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In Memory: Bryan Fonseca

The founder of the Phoenix Theatre and Fonseca Theatre died yesterday from complications of COVID-19.

Another body blow has been dealt to an arts community reeling from the devastation caused by the pandemic, an arts community still processing the death of arts philanthropist extraordinaire Christel DeHaan and retired theater pioneer Ron Spencer.

On September 16, we lost Bryan Fonseca.

A founder of both the Phoenix Theatre and Fonseca Theatre, Bryan was relentless in his desire to create new work for the stage. When other theaters took their summers off, Bryan packed his with programming. When other theaters anchored their seasons with the familiar, Bryan prided himself on offering the unfamiliar. When Bryan was ousted from artistic leadership after decades at the helm of one theater, he quickly found a way to create another.

Along the way, Bryan built careers, nurtured talent, pissed people off, flew off the handle (I won’t go into the time he tried to have me barred from his theater), found solutions to seemingly impossible problems, and created, created, created. He was steadfast in his desire to bring new work to the stage, to introduce audiences to different viewpoints, and to push for inclusion and diversity—not because of outside pressure, but because of an understanding that our world is better when walls are torn down.

I’m not going to pretend to have known him nearly as well as the artistic army that populates Indianapolis. Those in closer orbit all have their stories, and social media is quickly filling up with testimonies to his influence. But as a playwright, I had my first local professional production at the Phoenix thanks to a short in its annual holiday show. As a critic, I reviewed more shows at the Phoenix during Bryan’s years than I did any other arts group in the city. That was partly selfishness on my part because, as an audience member, I was always excited about what I might see there.

Even when a show’s high goals weren’t achieved, there was always something fresh and exciting happening on the stages that he oversaw. His pre-COVID lineup for Fonseca Theatre was no different. There, we all knew he’d be working on a shoestring. But we also knew that shoestring would lead to thought-provoking productions.

So what do we do now? In a just world, we’d be gathering at the theater and listening to stories. We’d laugh and cry together, and magnify the magic that Bryan created. Then we’d take what we could of Bryan’s fire, lighting our artistic torches and carrying that light into new corners of the city.

I’ll pay tribute by listening to one of Bryan’s musical obsessions. No, not Christmas music. He loved holiday tunes, and if it helps, by all means break out those records.

I’m talking about John Prine. One of my favorite Phoenix Theatre shows was “Pure Prine.” Clearly a labor of love for Bryan, it was an original production that I firmly believe, if not for rights issues, would have been performed at theaters around the country by now.

In his song “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow),” Prine sings:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder

Throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”

But it don’t do no good to get angry

So help me, I know

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter

You’ll become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there

Wrapped up in a trap of your very own

Chain of sorrow

The challenge for our arts community is not to get wrapped up in that trap. To process this great sorrow and these tremendous losses, but not to get locked in place by them. Let’s remember and be inspired by the fact that, when Bryan Fonseca hit bottom, he could have gotten wrapped up in that chain of sorrow Prine described.

Instead, he created a new theater.

 

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