Critics conference journal #1: Defining theatrical Indy

March 21, 2013
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At a Cafe Patachou breakfast on Wednesday with some early arrivers for the American Theatre Critics Conference here, I was asked by Susan Cohn of the San Meteo Daily Journal  how I would define Indianapolis theater. How is it different from, say, Ohio theater?

I stalled a bit, wanting at least to appear thoughful ... even though I knew I didn't have an answer.

That's one of the reasons I'm thrilled that IBJ is hosting this conference, running until Sunday, which brings out-of-town writers here to explore, discuss and (for some) write about what goes on on Indy stages. (And in galleries, since the early-birders are here, in part, to explore those as well.) With a battalion of scribes to look at Indy's work from different perspectives, perhaps we can come closer to defining who we are and where we stand in the grand scheme of regional theater.

As I fumbled, Cohn's question broadened. Is regional theater really regional? If the IRT is doing "The Whipping Man" (see my review here) and so are a dozen other theaters around the country, what's regional about that?

I did have a counter to that.

First, in most markets, a professional theater that focused entirely on local playwrights would be out of business before the curtain went down on its first season.

Second, theater isn't just a script. It's actors, directors, designers and audiences. It's the building, too. And, yes, the arts journalists who help fuel the dialogue.

If most of those elements are local, then it's local theater for me.

But it's a question I'm sure will come up again as our guests visit the IRT, the Phoenix, Beef & Boards, the Palladium and more over the next few days. Follow member posts on twitter #atcaindy13. For more on the conference, see my story here.

And join us for a free public panel discussion on "Why the Midwest?" at 1 p.m. Friday at the Indiana Historical Society and/or for the ticketed Mini-Fringe on Sunday.

Oh, and in the wee small hours of the morning, I did come up wih a better answer to Cohn's first question: Indy theater is a collection of individuals striving for excellence but with a sharp eye on survival. 

How's that? Care to modify?

Your thoughts? 

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  • The beyond theatrical part
    Arts and Entertainment in Indy and beyond. If the beyond can go as far as Hillsboro, we have Myers Dinner Theatre. Myers Dinner Theatre is a wonderful place to feel welcomed, enjoy a nice meal, and see a wonderful play. My son was been in the last several plays there, and at age thirteen they have always made him feel part of their family.
  • Integrity
    That's a challenging and fascinating question. I'm not sure anything definitive can be said about Indy's theatre scene from an aesthetic perspective. It's not the home of slick profit-making ventures like Broadway or an incubator of raw, bare-knuckled creativity on the scale of Chicago. But in a larger sense - and this may admittedly be a stretch - you might say that the theatre companies that have thrived in Indy share the same qualities as the city's most successful and well-respected businesses and institutions, e.g. Lilly, the Colts, the Speedway, etc. Indy's successful theatres have a strong sense of their own role in and relationship with the Indianapolis community, an irrepressible work ethic, and a characteristic Hoosier humility. In an art form that's notorious for outsized egos, there are surprisingly few divas on the Indy theatre scene. Even some of the most talented and celebrated performers in Indy - people like Claire Wilcher, Charles Goad, or Scot Greenwell - are humble, approachable, hardworking people, who will sooner give credit to their collaborators for a show's success than claim it themselves. That humility and integrity may be the strongest identifying quality of what Indy theatre is all about, and that's something to be proud of.
    • P.S.
      Postscript: I'ts a pity that the itinerary of the critics' conference doesn't appear to include a trip to the Bloomington Playwrights Project. Admittedly, it's a bit of a drive, but they're the greatest champion Indiana has of new plays and new voices in theatre.

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