor's Note: The text in this article has been supplemented to include some history about the now defunct Theatre on the Square (TOTS).