Celebrating 30 Years of Indy’s Phoenix Theatre

The Phoenix Theatre is celebrating its 30th season here in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.  This weekend, people came from all over the planet to help celebrate this theatre that has meant so much to them.

This theatre that has meant so much to us, I should say.  My involvement with the Phoenix is miniscule compared to some people’s but, as in so many things, comparisons are not the point.  I treasure my involvement with the Phoenix, which includes:

  • ·         being a volunteer actor, assistant director, stage manager, lights operator, and script reader in the late 1980s before the Phoenix became an Equity theatre
  • ·         contributing storytelling performances to the Phoenix’s 30-hour Art Aid marathon to help New York City theatres hurt by the attacks on September 11 in 2001
  • ·         writing about my responses to Phoenix theatre shows in various places on the Internet during the past five years.

Like many other people, I feel privileged to have been even a small part of the Phoenix Theatre’s success.  Videographer Zach Rosing and his assistant, Kyle (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch his last name) were capturing people’s Phoenix memories all weekend.  I took my turn in front of the camera, too, but what I loved most was listening to the wealth of Phoenix stories from other people.  I can’t wait to watch the final video!

Although the details in each person’s story were unique to them, of course, I heard this aspect of my own story echoed in many other people’s: 

My involvement with the Phoenix, and in particular my experiences of working with its producing director and co-founder Bryan Fonseca, have informed many aspects of my life, not just my appreciation of live performance art.  I contributed to the Phoenix’s success?  Hah!  The Phoenix contributed to my success in learning how to be a person.  How to be me.

The Flounders

There were two or three parties this weekend, which I couldn’t attend, plus a picnic and an “Actors Q & A” event on Saturday afternoon, which I did attend. I also saw and loved the current show, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” for a second time Saturday night.  More about that in a separate post, probably.

At the Actors Q & A inside the theatre building there were three panels – one for each of the Phoenix’s three decades.  The five or six actors on each panel shared some of their experiences of what it was/is like for them to work at the Phoenix.  Lou Harry, arts editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal and an actor/playwright himself, moderated the discussion.

Lou asked good questions and I loved hearing each of the answers, whether or not I had seen the shows mentioned, and whether or not I knew the actors.

On the first panel were Bryan Fonseca, Chuck Goad, Deborah Sargent Shaver, Suzanne Fleenor, and a man I didn’t know named John Lampson. (I happened to sit in on the taping of John’s individual video later in the afternoon and learned that even though he has been away for several years, he credits the impressiveness of his now-extensive resume to the shows he did with the Phoenix in the beginning.)  I think if Gayle Steigerwald had been able to attend, she would have made it a complete panel of Phoenix founders.

I don’t know for sure who the founders are because they are not listed anywhere that I can find.  The Phoenix’s website lists only the current Board members and staff.  The Wikipedia article says the theatre was founded by Bryan Fonseca alone. 

However, you don’t have to be around Deb, Chuck, Suzanne, or Gayle long to know that they are very clear on the fact that they helped Bryan found the Phoenix.  I am very clear on the fact that if these four amazingly talented actors had not pitched in to do anything and everything in the first decade, the Phoenix would not have survived for 30 years.

On the other hand, they seem to have no need to be formally recognized.   During the Q & A, Deb joked that they call themselves the “flounders” because they didn’t know what they were doing.  In answer to a question about deciding which shows to do, Suzanne laughed and said, “This is not a democracy.”  Chuck added, “You can be an influencer but not a decider.  Bryan is the decider.”

Cirque du Soleil Missed an Opportunity, Thank Goodness

When I ran into Bryan last weekend, after the Sunday matinee of “Bloody, Bloody Jackson,” (and have I mentioned how much I love this silly-serious show?) I asked if he had ever considered doing something else for a living besides leading the Phoenix.

He said, “The only time I ever sent my resume’ somewhere else was the first time I saw Cirque du Soleil.  I never heard back from them.”

He laughed and added something like, “Which is probably as it should be since I’m not an acrobat and now I’m glad to have done this (the Phoenix.)  But I was blown away by the creativity in that show.  I offered to be the stage manager, whatever they needed.”

I nodded, understanding completely.  “You just wanted to be part of something you admired.”

That is how I and so many other people felt, and still feel, about the Phoenix Theatre.

Grandchildren

Towards the end of the Actors Q & A event this Saturday afternoon, when Lou turned and asked if there were any questions from the audience, I demonstrated that I still have a lot to learn about tact.

Someone mentioned the Broad Ripple Playhouse, which is where Bryan and the flounders all met, back in the day.  For one reason or another, they split from the BRP and formed the Phoenix.

Bryan said on Saturday that that rift has long been repaired and now the leaders of the now-defunct Broad Ripple Playhouse think proudly of the Phoenix as a sort of grandchild.

I raised my hand and, in so many words, asked about the possibility of grandchildren for the Phoenix. I said to Bryan directly in front of everyone, “You are the only constant element in these past 30 years.  What will happen when you die?  Do you want the Phoenix to continue after you’re gone, and if so, how is that going to happen?”

