In August, 2017, Theatre on the Square (TOTS) shuttered for repairs. Since then, the venue has become ground zero in the fight to keep theater alive in the Mass Ave Cultural District.
“Maintaining the TOTS building as a performance venue is critical to the vibrancy of Mass Ave and for it to remain a theater destination in the city,” says Dave Lawrence, President and CEO of the Arts Council of Indianapolis.
The effort to keep the TOTS building as a theatrical venue is being spearheaded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF).
But TOTS as a nonprofit performing arts organization is no more. A search for a new name for the venue — and a new theater organization to inhabit it — is about to begin.
“When CICF stepped in in August we tried to be very clear that we weren’t going to save TOTS as the organization,” says Brian Payne, Executive Director of CICF. “We were going to save that physical theater venue for the good of the theatrical and performing arts community.”
Payne says that the building is getting close to the point where the building can open: “It’s more of a question of the timing when it happens.”
But actually getting to that point requires a number of steps.
“There’s a little bit of a process,” says Payne. “We don’t have a grand reopening scheduled. We’re creating a new not-for-profit; I personally am going to be chair of the nonprofit board. We’re still trying to figure out a name for the organization and the building and we’re working on that. So we’ve got a new board of directors. We’ve invited a couple of the board members too who were on the TOTS board as it kind of went out of business; we invited two of them to be on our [new] board.”
One of the decisions made at the last CCIF board meeting, on Jan. 23, was to have a subcommittee work on a request for proposal. The idea is to have various theater companies propose how they might manage the space.
“They will operate the building they and will rent to other performing arts organizations,” says Payne. “They may produce some of their own work but we will not pick a producer who says ‘I want to do only my own work in this building.’ We want to serve multiple performing arts organizations.”
The Arts Council’s Lawrence expands on that idea.
“Time on the stage will also be allowed for ‘homeless’ theatre companies our those without a permanent home,” he says. “There are small theatre companies in Indianapolis for which this could be a wonderful opportunity. Space remains at a premium in Indianapolis and this possibility could provide much needed rehearsal and performance space for groups.”
A request for proposal will be issued on or around February 12.
The board that Payne chairs will focus on making the venue sustainable, he says, “and to create an organizational long term plan to keep that venue thriving for the theatrical and the performing arts community for small and emerging arts organizations.”
The intent of CICF is to pull away once the new theater is put on a course to financial stability, according to Payne.
But it’s not just TOTS at a crossroads. The Phoenix Theatre will soon move from its longtime location to 709 N. Illinois street, well outside the Mass Ave Cultural District. And the vacated Phoenix venue will likely not be available to showcase IndyFringe performances come August, when the annual 11-day-long multi-venue theatrical festival is set to begin.
The Phoenix property will be developed into housing.
And the TOTS building’s status as a venue for IndyFringe — which is preparing for its 14th season — is unclear at this point in time.
IndyFringe Executive Director Pauline Moffat describes the developing status of TOTS as “critical for the festival,” but they have a plan B if enough brick and mortar venues aren’t available in August.
That is, they are considering the use of large tents — the type of tents she has seen at Fringe events in Perth, Australia — to house productions.
“But it’s not ideal,” says Moffat. “We’d rather have another theater space.”
Roger Schmelzer, the former board president of TOTS who has is also on Payne's new board, thinks that the refurbished theater venue will be ready for Fringe.
"I think she can go with Plan A," he says. "I think it’s going to be fine. The building is in much better shape today than it was six months ago."
He also said that the new building will be operational at the beginning of March.
"We’re not in a rush though," Schmelzer says, "because we want to get the right person in the building and the right contract together for somebody but I just feel certain by the summertime, by the time Fringe goes up, the building will be available for that."
How things got to this point
In 1993 TOTS moved from Fountain Square to 627 Massachusetts Avenue, in Downtown Indianapolis. The theater quickly established itself as an anchor in the burgeoning Mass. Ave. cultural scene. It has produced upwards of 250 plays and musicals — among them challenging works like Corpus Christi, Equus, and Southern Baptist Sissies — and has been a longstanding participant in IndyFringe.
But TOTS had experienced financial strains as well as turnover both in the board of directors and with its leadership. TOTS founder Ron Spencer (and 2008 NUVO Cultural Vision Award recipient) left in 2014. Lori Raffel, his replacement as executive director left in March, 2017.
Also particularly problematic, at least from the perspective of CCIF — a longstanding grant-maker to TOTS — was a second mortgage that TOTS took out on the building during the tenure of Ron Spencer as executive director, as Brian Payne related for a Jan. 26 article in the Indianapolis Business Journal.
TOTS ended their 2016-2017 season prematurely due to financial difficulty and productions already cast were abandoned.
“We looked at our situation and we thought that we’re probably not as sustainable as we need to be,” Schmelzer told NUVO in August, 2017. “And we carried that forward and started making steps to try to shore everything up and that led to discussions with CICF.”
TOTS had more that just financial issues, however, The building itself was in desperate need of repair.
“Structural issues issues and public safety issues came to the forefront,” says Payne, whose organization is putting $200,000 into the refurbishing the building.
“The reason CICF got involved is that we were afraid if TOTS took on more debt and went out of business some bank would wind up owning this building making another restaurant or a bar out of it,” Payne says. "The Mass Ave cultural district and all these performing arts organizations would lose a very valuable venue for them to do their work.”