Upstart theater companies struggle to find spaces to call their own

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Shakespeare was wrong. All the world isn’t a stage. If it were, Indy’s up-and-coming professional theater companies wouldn’t have to spend so much time and effort trying to find space.

Typically, new theater companies—and Indy now has a tribe of relatively recent additions—survive their early years by keeping budgets as lean as possible. That usually translates to renting (or begging for) performance spaces while operating their bare-bones businesses virtually and over living-room tables.

rop-theater-071513-15col.jpg Q Artistry turned the Irvington Lodge into its theater home. Here, it rehearses its production of “ZirkusGrimm”. (IBJ photo/Aaron P. Bernstein)

But as these companies become more established—as their ambitions grow, their audiences increase, and their Elizabethan costumes need to be stored for possible use next season—space becomes more important. Where the companies settle, in turn, helps develop their identity.

Several—including Acting Up Productions, Q Artistry and Eclectic Pond Theatre Company—are finding their space.

Acting Up Productions, launching its third season in the fall, moved July 1 from a tiny, second-floor space without air conditioning in Greenfield to larger warehouse rented from Dance Magic Performing Arts Center in an industrial park just off Pendleton Pike. Besides opening up room for rehearsals and storage, the space also gives Acting Up the opportunity to explore more creative possibilities, including a slate of classes both for amateurs and for professional enrichment as well as the development of a community choir.

Noffke Noffke

“I honestly think the key to a good theater company is having your own space,” said Acting Up Artistic Director R. Brian Noffke.

He and the theater’s business director, Elizabeth Williams, are launching a two-year campaign to renovate the space, which will include an 80- to 100-seat theater. In the meantime, they expect to continue renting elsewhere for their six main stage shows in the 2013/2014 season.

Williams Williams

“Moving here, the expenses have gone down,” said Williams, who helped finance the company. That’s putting it mildly. Rather than the $700 a month plus utilities it was paying in Greenfield, Acting Up now only has to put out $100 a month plus 10 percent of its event proceeds.

It broke even in year one with a $21,000 budget, lost money in its sophomore year, and is still working out the numbers for the upcoming production season.

“We also do trades,” noted Noffke. For example, Noffke, a trained lighting designer, lit shows at Theatre on the Square at a discounted rate to secure the venue for an Acting Up show. He taught at the Wheeler Arts Center in order to cover the cost of using the space for his production of “Twelfth Night.”

theater-factbox.gifStill, the savings, the stability and the ability to market make having a place of one’s own highly desirable—even if it means having to develop new markets. Aware of the lack of cultural offerings in the neighborhood, Acting Up sees outreach—to schools and other Lawrence Township organizations—as key to its future.

Like Acting Up, Q Artistry opted to pioneer in underserved arts areas. When musician/actor Ben Asaykwee first walked into the Irvington Lodge, he wasn’t thinking about a long-term home, just a place to perform his “Cabaret Poe.”

The company had established itself in Chicago but, as many small companies do, its creators ended up going separate ways. After moving to Indy, Asaykwee and fellow founding member Will McCarty decided to jumpstart Q Artistry here. And Irvington Lodge presented a blank slate on which the newcomers could create.

“It was just a big empty room,” recalled Asaykwee. “We had to find seats, rent light trees, and make it all work in a place that wasn’t designed for theater. The sound was a nightmare. It was guerrilla theater in every way, shape and form.”

It was the neighbors that convinced him to stick around: “Hearing how much the businesses in the area appreciated what we did and how we brought new people to the neighborhood was one of the reasons we wanted to move here permanently.”

In 2010, the company took a year-to-year lease but later committed to 2-1/2 years with a five-year option.

“We were really doing this ass-backwards,” Asaykwee said. “Being a new organization and already having this space made us, for many months, slave to the rent. It was never my intent to write everything, but many of the pieces we staged early on were mine because we were scrambling. ‘We have rent due in March, let’s pull out this thing I wrote a while back and get it up quick to keep the doors open as we try to get our 501(c)3 and grants.’”

One way Q Artistry kept the doors open—and helped fellow artists—was to allow fellow emerging theater company Eclectic Pond to sublet and share resources.

“Occasionally, people may be confused about the difference between the two companies,” acknowledged Eclectic Pond Artistic Director Thomas Cardwell, “but we hope that, as we build more public awareness of what we do, that will change.”

While such a relationship could lead to brand confusion, Asaykwee isn’t concerned. In fact, his company has embraced its fellow upstarts. Last season featured a collaboration between another small company, NoExit Performance, and Q Artistry while, currently, he has invited Cardwell and NoExit Artistic Director Georgeanna Smith to co-star with him in a new play, “ZirkusGrimm.” And Asaykwee will direct Eclectic Pond’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” later in the season.

“There’s room for everybody,” he said.

Provided, of course, they can all find space.

“We’d love to have a place where we can rehearse and create and store our props—instead of in our cars,” lamented Smith, whose NoExit Performance has existed since 2003 without a permanent home. “At this point, that’s up there on the list of our most important next steps in order to keep growing—or even to maintain—our company.”

To that end, NoExit has launched a push to raise $13,000 a year—which would make a huge difference for a company whose creative choices lean toward site-specific, edgy offerings like the recent asylum-set “This is Not Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Combine such decidedly non-mass-market programming choices (The upcoming season is labeled “The Weird Ones”) with limited marketing money and the challenges aren’t hard to see.

“Every time we move throughout the city, we have to rebuild our audience,” noted Smith, whose company has performed at Big Car Gallery, on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and in Garfield Park. “We like being city-wide and in different communities, but we want to work site-specifically out of desire, not necessity.”•

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