You could call the actor/director Michael Shelton the
Indianapolis equivalent of a child star. He's a local showbiz lifer who began
his career in the theater at the age of six, when his parents took him downtown
to audition for a role in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of A
Christmas Carol in 1980. He didn't have to
be persuaded to participate. Shelton knew almost immediately that this was the
life for him. He's been on local stages ever since.
2006, Shelton was part of a group of local professional actors who founded the
Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre. The group's intention has been to create
additional opportunities for local theater artists by offering staged readings
and full productions of contemporary and classic plays. HART shows have
included Death and the Maiden, In a Dark, Dark House and Happy Birthday, Wanda
has also made a name for itself by with its outdoor productions of Shakespeare
plays in the White River State Park amphitheater. Originally booked as the
theater component for the Park's summer Family Arts series in 2008, HART's
production of The Merchant of Venice was so well received that the company was invited
back last summer, where they drew crowds of over 1,000 people for Much Ado
returns to the park August 6, 7 and 8 with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Shelton, who now serves as HART's Artistic Director, is
also the director of the company's latest outing. He took a break from
rehearsals last week to talk about HART and his hopes for an outdoor
Shelton: It was a dream of mine, personally, to get summer
Shakespeare on the Canal downtown going because I think the city needs it.
Given the turnout [the last two years], I may have been right. It's been
incredibly well received. But HART is only about four years-old. This is our
third year in White River State Park doing summer Shakespeare. There are
growing pains and some changes have happened in terms of people that are with
us and people that aren't – like with any organization in the early
years. But [summer Shakespeare] has turned into a flagship event.
It's great to see a group made by actors for actors. What's it like to create
your own venue?
Any time we go anywhere, it's always treading new ground. There's something
exciting – not only for us, but for the audience – abut going into
a space where they're not used to seeing things. Don't get me wrong: It would
be lovely to have a permanent home. There's something wonderful about people
knowing where to find you. But there are interesting challenges and
opportunities to being a nomadic troupe, as we are.
You can be nimble.
And you can find spaces that fit whatever show you're trying to do. Midwestern
was perfect for the Artsgarden because it's about living in a big dome.
Something very intimate, like In a Dark, Dark House, the Neil LaBute play at the
Fringe space, where it's tight, puts you in there with the characters. Then
there's Shakespeare, where it's huge and vast and turned into this festival
atmosphere out there in the park, where we use up every inch of green space we
What's it like working out there?
Any time you're working outside, you have certain obstacles and challenges to
deal with. Weather is one of them. Noise. But, in general, it's lovely being
outside. It's a really cool environment from both sides of the stage. From a
performance standpoint, it's crazy, the scope of the audience – it's like
you're playing a rock show. It's wonderfully bizarre, when you're doing
Shakespeare, to look out and see a crowd of a thousand-plus people. It's a phenomenal
experience. Being on the bank of the river and having that as a backdrop
creates all kinds of opportunities. Shakespeare fits perfectly because so much
of it is happening outdoors anyway.
You say you felt the city needed Shakespeare. Why is that?
Shelton: There are certainly organizations that do
Shakespeare – most notably the IRT (Indiana Repertory Theatre). But their
take is always to take things and put them in a contemporary environment, which
is not a bad thing. I don't mean to knock it. I love the idea of doing
Shakespeare traditionally, as an introduction for people, to show them what it
can be. I don't personally feel that you have to cater down to an audience. I
don't think you have to set it in a contemporary environment to get them to understand
it. You just have to do it well. You just have to be clear. You have to tell
the story. You also have to get the right people to do it, and that's where
I've been very fortunate in having the connections, knowing the actors I knew
as an actor before any of this started. I guess that's where it came from.
There wasn't anybody putting it out there in the way, at least I believe, it
was originally intended.
There seems to be something about performing Shakespeare outdoors that makes it
especially accessible to people.
I think so. The whole environment down there turns into a festive thing. Not
that I'm encouraging this, but if you get bored with one scene, you can get a
drink and come back. It's very different than if you're in a dark theater and
you can't think about anything else.
How did you come to choose The Two Gentlemen of Verona?
Each year I probably read half the canon over again to try to figure out what
we're going to do. The hope was – and still is for next year – to
expand this into a larger festival. The park is behind that. But, like
everything else, it's a matter of finding the financing. We were hoping to do
two shows, including one of the tragedies. But when we came to realize we could
only afford to produce one show again this year, we decided we better keep it
light and entertaining and not try to do anything too heavy. We also wanted to
do something different from Much Ado About Nothing, which we did last year.
so fun. It's start-to-finish entertainment that keeps you laughing through the
whole piece. It maybe doesn't have the substance that Much Ado has, though there are things
going on. It's really just a good time. I would say it's one of Shakespeare's
This year you're also offering a pre-show where different musicians (Bobbie
Lancaster, Tim Brickley, and Dan Holmes, respectively) will play a set before
each performance. Isn't the idea of a pre-show Elizabethan?
Yes, but I'll be honest, I didn't come up with it for that reason. I was amazed
people were coming so early the first year and camping to get their spots. So
we realized we better do something because everybody showed up two hours ahead
of time. But it's the same basic principle as in Shakespeare's time: Come out
for the entertainment – and see what we've got.
production of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona
by Michael Shelton
River State Park
6 & 7 at 8 p.m.
8 at 2 p.m.
early for musical entertainment