I attended my third Indy Actors Playground last week. Lou Harry and Bill Simmons host it, usually at 7pm on the third Monday of every month at Indy Reads Books, which is at the northeast end of Massachusetts Avenue in downtown Indianapolis. The Best Chocolate in Town store stays open until 7pm on Mondays, so after work you can pick up some exotically flavored chocolate truffles for later and then cross the street to eat crawfish etouffee’ or red beans and rice at the new YATS location before you walk a few steps to the bookstore to hear some of Indy’s best professional actors reading aloud a play just for the fun of it.
Actors take turns choosing the play and casting it. They may or may not rehearse it together ahead of time, but since they are donating their time and talent and since most of them are working a lot already professionally, it is not meant to be a big time commitment for them. No one except the hosts and that month’s participating actors know what the play will be ahead of time. This is so the selecting actor does not have to think about a play’s marketability. He (or she) can choose a play for his own reasons, simply because he likes it.
There is no charge. There are also no promises to the audience about appropriateness so leave your kids at home and keep your mind open.
Scot Greenwell’s Pick: “Betty’s Summer Vacation” by Christopher Durang
Last May for example, Scot Greenwell chose “Betty’s Summer Vacation” by Christopher Durang. I laughed through my fingers again and again at that story of several seriously demented people sharing a house. Since it was hilarious but also penises were getting chopped off and stashed in the freezer and so on, I assumed that Scot had chosen this play for Indy Actors Playground because it was too shocking for most Indianapolis audiences. But afterwards, during the discussion time, Scot said that that wasn’t the reason. He said he knew it would never be produced around here because a) it is slightly dated now and b) the explosions and the people coming down through the ceiling and so on make it a technically challenging and expensive play to produce.
That makes sense, too.
In any case, I am very glad I got to hear it at the Playground. The script was a hoot and the actors who read it aloud were all wonderful. They included Scot Greenwell, Erin Cohenour, Scott Russell, Rob Johansen, Megan McKinney, Georgeanna Smith, Claire Wilcher, Pete Lindblom, and Zach Stonerock, with Chris Saunders reading aloud the stage directions.
Karen Irwin’s Pick: “Becky Shaw” by Gina Gionfriddo
In July, Karen Irwin chose “Becky Shaw” by Gina Gionfriddo because, she told us afterwards, some of the best plays aren’t about huge, cataclysmic events but are instead about glimpses. I liked that idea.
This piece was funny, too, but in different ways from the Durang. This was about the relationships between five people: two badly mis-matched strangers (Jolene Mentink Moffatt and Bill Simmons), the supposedly happy couple that set them up (Karen Irwin and Ben Asaykwee), and the wife’s mother, who was read by Ron Spencer with a light and believable, rather than a broad or campy, comedic touch. All five actors were excellent and it was fascinating to watch them bring the characters and their world to life with only themselves and the script to work with.
Rob Johansen’s Pick: “The Play’s the Thing” by P.G. Wodehouse
This was my most recent playdate (November 2013) and oh, my, it was a treat, too! Rob told us that it was a play from the 1920s but other than that, we just jumped in.
And laughed and laughed and laughed.
The story took place in a fancy resort where a musical theatre writing/composing team (played by Rob Johansen, Mark Goetzinger, and Ben Tebbe) had come to work with a famous vocalist (Jen Johansen) on a new show. Ben’s young character was in love with the slightly more mature actress and engaged to marry her. Unfortunately, an old flame (another actor, played by Bill Simmons) had shown up and was trying to entice her into one last fling, and the others overheard. The younger man was heartbroken and Rob’s character feared that their new show would be ruined by all this backstage drama so…he stayed up all night writing another play that they could say the others had been rehearsing for! An inexhaustible, Jeeves-like butler (Joshua Coomer) and a prissy local arrangements person (Brent Marty, who also read the stage directions) added to the shenanigans.
It was smart as well as hilarious. And triply fun because, as Rob said later, his character “wrote a play to save the day! Rarely is theatre used that way.”
Afterwards Rob told us that in 1995 he was thrilled to be paid $50 a week by the Court Theatre to understudy seven roles in this play.
He also mentioned that Tom Stoppard had written an adaptation.
Bill mentioned that Diane Timmerman had directed him in this show for the Edyvean Repertory Theatre before it closed.
“Yes! And I did the movement for that show,” Rob said. (He is known around town for his fight choreography as well as his acting and directing. )
Rob and Bill told us that when “The Play’s the Thing” opened at the Edyvean, there were rumors that not only might it be the theatre’s last show, it might even be the last performance.
“It was a charged night to say the least,” Rob said. “How’s that for a piece of theatre history?”
I’m sad for the Edyvean’s demise but I admit I do love hearing theatre stories, theatre history.
