Bryan Fonseca, Giant Of The Arts Community, Dies From COVID-19 Complications

Bryan Fonseca
Bryan Fonseca, founder of the Phoenix Theatre and the Fonseca Theatre Co.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Already reeling from the pandemic, the Indianapolis arts community suffered another blow this morning when news came that Bryan Fonseca, the founder of both the Phoenix Theatre and the Fonseca Theatre Company, passed away due to COVID-19 complications. Fonseca was 65. We interviewed Fonseca for our 200 Voices project in which we asked residents of Indianapolis a series of baseline questions. Here’s an expanded version of his interview:

What is your happiest memory of Indy?

I would definitely rank our ability to put on the Super Bowl up there as a great memory. For me personally, and as it’s going to relate to other answers I hope to give, the expansion of the gay pride parade from its first days where we had to walk on the sidewalk and not in the streets to how it has developed as a appropriately cultural phenomenon. A happy moment when was we could finally march down Mass Avenue for the first time.

How has Indianapolis disappointed you?

Change has come slowly. The positive thing is that change is coming and has come to many areas but turning the conservative mindset around, the wheels move very slowly. And that’s just really disappointing. We’re just so far behind so many other major cities on so many issues.

 Specifically how?

Everything to do with gay rights has continued to be so controversial for no reason whatsoever. I mean, we finally had a gay man running for president. That time was coming for quite a while, and yet, I know that we wouldn’t have supported that in this state. I hate to pin everything on that, but in my work, when I talk about the accomplishments of what’s happened, in my work as a theater producer and director, in the early ’80s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, we started doing plays that are what I call the ‘warning plays,’ that said a crisis is on its way and that we needed information that dispelled myths. There was so much fear and controversy—you could get it over water fountains and just coming in contact with a gay person or somebody with AIDS—what I believe in is the power of theater and how we did plays that dispelled those myths. And then over a decade, what were the warning plays became the mourning plays as we started mourning hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens who passed as a result of the crisis. And then beyond that what happened next was nothing short of a miracle. The country and the gay community galvanized and formed a political action group and got itself involved in so many political activities and became a major force in changing laws and gaining acceptance. At the heart of it, still, was this great intersection of art and activism, which was the AIDS quilt. Nothing brought more attention to the public crisis than the quilt did. As an artist, I was very proud and happy that art, once again, illuminated the issue and helped change hearts and minds.

Why do you stay?

Well, because my work’s not done. I came to Indianapolis from Gary, Indiana, where I was born. And I came to Indianapolis specifically because I felt like the type of theater that I was doing, which was very focused on issues at the time was very necessary, and it still is. In 1980, nobody was really concentrating their efforts and programming on that. So we flourished as a result. I was producing director for 35 years at the Phoenix Theatre and the work that I was doing there evolved into more of the work that I’m doing now in this particular community and where I feel our focus is right now and what makes us unique is we’re a minority-majority company and we are doing plays specifically that illuminate cultural stories. Our entire programming does that as opposed to one or two shows a season, which is what happens at most of the other theaters. If you think about it, it mirrors what’s going on in the country and what’s putting Biden over Sanders right now is the fact that he has the African-American vote, the Latino vote. It’s time that we caught up with the rest of the country and started celebrating and understanding our cultural communities here in Indianapolis and that’s our mission, that’s my work right now, and that’s what’s keeping me right now for probably another 5 years before I retire at 70.

What does it mean to call Indy home?

Well I’m very happy, very proud of my city. I do think that as cliché as it sounds, we are a very friendly community. And that for all of the problems, we are trying. We are trying to be better. It’s such an exciting, vibrant city. There are a lot of cultural opportunities for people here, businesses growing, downtown is expanding and growing just is exploding. Mass Avenue where we used to be has just exploded. And that there’s care and concern now that we look toward our lower-income communities to see how we might assist them and give strength to those communities, to the infrastructure, to neighborhoods. I’m proud of the fact that we’re focused on that.

What long-gone Indianapolis business do you miss most and why?

Selfishly, I miss the arts coverage. When I got to Indianapolis, there were two daily papers and two critics. I miss the arts coverage, and that’s been gone for a while. The Indianapolis Star doesn’t have the staff to review shows and really get stories generated. I don’t blame them. The fact that the means of dissemination of information, i.e., social media and online reading, is killing newspapers across the country. And I miss that. I miss that we used to have two newspapers and two arts critics.

What one word describes Indianapolis best and why?

Opportunity. We are so on the verge. There’s so much opportunity in almost all sectors that’s really going to put us higher on the maps—business, arts and culture, social services, I think in all aspects.

What is Indy missing?

Good public transportation. And obviously we’re working on it. I’m in a neighborhood where we need more help. Our community needs help in east-west travel. A lot of our folks are belabored heading out to further west, and if there were good public transportation options, it would be of great help. Or heading downtown. I know that it was on the plans for the bus system but it’s coming slowly.

What piece of optimistic advice would you give someone who was moving here?

If they’re coming from major cities, get a car. Find the right people to connect with here. Find your affinity group because they will help you immediately get to know and understand the city.

What specific changes would you make if you were mayor?

As previously discussed, definitely transportation. Selfishly, more support of the arts, or even unselfish, I think that helps grow a more enlightened community. We’re still at probably one-third of the level that we were under Bart Peterson’s administration for support of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, so we need to continue to push hard to bring the level of support for arts in the city. Continue to work on—and I think the mayor is doing a good job of that—crime initiatives, crime-reduction initiatives. It’s those things that I think people look at when considering coming to Indianapolis. And they’re coming down. And I think that our administration is doing a good job.

What will Indy be like 20 years from now?

Even more diverse and more welcoming. It’ll be bustling.