Q&A With IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen

Janet Allen, artistic director sitting in a theater
Janet Allen, IRT director

We’re in a time of change for many major theaters across the country with artistic directors turning over the keys. Why do you think that is?

A bunch of us are about the same age. We’ve all known we were getting ready to step away. It happens cyclically.

What sparked this decision for you?

It was not an abrupt decision by any means. I think the last three board chairs have known an approximate date. We needed the board chair to have plenty of notice. Suzanne Sweeney [IRT’s managing director] and I have spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to create a sustainable institution. Transition can be a huge blow to that. We wanted to minimize that as much as we could.

Were you ever tempted to leave before this? Have there been offers from elsewhere?

Not a million of them, but a handful. The most persuasive of them came from Libby Appel [her predecessor]. She wanted me to come to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with her. My husband wanted to go and I wanted to stay. I love going to OSF, but it feels like going on vacation instead of being embedded in a community. I didn’t want to do destination theater. I just didn’t see that as my career path.

What were some of the changes you put in place when you took over as IRT artistic director?

I was the first artistic director not from the New York area. My predecessors had a coastal idea of bringing art to the Midwest. I, as a native Midwesterner, felt like there was a contradiction in that. We didn’t need an outside opinion of what theater should be. We needed to evolve our own idea of what a Midwestern theater for a Midwestern audience should be.

What productions are you particularly proud of?

I don’t do favorites.

OK, how about an example of what you think was the IRT at its best.

Finding Home: Indiana at 200. I loved working on that thing. The Lilly Endowment eventually supported a broadcast and two-DVD version distributed to every public library in the state. That was a massive undertaking. We taped it on the closing day. That one has a lot of great power to me because it involved so many writers from Indiana.

Some major theaters in other markets have helped incubate smaller theater companies and amplify their work. Except for Dance Kaleidoscope, it’s been rare to see the work of other arts groups in the IRT building. Why?

I think in our new strategic plan there may be some new viewpoint on this, but it has been because of space and time as well as confusion of brand. We were having some real trouble when we were allowing other theater companies to do work here. People were claiming that the work they made was made by the IRT. It was very murky. That was hurting us. But at the moment, we’re having new conversations about this. Every time you go through a big inflection point, it’s smart to rethink these things.

What are some changes you’ve seen both on the IRT stages and behind
the scenes?

There’s a stronger, deeper acting pool here now. What hasn’t changed is how many people can make a full-time living acting. That’s virtually no one because there aren’t enough theaters to support people full time. I think we created more opportunities over time. Backstage, it’s really up and down. We are still very thin on directors and designers. If we want a local freelance dresser or lighting tech or sound operator, it’s very difficult.

What about fundraising?

Back in the beginning of my tenure, there were still regional banks that had decision-making power. There are very few of those now. Fundraising decisions are made from elsewhere. The continuing gift, though, is having the Lilly Endowment here. We are the envy of our peers around the country because of that.

When it comes to the work on stage, you have told me that you weren’t terribly concerned about impressing those outside of the region.

We’re not making work so it can be exported to New York or Chicago. The main reason we make work is for this audience. Of course, a board is within its rights to say to a new artistic director, “Your job is to win the IRT a Tony Award.” But that has never been something our board has encouraged me to do.

Given how many theaters are transitioning, do you think it’s going to be tough finding your successor?

There’s no scarcity of talented people. I’m not concerned about that. The field has been building and diversifying, and that’s all great. I’m more concerned about staffing at the entry level. COVID caused us to lose a generation. That’s more worrisome.

What are your plans after you leave?

I’m not looking for freelance or consultant work. I’m ready for a break. I want to travel, to spend time with friends and family, and do other things. I’ve had a great career and I’m not conflicted at all about stepping away. It’s the right time for me and for the institution.

What do you hope to experience when, after retiring, you return to the theater and take a seat for a show?

I hope that, whether I like the play or not, whether I agree with the choices or not, that it’s an incredibly high-quality production. I also hope there is a diverse audience, a diverse company on stage, and that it’s storytelling that moves me. And that the auditorium is full—with some young people, not all septuagenarians.