Ron Spencer, executive artistic director of Theatre on the Square
Ron Spencer is an Indianapolis theater community institution, and a reminder that not all our great local artists leave for more culturally savvy pastures.
Spencer has been an associate professor of the Musical Theatre Department at Marian College, managing director of The Upstairs Theatre, Marott and Sheraton Dinner Theatres and was the resident artistic director of the Indianapolis Opera Company. He performed professionally in L.A. and Washington, D.C., and has choreographed Off-Broadway. His directorial debut was in Seoul, Korea. But he continues to call Indianapolis home.
How did you get into/interested in theater?
My first venture into performing was at age 6 when I played Tom Thumb, the groom, in “A Tom Thumb Wedding” at McCordsville Grade School, which also had the high school attached. The notion of Middle School came along much later. The school had less than 200 students total, which included the ones bussed in from the rural areas. (As if you could get much more rural than McCordsville at the time.) McCordsville had a total population of what I affectionately term “250 bigots.” I understand its up to 5,000 now. Not only was that my introduction to theater, it was also when I realized I was gay. I passed out during the dress rehearsal when I had to kiss Connie Ramsey, my little blond bride to be. I went on to play Jesus reincarnated on earth, as a boy named Billy, who was sent to help a troubled princess in “The Little Blue Angel.” I gave her a real angel for the top of her Christmas tree. I also sang at local Lodges: the Masons, the Elks, etc. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?
Did you have formal training?
I have received virtually no training in acting, singing, directing or designing other than the “on the job” variety. I studied dance at Jordan Dance Academy at Butler University with the late, great Jack Copeland and from the late, also great Lynette Jordan Schisla.
How did you get involved in the Indianapolis theater scene?
When my family moved to Indy in 1960, I was attending Woodview Middle School in Warren Township. I was 14. One of my classmates asked me if I had ever done theater. I said yes … some. Then, he asked if I would like to go to the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre downtown, which then was at 19th and Alabama where the Hedback Community Center is now. Civic Theatre was auditioning for their next children’s show. I got permission to go from my mom and his mother drove us. As luck would have it, they were holding auditions for “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.” I was small in stature, blond haired, with a Dutch boy type haircut and blue eyed. I got the lead. I played a wide variety of character roles in quite a few children’s shows and graduated to adult roles at Footlite Musicals starting in 1968.
How did Theatre on the Square get started?
I always enjoyed the unusual and consequently lesser-produced plays and musicals. I was fortunate to be able to pick and choose shows that I especially wanted to direct or appear in on stage. I have never directed a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe. I directed and choreographed the first production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” to be staged in Indy at the now defunct Command Player at Fort Benjamin Harrison in 1974 with a mixed cast. I also had firsts with “Chicago” and “Irma La Douce” at Theatre in the Woods at the JCC in the ’70s and “Nine” at Buck Creek in the ’80s.
Theatre on the Square came about when Joe Traynor, our charter board president, suggested since I was working a regular 9 to 5 job all day and working all night on shows that perhaps I should consider starting my own theater company. As it turns out, my first and sanest reaction was to laugh and assure him he had lost his mind. However, the more I thought about it the idea appealed. I could select my own seasons and consistently produce new and more challenging works.
We began the search for a location and found a charming little brick building across from the fountain in Fountain Square. It even had a marquee type structure overhanging the sidewalk. With a great amount of help from friends and family, we opened in the fall of 1988. At first our seasons were a mixture of both premieres and a few more tried and true works to bolster audiences. Gradually, we moved to almost exclusively Indy, and in some cases, world premieres. In 1993, we realize we had outgrown our Fountain Square digs and relocated to Massachusetts Avenue.
What positions have you have taken on, as an actor, director, etc., that were most interesting/memorable/etc.?
My directorial debut was in Seoul, Korea. I was there in 1970 teaching English and living across the street from Youngsan, the U.S. Army headquarters there. Their theater held auditions for “Teahouse of the August Moon” and I got a small role. I became very good friends with the director and her family. She became ill just before the project got underway and insisted that I take over for her. She felt I had the instincts of a director and she wouldn’t entrust the show to anyone else. I was spoiled because Mr. Pak, a local carpenter, built me an authentic Japanese teahouse with sliding rice paper screen walls. I was also able to secure authentic ceremonial kimonos from Tokyo. It was on an Army base so we had a real Army Jeep and all the military uniforms we could use. It was a producer’s paradise in terms of that show, which sold out every performance and broke box office records.
I was in New York auditioning for shows and was hired as choreographer for “POP,” which played at The Players Theatre Off-Broadway in the late ’70s. It was a musical/political satire, which combined King Lear and the Kent State massacre. The worst massacre in U.S. history until reviews for the show came out. Actually, the musical director and I were spared and got really good reviews. It didn’t win us points with the rest of the cast and crew, but it was reassuring to have my work isolated from the debacle and to be appreciated for what they considered quality work.
One of my favorite gigs was performing at an amusement park called Enchanted Village in Orange County outside L.A. The focus of the park was on exotic animals. We did two shows, “The Story of Noah” and “Celebrate California!” I am admittedly a fierce animal lover. (Just ask my 17-year-old blind and deaf Chihuahua, Yoda!) I got to rub elbows with nature’s finest. I rode Zane, an enormous white bull, into Noah’s ark and I sang John Denver’s “I Am The Eagle” with the most stunning American bald eagle perched on my forearm. While there, I was also kissed by giraffes, laid with Bengal tigers, assisted in the birth of a baby camel and had tarantulas crawling all over me. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
But, for some reason, I always returned home to Indianapolis. Perhaps, Theatre on the Square is that reason. With producing well over a hundred shows in the past 20 years and directing 80 of them, I have come to the realization that if you are going to work 12 to 16 hours a day, then it should be at something you love.
Tell me how you see the theater scene as a vital part of a city's culture.
I believe theater is without a doubt the best possible means ever devised of communicating the human condition. Music is ethereal; paintings are immobile; motion pictures and television are one dimensional and electronic; books are lonely; fashion is a passing fancy; and computers can be the devil’s own toy … but theater! Theater encompasses it all in a uniquely human way. We can experience someone else’s lifetime in a matter of moments: the tragedies, the triumphs, the joys and the sorrows. Most importantly, we share the experience with other human beings … our fellow audience members. I am truly fortunate that I was blessed with gifts that have allowed me to live a life in the theater.