Phoenix Theatre celebrates 20 years Bryan Fonseca is famous among his friends for vowing not to produce a Shakespeare play "unless it"s naked on the moon." In other words, never. For 20 years, he has successfully bet everything on contemporary plays and on the writers and actors who throw their hearts into exposing the dilemmas of today"s society.
Fonseca has 246 plays under his belt as founder and producing director of the Phoenix Theatre, where America"s finest and freshest playwrights receive their Indiana premieres. Where discriminating patrons can expect to be challenged, enlightened and emotionally swept away. Where actors who could make three times the money in a bit part at another theatrer will vie for a $200-a-week leading role. Some of his biggest fans suggest that Fonseca"s regular-sized ego has been key to the survival of the Phoenix. He doesn"t insist on doing things his way, according to founding actor Deb Sargent Shaver, unless opening night is two weeks off and he needs to. Only then is he domineering, but he prefers a more inclusive approach to directing. "At the beginning of rehearsal, Bryan will say, "This is the heart of the piece for me." And he looks for people who feel the same," she says. "Ninety percent of a director"s job is casting well," agrees Fonseca, who directs most Phoenix shows and has replaced a miscast actor only once. "He is by far the best director I"ve ever worked with," says Rich Komenich, a Chicago-based actor who has known Fonseca since 1976. "He doesn"t get stuck on preconceived ideas. He may have an idea, but if your idea is better, then hell, yeah, go with it." Working together "Working with Bryan, you don"t feel like a puppet. You feel like you"re actually an artist and you"re working together," adds Komenich, who currently stars in David Auburn"s Proof on the 130-seat Phoenix Mainstage. "With Bryan, everybody is as important as everybody else. Some cogs in the machine are bigger than others, but if one cog doesn"t work, everything fails," notes Komenich, who recently finished filming an HBO special, Normal, with Jessica Lange and The Twilight Zone radio shows with the likes of Stacey Keach and John Lithgow. Komenich, Sargent Shaver, Gayle Steigerwald and others helped create the Phoenix back "when we were kids," says Sargent Shaver, who starred in WARP, a wacky, space-age trilogy chosen for the Phoenix debut. More recently, she appeared in Moises Kafman"s The Laramie Project, which explored hate crimes just as this nation was reeling from the 9/11 attacks, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh"s dark Irish drama. While she misses doing off-the-wall shows just for fun - "Now the payroll is too big for that" - Sargent Shaver appreciates Fonseca"s financial sense. From its third year of existence, the Phoenix has paid its actors. During its 11th season, the theater joined Actors Equity and began paying union scale to at least one actor per show. Now, the Phoenix supports five full-time staffers and hires Equity actors for half of every cast. Intimate theater The Phoenix has grown in stature and stability without losing its intimate touch, especially on the 80-seat Underground stage where the audience surrounds actors on three sides. There, Seattle actor/musician Lisa Koch left an indelible impression in Eve Ensler"s The Vagina Monologues two years ago, and promising students from Butler University wowed the crowds at last season"s This is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan, which is now receiving international acclaim. In August, Underground audiences explored whether people ARE what they DO in The Action Against Sol Schumann by Jeffrey Sweet, playwright-in-residence at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. At Fonseca"s request, Sweet offered local acting and playwriting workshops, which he peppered with anecdotes about David Mamet, Mike Nichols and the Second City comedy troupe. There"s no predicting exactly how intimate a Phoenix show might be. For example, during a poorly attended matinee of Beauty Queen of Leenane, Sargent Shaver spent the intermission personally thanking all 10 patrons. She has fonder memories of a fifth anniversary performance when the cast passed a bottle of tequila through the audience and of Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang when audience members moved their chairs around the stage as the play progressed. Likewise, Steigerwald will never forget rehearsing Robert Harling"s Steel Magnolias when the roof was being repaired and rehearsal was called off due to rain. Steigerwald often brought her daughter, Jessica Hyatt, to rehearsals. Now a mom herself, Hyatt works part-time