Q-mmunity theater

Artistic director Ben Asaykwee.

Q Artistry, a theater company based in

the east side neighborhood of Irvington, first made waves in 2009 and

‘10 with the original musical Cabaret Poe. Ben Asaykwee is

artistic director of Q Artistry, contributing both on stage and off

as a writer, director, composer, actor and more. I talked with him at

their Irvington headquarters, the Historic Irvington Lodge, where he

and his company have found an artistic home.

Life before “Q”

Asaykwee, an Indiana native, moved to

Chicago in 2005 to join, in his words, “a thriving arts

community, instead of a growing arts community.” While there,

he worked successfully as a professional actor, yet felt unfulfilled

by the ensemble roles he tended to play.

“I was constantly getting cast

[as] Sailor #3 in South Pacific,” explains Asaykwee [pronounced

ah-SAY-kwee]. “It was just tiring doing the same old stuff over

and over again. At the same time, I started writing more.”

In 2007, Asaykwee created an

alternative artistic outlet. “Some friends and I decided that

we were going to start a company, just to write things and create

things that we wanted to do. Because if Chicago wasn’t going to

offer it for us, we were going to offer it for ourselves. That’s

when I started writing Cabaret Poe.”

Q Artistry debuted this musical

interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories at Chicago’s

2008 Looptopia Festival. Though they were booked into a mall setting,

with escalators gliding up and down behind them, audiences praised

the show.

“This was before it was in its

final capacity.” notes Asaykwee. “It was a one act

version with “The Raven” and a couple other things. But

people loved it, and it was incredibly inspirational to me.”

Around the time of the 2008 economic

nose-dive, however, Asaykwee’s acting schedule saw sudden

lapses. He was at a crossroads: “Do I live somewhere where the

cost of living is twice as much, and yeah, there is twice as much

opportunity, or do I move close to my family?” That year, he

returned to Indiana.

Irvington, a new “Q-mmunity”

He continued to nurture his artistic

baby, Q Artistry, and with an interest in the macabre, Asaykwee was

drawn to Irvington for their ghost tours. When he discovered the

Historic Irvington Lodge, the American Romanticism of the building’s

architecture struck him. “Coming up into this space, and just

the building from the outside… it kind of looks like something

Edgar Allen Poe would have put together,” he recounts. “We

walked into the space and my imagination went wild.”

A piece of Poe’s world sleepily

nestled in this Indy borough was too good to be true. There was no

question in Asaykwee’s mind; he had to remount his homage to

the literary master for local audiences.

“I loved [Cabaret Poe], but I

thought people would be like, ‘Oh my god, you are massacring a

master,’” says Asaykwee. “[It’s] a hard sell

until you show them some of it. When you first say ‘Edgar Allan

Poe set to music,’ people start backing away with hands raised

because it sounds either cheesy or dumb.”

Asaykwee has a mantra tailor-made for

those occasions: “I can’t make everybody happy, but I can

certainly make a whole hell of a lot of people mad.”

Audiences were slow to come at first,

drawn mostly from the neighborhood crowd looking for entertainment

close to home. Q Artistry depended on word of mouth to sell the show.

Asaykwee praises the support from the

Irvington community and points to businesses and the Historic

Irvington Community Council as factors in the show’s initial

success. He is the first to admit that without the goodwill of

Irvingtonians, Q Artistry might not be alive today. Through this

support, Q Artistry programmed a season of new work and also

remounted Cabaret Poe the next year (2010).

Communities and theater companies often

enjoy a symbiotic relationship; Irvington and Q Artistry is no

exception. The audiences that come to Q Artistry’s shows bring

dollars to Irvington businesses. “October 2010 was a record

month for us,” says John Robertson owner of The Legend Classic

Irvington Café, “a lot of it was due to Q Artistry.”

Asaykwee continued to build on this

community support throughout Q Artistry‘s first season in

Indianapolis. He mounted his first ever “Q-mmunity” show,

a send up of the Harry Potter franchise called Perry Haughter.

Families turned out in droves to be part of the first ever Irvington

community production. And that’s just how he wanted it. “If

you have zero talent and experience, we will find some place for

you,” says Asaykwee.

In his mind, it was something fun and

cheap for neighbors and friends to do together. Of the experience

Asaykwee says, “There wasn’t a single moment of that

process, and I can’t say this about every project, that I did

not find completely joyful.” After the show’s opening, Q

Artistry’s Irvington roots went deeper.

Asaykwee was happy, finally, to be part

of Indianapolis’ “growing arts community.”

A future for “Q”

Asaykwee has set lofty goals,

describing the company as “the only organization with a

residency that does original works by Indiana natives.”

Asaykwee‘s company fills a niche. He explains: “Indianapolis

needs more original work. TOTS and Phoenix do a great job of

supplying new works… That’s one of the things I look

forward to, is for Q Artistry to fill that void.”

Asaykwee often finds himself playing

multiple creative roles within the company. For Cabaret Poe alone, he

wrote, composed, directed and acted; not to mention the full plate of

work he accomplished as the company’s artistic director. Making

those transitions are a constant battle for the artist. He

acknowledges the team around him as the foundation for his successful


“[I] must trust everyone in the

room to tell the truth to the question ‘Do I look stupid?’”

he says.

The easiest transition for Asaykwee is

from writer to performer; he finds pleasure in melding his voice on

the page with his voice on stage. In Cabaret Poe, for instance, he

says, “I wrote it for myself, wrote the music to fit my voice.”

Transitioning from writer to director, he describes as, “They

argue sometimes.”

While Q Artistry has yet to produce

work not written by Asaykwee, he hopes to open the company up as a

platform for other Indianapolis artists. The future of Q Artistry, he

envisions, is as an “inspiration center,” a place to

combine dance, theatre, visual art and more. In five years he wants

to have “the freedom to let go of the reins, to let creativity

soar, to let things happen.”

In addition, he has big goals for the

Irvington community: “For people from all over Indianapolis to

think of Irvington as not only a place that is haunted, but also as a

culturally centered neighborhood.”

Next up for Q Artistry: The Bunny

Spectacular, an idea that came to Asaykwee when he found a good deal

on a bunny costume. For this artist, inspiration strikes randomly but

is always welcome. The show is his attempt to de-commercialize

Easter. “The only place that you can get your picture taken

with the Easter Bunny is the mall. [I] wanted to give a more

affordable, entertaining, artistic option for kids and families.”

He also makes mention of an upcoming

fundraiser: “The Q-ball,” he grins, “get it?”

Proceeds from the event will fund items on Q Artistry’s

wish-list: lighting and sound systems.

As Q Artistry develops, Asaykwee

promises to continue grow artistically. “We try to either bare

truth or bare enlightenment. If we are not pushing at least a little

bit in theater, there is no point, because you can just stay home and

read a book.”


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