LOU'S VIEWS: The critics are coming … the critics are coming

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Lou Harry

Why not Indy?

I asked myself that question during a session at last summer’s American Theatre Critics Association conference in Chicago. ATCA, made up of arts journalists from around the country, holds both a week-long and a weekend conference each year, loading up on plays wherever it goes. When I learned ATCA didn’t have a 2013 commitment yet for the latter, I was excited about the idea of bringing this learned, cranky, quirky, adventurous, honest, storied group of independent minds to Indy.

But there was an obstacle: Indy doesn’t have a reputation as a theater town.

ae-whippingman-15col.jpg The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Whipping Man” will be among conference highlights. (Photo courtesy of Zach Rosing)

Smaller markets—including Minneapolis, Louisville and even Sarasota, Fla.—have built national reputations for their offerings, but Indy just hasn’t broken through, rarely attracting critics from even as close as Cincinnati or Chicago.

No, a reporter from Baltimore can’t sell many tickets in Indy, but the benefits of comment and criticism go beyond putting bodies in seats. Outside media opinion has the potential to put a place on the national radar, which helps attract talent, projects, development money and even more attention (FYI: Each year, ATCA makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award). It’s also good to have fresh eyes on your work now and again.

ae-michael-feinstein---2008-photo-2-15col.jpg Conference attendees will also take in a concert with Michael Feinstein at the Palladium.

Before I opened my mouth at the conference, though, I opened up my laptop and searched for a weekend when it looked like the professional theater community in Indy had the best chance of shining brightest. A flurry of e-mails to arts groups indicated passionate buy-in and, within a few hours, I was standing up at an ATCA session pitching a weekend conference for Indianapolis.

At first, the stares seemed as blank as those of the audience at opening night of “Springtime for Hitler” in Mel Brooks’ movie “The Producers.”

But then I walked them through what the Indiana Repertory Theatre would be doing … and what the Phoenix Theatre would be doing … and what Michael Feinstein is doing with his Great American Songbook Archives at the Center for the Performing Arts.

The ATCA board bought it.ae-infobox
 But they warned me I might attract only about 20 members and guests and should keep it to a tight Friday-Sunday.

Eight months later, here we are. Under the auspices of IBJ A&E, ATCA is coming to Indy for a conference that not only attracted more than 40 attendees, but an alleged “weekend” conference where 30+ guests are arriving on Thursday, with some showing up as early as Monday and/or staying until the following Monday, all the better to absorb what the arts in Indy have to offer.

In addition to seeing “The Whipping Man” at IRT, “The Lyons” at the Phoenix, and a Michael Feinstein/Barbara Cook concert at the Palladium, we’ll see work from Beef & Boards, NoExit Performance, Acting Up Productions and Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre.

We’ll also see excerpts of

shows from Actors Theatre of Indiana and Dance Kaleidoscope, and get serenaded by talent in the Indiana History Center’s Cole Porter Room and at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club.

We’ll experience the art and hospitality of The Alexander hotel, the Conrad Indianapolis, and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. And we’ll try to squeeze in museum stops before, after, and in between.

There are also two open-to-the-public opportunities I’d like to share.

On March 22, at 1 p.m., the public is welcome to sit in on a free “Why the Midwest?” panel at the Indiana History Center, featuring actors and designers from the Indy theater community.

On March 24 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Indy Fringe is hosting a Mini-Fringe, featuring two performances of hit shows, a panel discussion featuring Fringe directors from around the Midwest, and a Yats lunch, all for $25 (reserve at www.indyfringe.org).

But that won’t be your only chance to meet this critical mass of critics. You’ll see badge-wearers armed with pens and notebooks sitting next to you at the IRT, going back for seconds at the Beef & Boards buffet, pausing to check out the art at The Alexander, or exploring the Indiana History Center’s “You Are There” interactive attraction.

Don’t be afraid to say hello.

Most of them don’t bite.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.


  • Smaller market?
    Minneapolis is a smaller market than Indy? I beg to differ... According to the 2010 Census, metro MSP has 3.6MM residents and metro Indianapolis has 2.0MM residents. So not only is MSP not smaller, it is almost twice Indy's size... I know folks in Indianapolis like to think of Indy as a top 10 or 12 most populous "city" - which it is - but metro area, not just strict city borders, mean much more.
  • Bravo for Thinking Critically
    The sources of writing reflecting critical thinking about performances in arts and theater here in Indianapolis come primarily from weekly publications now or daily publications that provide writing about arts and theater once a week. What a boost to these local theaters that there might be so many additional sources of comment about the caliber of their productions than they can expect from limited local media. Thank you for taking the lead on this Lou and IBJ.

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