Theater 2004 has seen some exciting and innovative changes in the local theater scene. While commendable work has been done in the traditional theaters — such as Boston Marriage at the Phoenix, The Last Session at Theatre on the Square, Romeo & Juliet at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, just to name a few — what have really been exploding are the floating, independent theater companies.

People searching for creative outlets have forged their own spaces — in unusual venues as well as behind the stage lights.

Most notably, two of the best theater productions this year were not performed in theaters at all. Two Rooms, directed by Scot Greenwell, was presented by the PEOPLES playhouse in the LAMP art gallery, and Shawn Whistler’s Ganas Theatre Productions performed The Shape of Things in Ruschman Art Gallery. This was Ganas’ second show (the first being Bus Stop, performed at the City Market in 2003), while Two Rooms marked the inaugural production by PEOPLES. What stands out here is twofold: the selection of powerful, well-crafted scripts combined with a raw passion from the people producing them.

But these companies weren’t the only ones willing to take chances. Stages Theatre Company wowed with The House of Yes followed by Bash — two shows that show exemplary risk-taking by a small group.

Other groups we have seen take shape or survive and thrive: NoExit, with the first production hosted by LAMP; Theatre People Productions, Paul Benson’s brand new project; the Beckmann Theatre, which created a mini-Mamet festival in conjunction with Boston Marriage; Red Dragon Theatre, the first to produce the English language version of the play Allah Has 100 Names; Arden Theatre Co., which turned The Old Centrum into a theater in the round; Loose Cannon Productions, which christened the new Alley Theatre with an Indiana premiere; Inklings Theatre, William Gebby’s steadfast theater; and bizarre shows from Shadow Ape Theatre Company, as well as Alan Shepard, who is an institution in and of himself.

This is an influx of theater that hasn’t been seen before. Small groups are taking leaps, exploring theater — and making it accessible by bypassing exorbitant ticket prices. For the cost of a movie ticket and large drink, 2004 has offered up some of the best theater this town has seen.

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