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Children's Theatre Institute getting its own stage: Space will host its plays, other performing arts groups

January 7, 2008

After nearly nine years of moving from stage to stage, the Children's Theatre Institute is building its own 300-seat theater in hopes of becoming a hub for educational performing arts programs.

The Indianapolis-based institute already has raised most of the $350,000 needed to transform 7,000 square feet of space at the Gene B. Glick Junior Achievement Education Center into a theater. Construction is under way.

Our "vision is to do a full season of interdisciplinary performing arts in the space," said CTI Executive Director James Leagre, 43, who has a master's degree in theater and spent years developing his acting credentials in Hollywood.

He never quite fit in-until he landed a part in a children's production, performing at a San Diego school in front of an audience of mostly Spanish-speaking students. None of the actors spoke Spanish, but the kids watched attentively, picking up on the story line despite the language barrier.

"It hit me then, the real power of theater," he said. "I went home to my wife and said, 'Let's get out of here.'"

The couple moved to Chicago in 1991 and started a children's theater there, then moved to Indianapolis in 1999 to start a similar group. CTI produces plays with adult actors, usually performing literary classics for young audiences.

"There's a lot of bad children's theater, but it doesn't need to be that way," Leagre said.

The small not-for-profit has shifted around, most recently moving to the JA campus from the Old Centrum building at 1201 N. Central Ave. in December 2006.

Junior Achievement of Central Indiana Inc.'s leaders liked its focus on having children learn through experience-a guiding principle of JA's programming.

Since the move, CTI has performed at schools and in different rooms at the JA building, but didn't have a dedicated theater. The goal is to make the space as flexible as possible but give students a full, elegant, theater experience.

Fund raising is going well. The Allen Whitehall Clowes Charitable Foundation gave $240,000 and the Lilly Endowment pitched in $45,000.

Designed by Purdue University theater students, the stage will be moveable and the seats will be high-end folding chairs. The walls will be covered with thick draperies to mute sound, and a large burgundy curtain will rise and fall on the stage. The $350,000 also includes a basic sound and lighting system, which will be upgraded once another $120,000 is raised for a second phase of construction.

Actors will take to the new CTI stage Feb. 29 for the institute's premiere of "Treasure Island," complete with a dressup, red-carpet gala.

The institute already has inked a deal with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to host five educational programs there in 2008 and is in talks with other performance groups including Dance Kaleidoscope, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre and Freetown Village.

"There's always a need for that kind of space," said Ophelia Wellington, founding director of Freetown Village, which does living-history re-enactments. While touring is important, it can take a toll on actors and limit set design, she said.

Michael Shelton, co-founder of Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, said the company is in talks with CTI because the new venue is just the right size and serves a side of town that doesn't have many theater options.

CTI also will rent the space for evening performances geared toward adults. CTI and JA will split any rental income, helping to boost their budgets.

The theater also will help CTI grow. It produced four plays in 2007 and will produce three this year. The goal is to stage six plays in the 2009 season and grow its $120,000 annual budget to $1 million in the next five years.
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