A Dazzling Opening Night at the IRT

People dress UP for opening night at the IRT! - Photo by Samira Khan

Last Friday night I drove downtown for the opening night of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  To read my thoughts about the show itself, please go back one post, here.

I want to share some thoughts about the razzle-dazzle of the first opening night of the season at the IRT, too.  It was a particularly thrilling experience.

People dress up, for one thing, even more than they usually do to go to the IRT.  If the weather had been cold enough, I’m sure the coat room would have been filled with furs.  As it was, there were lots of sparkly high heels and shimmery dresses on the women and suits and ties on the men. 

Me, I wore my Basic Black Theatre Dress, which is admirable more because of its packability than its glamour, but it was the best I could do at the time.

Molly Wible, the ticket office manager, met me at the door, which was an unexpected treat.  I don’t know her well at all, but I always feel more comfortable when she’s around.

She handed me my press folder, which Kelly Young had prepared for me and which included (yay!) the Enrichment Guide for this show.  The Guide was edited by the IRT’s resident dramaturg, Richard J. Roberts, with contributions by Rachel Bennett, Matthew McMahan, Katie Norton, and Milicent Wright.  The Guide is prepared for teachers whose students are attending the show, but anyone may ask for a free Enrichment Guide at the Will Call table.  The essay on “The Illustrious Clients” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Indianapolis connections, by Meredith L. Granger, is especially interesting.

Molly Wible also told me about the exciting renovations that are happening in the IRT’s box office area.  The former box office wall has been removed.  The box office will soon be in the middle of the two IRT entrances.  (For now you pick up your tickets at a row of tables.)  There is going to be a large bank of windows looking out onto the street, and more room for a larger gift shop, little café tables, and staff offices.  The staff offices used to be squeezed into the fourth floor lobby.

Inside the main floor lobby, there is already a new bar area as you go to the right.  I’m not sure if this replaces the one that used to be to the left, or if it is an addition.  Either way, each time I go to a new IRT show, it will be interesting to see what else has changed.

However, the gorgeous ceiling and other beloved architectural features will remain intact.  And, so far, the restrooms and the drinking fountain are in the same places as always. Whew!

During the curtain talk, artistic director Janet Allen and managing director Steven Stolen talked about their feelings of gratitude towards the companies whose financial support has helped to make the IRT’s art possible.  I feel grateful, too.  One America has been the season sponsor for fifteen years. 

A representative from WellPoint, which is the title sponsor for “Sherlock Holmes,” said he knew that his company was able to attract and hire the best employees because arts organizations such as the IRT make Indianapolis a more attractive place to live.  I was grateful not only for his company’s financial contributions to the arts but also grateful that he acknowledged what the arts do for the success of his company.  Supporting the arts is good for business.

Janet Allen and Steven Stolen also recognized the two Indianapolis City-County Council members who were in the audience that night:  Jackie Nytes and Ginny Cain.

When they stood up and waved, I saw actor Ben Tebbe sitting on the other side of the theatre from me.  I read in my program that he is going to be in “Macbeth” on the IRT’s Upper Stage next month.  I am looking forward to that show, too.

After the show, someone placed a couple of steps at the front edge of the stage.  Audience members could go up and see what it felt like to stand on the beautiful set and look out at the seats.  I don’t know if this is a tradition for every opening night, or just for the first opening night of the season, but there were lots of people who seemed familiar with the tradition.  They bounded onto the stage as soon as the steps were in place.  I couldn’t resist the chance, either.

It was fun to examine the individual set pieces up close, too.  I overheard a boy who was looking at Holmes’ study from the back point out to his mother that Holmes’ chest of card file drawers has only two or three actual drawers in it. “The actors have to remember to pull out the same drawers every time, I guess,” the mother responded.

I was intrigued by some shelves at the side of the stage, just inside the curtain.  Someone had carefully printed a masking tape label and attached it to a location on the shelves for each and every prop in the show, no matter how small.  There was also a location that said something like “Return props here.” 

I was intrigued by everything, actually, and wished I had hours in which to look around.   There were rows of wig stands on a shelf in a little room off to the side that apparently doubled as a snack room for cast and crew, because there was a microwave in it. Or is that microwave for preparing food props, I wondered.

IRT staff led small groups of audience members into many of the secret nooks and crannies further back stage, too.  I can’t begin to tell you how cool it all was.  I flitted back and forth between a couple of groups because sometimes I couldn’t hear the guide and because sometimes I was just too excited to stand still.

We went down some stairs into a narrow, underground hallway and then into the catacombs (or so it felt) under the stage itself.  We peered under beams and saw the big hydraulic lift that makes some of the set pieces rise from under the stage floor. 

We saw the harrowing paths up and down cramped stairways under the stage floor that actors have to take quickly in the dark in order to be in place for their scenes on time.  There were lots of lights on when we took the tour, and still people bumped their heads.  I can only imagine how challenging it must be in the dark.  The tour guide said that the actors’ movements back stage sometimes have to be as carefully blocked or choreographed as their movements on stage.

We heard about the pounds and pounds of artificial snow from the annual “Christmas Carol” show that gummed up the HVAC system backstage until someone installed chicken wire over the vents.

We laughed and scooched past a set of grey metal lockers labeled “Swords” and “Not Swords.”   Couldn’t just about anything be classified as a “not sword?”

We heard about the two headset systems – one for the crew backstage, the other for the house managers.