What Else the Actors Were Working On
As always after the reading and the discussion, the master of ceremonies (in this case Lou Harry but sometimes it is Bill Simmons) invited each of the actors to introduced themselves and say what they are working on now or in the near future. Lou himself has a new play, “Lightning and Jellyfish,” in Butler University’s Indiana New Works series the first week in December.
Rob Johansen was five performances in to the annual long run of “A Christmas Carol” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, playing The Ghost of Christmas Past and another role, both new to him. (He has played Bob Cratchit and other roles in the IRT’s “Carol” in the past.)
Bill Simmons said he was finishing up “Rancho Mirage” by Steven Dietz at the Phoenix Theatre and would then be in the regional premiere of Bruce Graham’s “North of the Boulevard,” also at the Phoenix.
Jen Johansen is Mrs. Cratchit in the IRT’s “Carol” again this year.
Mark Goetzinger is in “Carol” now and later will be in “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” by James Still, also at the IRT.
Ben Tebbe is now director of the Marian University Theatre. (I didn’t know that! Congratulations, Ben!) He told us that they will be bringing in the L.A. Theatre Works production of “The Graduate” with professional actors to campus in February.
Josh Coomer, like Bill, was just finishing up “Rancho Mirage” at the Phoenix.
Brent Marty is music directing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” for the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre for the umpteenth year. (It is an annual crowd-pleaser for them.) “Come see it,” Brent told us. “‘Everyone else is!”
He is also music directing “A Very Phoenix Xmas 8: Angels We Have Heard While High” which opens at the Phoenix the Friday after Thanksgiving. AND he is music directing the Actors’ Theatre of Indiana’s “Frog and Toad” – another popular seasonal show. It will be at the intimate Studio Theatre in Carmel, Indiana this year. (I saw and loved it at the Pike Performing Arts Center a few years ago. I’m curious what it is like in the more intimate Studio space. Even more charming, I bet.)
Brent said he was glad for the rare chance to do a straight (non-musical) play like this, even just as a reading. I was glad for the rare chance to hear him do it. He has a knack for comedy.
Actually, all of these actors do. I can’t say enough what a treat it was to experience the excellence of their skill as actors in such an informal and therefore pure way. And at the same time get caught up in the world, characters, and story they brought to life through their interactions with each other, with the script, with the bookstore space, and with the energy of the enrapt audience.
In the Playground Audience That Night
After the actors behind the music stands had introduced themselves, Lou invited anyone in the audience to tell about theatre projects they have going on.
Leah DeWalt is currently an understudy for the IRT’s “Carol” and will be in “A Winter’s Tale,” directed by Richard Roberts for Wisdom Tooth Theatre and Indy Shakespeare at the Indy Fringe Theatre in February.
Claire Wilcher said that she will be doing Shakespeare for the first time as a cast member in that same show. (“A Winter’s Tale” at the Indy Fringe in February.) In the meantime, she and the rest of the Three Dollar Bill Comedy Company are doing their second holiday show for two weekends in December at the Indy Fringe Theatre. This year their holiday show is called “Waiting Up.”
A woman whose name I didn’t catch said that the cast of “Nobody Needs to Know” is looking for a venue in which to reprise their 2011-2012 show about dealing with the stigmas of mental illness. They hope to produce it in April, May, and/or June of 2014. Rob and Ben suggested she look at the Arts Council of Indianapolis website and apply for a “Fast Track” grant.
Tracy Herring from Defiance Comedy said that they are holding a fundraiser called “BroZone Idol” at the White Rabbit Cabaret on December 4. I don’t think I had time to blog about it, but I had a great time raunching out with everyone at “Boy Band Episode 2: Battle of the Boy Bands” in their live sitcom series earlier this year. I hope their fundraiser is a success!
Paige Scott said that she is directing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for a January run at Footlite Musicals. She also told me that she has started her own arts blog called Working Class Socialite! Yay, Paige! I have added it to my blogroll here on Indy Theatre Habit and I look forward to reading it!
Neither Melissa Hall nor I thought to mention our theatre blogs but I was delighted to see Melissa and her husband at the Playground this month. Melissa’s theatre blog is called Stage Write.
Future Months at the Playground
Bill said the play for the December Indy Actors Playground will be chosen and cast by Constance Macy. The play for January will be chosen and cast by Milicent Wright. I wonder which plays they will pick?
For specific dates and times, I think Bill and Lou usually create an event page on Facebook. There is also an Indy Actors Playground general Facebook page. You can also check the calendar on the Indy Reads Books website.
Speaking of Indy Reads Books, it is a fun place to go just to browse and shop for books, both new and used. It is staffed mostly by volunteers and all proceeds to towards supporting adult literacy via Indy Reads.
‘See you at the theatres and at Indy Actors Playground!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.
(photo above taken by me using my trusty old iPhone)
©2013 Hope Baugh