Mark Szobody's management of the Indiana History Center Theater combines entrepreneurial grit with matchmaking gusto. For Szobody, the potential for developing and maintaining new and unusual performance relationships in an unlikely location began before the July 10, 1999, opening of the $35.75 million, Neoclassical-style building at 450 W. Ohio St. The Indiana Historical Society's performance space is organized and operated by (from left) Jason Felder, Mark Szobdy and Brock Pickett.

Chatting over lunch on the canal level, Szobody reconstructed a chain of events from his hiring almost six years ago. "I was brought on staff prior to the building's completion to start an events department, mainly to rent the Great Hall and the canal level for wedding receptions, civic and private events, etc., and then I heard, 'By the way, we have a theater.'

"Well, from that instant, the 300-seat theater was my baby. I got on the phone and started calling people in the arts I was familiar with, and whose work would fit into this concert hall space. Deborah Asante and Pamela Steele were two of my initial contacts."

At present, Asante Children's Theatre and Ensemble Music Society make the IHC Theater their performance home, as do 14 other Central Indiana arts organizations. An additional 30 groups also regularly schedule performances. All together, these 46 groups and a host of one-time programs account for the IHC Theater being one of the busiest year-round venues in the area.

During 2004-'05, IHC Theater will host 148 performances, 45 rehearsals and 25 other events. There will be music representing every genre and culture, storytelling, dance, drama/musical theater, film, spoken word and music competitions.

How did this happen for a space that was originally designated to be only a lecture room?

"When building the History Center, even after blueprints were drawn, Indiana Historical Society people involved had the foresight to invite leaders of arts groups, and to ask them, 'What would it take to bring you in?'

"Tom Beczkiewicz immediately foresaw potential with the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. He was very instrumental in showing representatives from the IHS architectural team how the space could be made flexible for multiple uses."

But transforming a lecture hall into an acoustically correct state-of-the-art theater for music and spoken performances is only part of the story. Technical aspects were nearing completion for the sound and lighting systems when "Jeffrey Sparks came in, and he persuaded us to make adjustments for a 35 mm projector."

Szobody embraced the possibilities even when it meant tearing apart the sound-lighting booth.

That, Szobody states, "is how Heartland Film Festival and International Violin Competition of Indiana initially became two of our permanent partnerships."

Yet, it wasn't until the Ensemble Music Society presented the world renowned Ying Quartet on July 11, 1999, that Szobody could feel fully comfortable to tout the acoustic virtues of "his baby."

"Hearing music in that hall for the first time brought tears to my eyes. It was wonderful."

After that it didn't require much persuasion for other performing groups to sign on. But keeping them and ensuring expansion is a reflection of Szobody's personality and management style.

"It's been growth with and through fun," he explains. "Everyone works together for mutual benefit. It's keeping the community foremost in mind. We have a lot more talent than what's regularly seen and heard in 'the big three.' It's giving grass-roots organizations opportunity and assistance, not merely a place to perform.

"But there's also been another big objective," beyond being a presenting facilitator, Szobody explains. "I want to make history fun, present it in a different way."

So, over the years, Szobody has engaged performers to create arts-driven-history-based programs. Most visible has been utilizing the Canal Plaza. Szobody has courted sponsorships for free-to-the-public "Concerts on the Canal." These summer-long programs that highlight Indiana's diverse musical heritage attract 10,000 to 15,000 audience members.

And while Szobody points with pride at the roster of presenting groups, he displays a hint of special pleasure for 2004-'05 programs his IHS department has developed. "It's become far more than the original architectural team ever dreamed. It has changed the public perception of the Indiana Historical Society."

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