in the Phoenix box office. Hot plays Good contemporary theater is all about getting rights to the most acclaimed new work on American stages and creating a dialogue for the community. "We do plays when they"re hot," says Fonseca. John Green, chair of Butler University"s Theatre Department, is particularly grateful for the Sunday afternoon forums following Phoenix plays, and he requires his students to participate in those forums and to attend Phoenix shows. "The Phoenix has contributed enormously to social criticism," says Green, whose students acted and stage-managed during three Phoenix shows last season. In his praise of the Phoenix, Green joins directors from San Diego Theatre, Louisville"s Humana Festival and Steppenwolf Theatre, all of whom have made special trips to see Phoenix premieres. "The Old Settler [by John Henry Redwood] was among the top-10 produced shows the year AFTER the Phoenix did it," Fonseca notes. "We"re finding playwrights and giving them their second and third productions." Fonseca "discovered" three playwrights, Marcia Cebulska, Toni Press-Coffman and Tony McDonald, and keeps current with other favorites such as Christopher Durang, Jeffrey Hatcher and, lately, Jeffrey Sweet. Immense impact Fonseca"s essential role in the local theatrical landscape is also felt at Indiana Repertory Theatre. IRT artistic director Janet Allen admires the Phoenix"s growing national reputation, and she salutes Fonseca for creating "a huge volume of new plays in a wonderfully intimate setting. The Phoenix"s impact on Indianapolis" theatrical landscape is immense." Although the Phoenix budget equals just 10 percent of the IRT"s, its contemporary focus renders it relevant to thousands of loyal theater-goers. "I realized once that the IRT spent nearly as much on lipstick as I spent to costume an entire show at the Phoenix," says Sargent Shaver, who works on both stages. It can be agonizing, she adds, when actors have to choose between taking a leading role at the Phoenix versus the higher-paying part of sword carrier at IRT. Most Phoenix actors work elsewhere all day, "then do four hours of rehearsal in addition to studying lines on their own time," Fonseca says. He can count on two hands the actors and directors who can support themselves locally with theater work, which leads too many people to mistakenly assume that great actors don"t live in Indiana. For example, Equity actor Martha Jacobs worked steadily in New York City and Boston before moving with her professor husband to Bloomington. "I felt like I was leaving civilization," Jacobs observes. But within weeks, she and Diane Kondrat had teamed up and been invited to produce a show at the Phoenix. Last month, she directed The Action Against Sol Schumann. Her first impression of Fonseca was "his generosity," Jacobs said, adding that the theater scene in Central Indiana would be "pretty desolate" without the Phoenix"s bold contribution. Over 20 years, Fonseca has faced bleak balance sheets and disappointing ticket sales, but his tenacity and skill have lately earned support in six figures and sold-out shows every season. Looking back over 20 years, Fonseca is most proud that "I stayed with it and didn"t compromise, and it paid off." He has no plans to ever retire. "I can"t afford to," he says, noting that Social Security reports inform him that he earned only $4,000 during the Phoenix"s first year. Besides, he"s having a great time. "Every day is an adventure," Fonseca says. "For the most part, I"ve been surrounded by people who make the whole journey fun." He plans to direct and produce plays at the Phoenix for another 20 years. "I just don"t want to hang lights anymore." He doesn"t mind answering the phone, building sets, reading new plays, teaching the odd acting class and putting in ungodly hours, as long as the Phoenix keeps rising in the heart of this community. Phoenix Theatre: 1983 - 2003 749 N. Park Ave. 635-PLAY 246 plays over 20 years 240 Indianapolis premieres 70 world premieres 40 plays were about women"s issues 32 were about African-Americans 32 were about gay issues 28 won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award or Obie Award 22 were musicals Seven were targeted to youth Five were about the Hispanic community PHOENIX 2002-2003 SEASON Proof by David Auburn Flow by Will Power Hedwig and the Angry Inch by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell Over the Tavern by Tom Dudzick Praying for Rain by Robert Lewis Vaughan Claiming the Stage by various playwrights Contemporary Yoruba by Toni Press-Coffman, Iris Rosa and Tony Artis The Washington-Sarajevo Talks by Carla Seaquist and other premieres To Be Announced