We heard about how a stage manager for a “two hander” show that is mostly dialogue might have so few cues that he could read a book at times while on duty, but in a show like “Sherlock Holmes” the stage manager has so many cues to call that he barely gets a chance to breathe.  I wondered if stage managers and air traffic controllers have similar stress levels.

I laughed when I saw the signs that said “To Stage Right” and “To Stage Left”…until I realized that I really didn’t know where I was without them.  Backstage at the IRT is a whole other world from the one I know.

I left the tour groups and followed the sign that said “To Dressing Rooms.” Then I stood in that little hallway just hugging myself. 

There was a paper taped to each door giving the name of the two actors who shared the space beyond.  Of course I did not go inside the rooms (that seemed too nosy even for me) but from the hallway I could see that each room included a whole wall of lighted mirrors. 

There was also a room labeled “Green Room” that was filled with cushy sofas.  In the hallway there was a soda machine, a coffee maker, and a microwave, plus a men’s restroom and a women’s restroom, just like in any workplace.  However, they seemed less plebian being so close to rooms where I knew actors did their vocal warm-ups and put on their makeup and, yes, cursed the reviewers who didn’t appreciate them.

I walked up another set of stairs and found a bulletin board filled with Equity notices.  “The Responsibilities of Actors…,” said one.  “The Responsibilities of a Stage Manager…,” said another.  A massage therapist had also tacked his card up on the board.  I wondered if he made “house calls” to the dressing rooms, and if he specialized in calming butterflies.

I no longer heard the voices of tour groups so I decided I had better head back out to the lobby.  Janet Allen had said there would be a champagne reception after the show, too.

In the lobby, there was now a huge, elegant, tree-like sculpture with little dessert glasses of chocolate pudding nestled in its branches.  Each glass had a slender spoon in it as well.  Under the pudding tree was a bountiful assortment of cheeses and other goodies. 

It was all very creative and inviting, but I decided that what I really wanted was a sip of champagne.  I rarely drink champagne, but it says “celebration” like nothing else, and I felt privileged to be helping to celebrate the opening of the IRT’s 2008-2009 season.

I went up to the main bar in the center of the lobby.  I waited until one of the two women there looked at me.  Then I smiled and said, “Is this where I get the champagne?”

“I don’t think we have any left,” the woman said without smiling.  “She can check for you.”  She pointed to her co-worker and then went back to washing dishes or something in the sink at the end of the bar.

The co-worker was doing something else, too, so I just stood there for a while, thinking about the show and about how much fun I had had, going back stage.

After a while the first woman looked up again, sighed and said, “Oh.  What did you want?”

“Something to drink,” I said.  “Whatever’s available.”  My celebratory “high” was rapidly deflating.

She went back to fiddling in her sink.  Actor Ryan Artzberger and another man came up to the bar.  The bartender reached under the counter and pulled out two bottles of beer.  She uncapped them and handed them to the men.  Then she turned to me and said, “They worked the show.”

I just looked at her.

She rolled her eyes and sniffed.  “Well, maybe we do have some champagne left.”  She poured a tablespoon into a plastic cup and set it in front of me.

I just looked at her.

“It’s a toast,” she said.

It was more like a crouton, but never mind about that.  The insulting (and mystifying) part was the fact that I hadn’t seen anyone else drinking out of plastic cups and there were rows and rows of real, stemmed glasses lined up in front of her on the bar.

I still don’t know what that bartender’s problem was, but my experience at her bar was a crappy way to end what had been a magical evening.

Fortunately, it wasn’t the end.

I turned from the bar to find the IRT’s resident playwright, James Still.  He hugged me warmly and introduced me to his friend, screenwriter Diane Martin. I didn’t tell them about the grouch behind the bar, but I felt much, much better after I had talked with them.   A hug from James Still is better than a hundred bottles of grudgingly “served” champagne any day.

I can hardly wait until next year’s opening night of the season!

9/25/08 Addendum:  When I got home from my day job and another show this evening, I found in my home email a message from Jennifer Turner, Community & Corporate Relations Manager at the IRT.  She apologized “for the bartenders who did not serve you champagne the way they should have,” and offered to personally serve me a “very full and lovely glass of champagne” at the opening night of “Macbeth” on October 10. 

I really appreciate her sending me this email.  It means a lot to me.   Nobody’s perfect, including me.  A sincere apology makes a world of difference.

And guess what?  She also told me that getting to walk on stage is part of every IRT opening night, not just the first opening night of the season.  How fun is that!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

2 thoughts on “A Dazzling Opening Night at the IRT”

  1. Hi Hope,

    I’m the grants manager at the IRT, and I so enjoyed reading your piece about our opening night.

    James and Jennifer are two of my favorite people, and I’m so glad that they made that one unpleasant incident less “spoiling.”

    I just wanted to say that I loved the piece you wrote about our production of “Iron Kisses.” It was insightful, spot-on, and a really good read, particularly your comparison of the play to a family and how “you don’t realize until later how deeply it has been working on you.”

    I look forward to reading more of your writng.

    Thank you.


  2. Thanks very much, Katie! I really appreciate your taking the time to a) read my blog and b) leave this very encouraging comment.

    And listen, the pleasurable experiences I have had at the IRT _FAR_ outweigh the one small unpleasant experience, believe me.

    I am looking forward to seeing every IRT show this season!

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