I heard grumbles and I could feel waves of disapproval pour over me from the other audience members.  Too late, I realized that this weekend was not the moment to ask that question, and especially not in that way.  This weekend was about savoring 30 years’ worth of tremendous accomplishments, period.  I wished I had kept my mouth shut and enjoyed the day for what it was.

But still…

Indianapolis would not be the city it is today if not for the Phoenix Theatre’s 30 years.  I don’t mean just Indy’s arts scene, I mean the whole city.  And I don’t mean that Indy’s citizens are now perfect, but I do mean that we are better off.  Whether we’ve gone to any of the shows or not, we are all more aware of the complexity of a wide variety of issues, just through word of mouth, because of the Phoenix.  We are all more aware of a wide variety of good new playwrights because of the Phoenix.  I’d like to think that we also are more empathetic and therefore more compassionate because of the Phoenix. 

If we have actually been going to the shows at the Phoenix, I bet each of us has been deeply healed or stretched or strengthened or transformed in positive ways by at least one of them.

No other Indianapolis area theatre has consistently and for so long taken the variety of risks on our behalf that the Phoenix has.

It was clueless and selfish of me to ask my question at that particular moment, and I do apologize for that, but it is not clueless or selfish of me to ask it at some point.  I want the children I care about, and their grandchildren, to be able to grow up and see new, thought-provoking, well done, issue-oriented plays in our hometown long after I am dead and gone.

Succession Plan?

Bryan, graceful communicator under pressure that he is, responded to my question in the moment by saying something like, “Well, there has been talk of succession plans at the theatre but I think it is also up to the younger artists such as those on the third panel to make a commitment to staying in one place and to doing the hard work that is required.  Why don’t we ask them for their thoughts?”

Some of the younger actors talked then about how much they appreciated the Phoenix paying them and about the importance that getting paid for their work played in whether or not they would be willing to stay in Indianapolis.

Which is an important topic, but slightly different from the one I cared about right then.

Lou eventually changed the subject, thank goodness, and then Deb told a great “theatre offers hope” story based on something an audience member told her, and that got us back in the celebratory spirit.  Whew!  We all went across the street then to enjoy a delicious fried chicken picnic with live music and gorgeous sunshine.

I socialized bravely and had a lovely time but all the while I was thinking about what a succession plan might look like for the producing director/co-founder position at the Phoenix Theatre.  I.e., the Bryan Fonseca role.

Well, for one thing, no one else can ever be a Phoenix founder or flounder because the Phoenix Theatre is already in existence.  So “how to found” doesn’t need to be in a succession plan.

Hmm.

I don’t actually know the full extent of what Bryan does, but I do know that he has unusual gifts for

1.   selecting great plays

2.   shaping great seasons

3.   casting the right actors

4.   communicating effectively with everyone from artists to civic leaders to Board members

5.   collaborating effectively with everyone from playwrights to actors to designers to ushers to office staff

6.   returning to the theatre’s mission again and again

7.    letting people know they are loved and valued without sacrificing the needs of the whole to the needs of any individual

Can these seven gifts be passed on through a manual or taught through some sort of job shadowing?

Hah! I’m laughing out loud at the thought, but I guess I really don’t know.

But now, after chewing on this for several hours, I’m also wondering if it is even an important question after all.

Sustainability… or Legacy?

Maybe at the end of the day (or at the end of 30 years, or 60) the life of a small, feisty theatre dedicated to consciousness raising and civic engagement is as much a work of performance art as any of its individual shows and therefore should not be expected to go on forever.  Maybe it is no accident that the Phoenix was named for a bird that dies completely and then rises from the ashes in another form.

What I do know, based on the many stories shared this weekend, is that Bryan could quit tomorrow and the positive impact of the Phoenix Theatre’s first 30 years would still make a difference in the lives of generations to come.

Anything Bryan and the flounders and everyone else involved with the Phoenix give us from this point forward is icing.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

(Photo at top is of the Phoenix pin that Deb Sargent gave me at the picnic and was taken by me with my trusty old iPhone.)

©2012 Hope Baugh

4 thoughts on “Celebrating 30 Years of Indy’s Phoenix Theatre”

  1. I loved going to the Phoenix when they were in that very small theatre behind the library. Saw some amazing shows, and even attended a couple of movies (Faster, Pussycat, Kill Kill) there.
    Then, they moved into their present location, which, at the time, was just around the corner from where I was living. I remember going over the church to help tear out walls, empty the basement and help get the theatre installed.
    Thanks, Hope, for your wonderful piece!

  2. Hope!

    Have you seen Footlite’s Rocky Horror yet? I was head over heels in love with the production and was hoping to read one of your reviews on it. Big fan of the blog! Keep on going!!

  3. Thanks for a lovely article, Hope! I was recently reminiscing with Tony Cerola about your time as our Stage Manger on Bouncers!

  4. Thank YOU, Chris, for helping to install the new space! (And for reading, and for being my friend.)

    Megan, thank you for reading and for the compliment on my blog. Thanks, too, for telling me about Footlite’s “Rocky Horror.” It does sound like a fun show!

    Chuck, thank you for reading and for the compliment, too, and for a wonderful celebration. Tony Cerola!? What is he up to these days?

    🙂

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