LOU’S VIEWS: A critical mass of theater critics descend on Indy

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They came (from around the country). They saw (a lot of theater). They went back home. And as I wait to hear what they have to say in their hometown publications, I’ve got some thoughts of my own.

First, some background: The IBJ-sponsored conference of the American Theatre Critics Association wrapped up March 24 after a whirlwind few days that hit just about every professional theater in the region with side trips to see museum exhibitions, dance performances, and even the fine-art collections at The Alexander and Conrad Indianapolis.

We heard from a panel on Cole Porter (including a Porter relative), chatted with theater legend Barbara Cook and cabaret king Michael Feinstein about what makes a great song, and explored why any right-minded theater artist would settle (or stay) in the Midwest.

On stage, we saw the serious (“The IRT production surely raises the bar. It’s as good as it gets,” said Berkshire Fine Arts’ Charles Giuliano of “The Whipping Man”) and the silly (“I liked it,” said free-lancer Sandy Katz of Beef & Boards’ “9 to 5.” “But I’m low-brow.”). We visited the Phoenix and Indy Fringe, took in a play reading at the Vonnegut Library, and heard songs on Hoagy Carmichael’s piano. Actors Theatre of Indiana even graciously restaged a part of its closed "Musical of Musicals: The Musical" (and, this time, most of the crowd got all of the Sondheim jokes).

And, in the process, Indy swept a group of been-there/done-that arts and travel writers off their feet. While I don’t know yet what they’ll write about all of the productions they saw, I can say they were awed by the city itself. And by seeing the city through their virginal eyes, I had my eyes opened to some things I may have taken for granted

For instance, when you’ve been to the Indiana Repertory Theatre as often as I have, it’s easy to overlook the coolness of the Spanish Baroque architecture, the original marquee still touting what’s inside, and the great sightlines afforded by our state’s largest regional theater.

I never thought about it before, but there probably isn’t a cabaret in the country (not that there are many at all) whose digs compare with ours at the Columbia Club.

And name another research facility anywhere as comfortable and interactive as the Indiana Historical Society. Oh, and one where you can order from a menu of songs and have your selection sung for you, live.

I saw the jealousy on the faces of those who hail from places that don’t have a Fringe Fest like ours, one that helped birth such shows as NoExit’s “I am Peter Pan,” which was revived for the conference. Or those whose markets don’t have a corps of actors willing to throw their all into a one-time reading of a play (in this case, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Happy Birthday, Wanda June”).

A full-time professional dance company? We’ve got one in Dance Kaleidoscope. A lot of cities don’t.

It was fun watching assumptions shattered. I saw their skepticism as we bussed into what they thought would be a Pleasant Valley Sunday suburb, only to find the Center for the Performing Arts—something most regional markets couldn’t even dream of. Inside, they found not only three brand-new theaters, accommodating both local and touring acts, but also the treasures of Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Archives.

No, they aren’t ready to elevate Indianapolis into the upper echelon of Chicago, New York, Philly and D.C. Or even group it with Milwaukee, Sarasota or San Jose. Nobody is ready to make a recommendation of any Indianapolis-producing theater for the regional Tony Award (one of the annual tasks for ATCA members). We’re not doing enough original, innovative work to warrant such praise. Yet.

But I’m happy to say doors have been opened. We’re now a brighter blip on the radar than we were a few weeks ago. And perhaps as these writers chime in about their experiences here, we’ll take a tougher look at ourselves in an effort to raise our game—not to impress them, but to improve what we do.

After all, the only thing that makes a city a top-tier theater town is producing top-tier theater … and figuring out how to get people to talk about it once we do.

I’ll be posting links to the critics’ articles about their Indy experiences on my blog at www.ibj.com/arts. I look forward to reading their—and your—thoughts.

A few other observations:

I cannot praise enough the cooperation I received from Visit Indy, the Arts Council of Indianapolis, and all the participating Indy theaters in organizing this conference. For the theater world, it was the Super Bowl, and our arts community stepped up and met the challenge with class, grace and world-class hospitality.

With its terrific collection of IMA-curated contemporary art and outstanding customer service, The Alexander Hotel sent an immediate message to our visitors that Indy pays attention to details. It was the perfect choice, even though we were there only early in the morning and late at night.

A downside? OK, there’s Indy’s public transportation system, from the challenging connections some visitors had just getting here to the difficulty moving from airport to downtown. I think I spent more time wrestling with transportation than I did organizing theater tickets.•


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

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