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 is an anecdotal treasure as well as a theater maven. Spend enough time hanging around the theater, and you might hear Spencer recite, in his gravely voice, cigarette in hand, a story like this: “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 [Indiana]. 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.”
Spencer first broke into Indianapolis theaters at age 14 via Civic Theatre, which was, at the time, located where Footlite Musicals is now housed. But he was drawn to material that most Indianapolis theaters weren’t offering. “I always enjoyed the unusual and consequently lesser-produced plays and musicals. 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 Jewish Community Center in the ’70s and Nine at Buck Creek in the ’80s,” he says.
“Theatre on the Square came about when Joe Traynor, our charter board president, suggested that 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.” TOTS first opened in 1988 in Fountain Square. When it outgrew its location, it moved in 1993 to its current location on Massachusetts Avenue.
As TOTS’ executive artistic director, Spencer has helped to bring such challenging shows as Corpus Christi, Equus, The Last Session and Southern Baptist Sissies to Indianapolis audiences. As an actor, he has donned drag to star in campy takes of such shows as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and has sung beautifully in musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman at TOTS and Victor/Victoria (which just closed June 1 at American Cabaret Theatre).
Today, Spencer says, “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.”
— Lisa Gauthier