12 Indie Arts Groups Transforming the City’s Scene

They’re popping up around the city like so many Andrew Luck jerseys. The sum of them means a change of art for Indianapolis.

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The basement of Victory Memorial United Methodist Church outside Fountain Square looks like the greatest kids’ playroom ever. In the glorious mess of a main room, which contains stockpiles of oddities like overhead projectors and foam swimming noodles, there’s a corner for painting, a green-screen area for film projects, and a section with assorted power tools where the construction of a giant “steampunk music machine” made of old bike parts is about to begin. In the storeroom, you’ll find shelves filled with costumes—pigeon heads and dinosaurs, among many. And in an adjacent room, what sounds like a vacuum cleaner is, in fact, just that. Except it’s being used in reverse, to inflate a giant clear plastic ball that someone can get inside to be rolled around.

Know No Stranger delivers Optical Popsicle, an annual fest of art, fun, and frozen delights.
Know No Stranger delivers Optical Popsicle, an annual fest of art, fun, and frozen delights.

Photo by Tony Valainis

This clubhouse is home to Know No Stranger, a self-described “art gang” that produces and participates in theatrical and other events around the city. This group of friends, tired of hearing people complain about the culture in Indianapolis, started the avant-garde troupe in spring 2009. “In the circles we were running in,” says Alan Goffinski, one of the founders, “there was a lot of negative energy, a lot of talk about the place that we call home. We got to the point where if everybody who was complaining about what an awful place Indianapolis was just did something positive, we would have a great city.”

Look at the arts culture in Indianapolis over the past several years and it seems that a lot of people are thinking the same way—the city’s young culturati has flourished in the last decade. For a number of years, the city had no Shakespeare companies. Now there are five. Want dance? Movies in weird places? A fashion collective? A cutting-edge fashion/film/food event? An eco-conscious music festival? In the last few years, we’ve added all that and more.

“There was a time when emerging artists felt that they had to move to bigger cities … to have a chance. Now, in addition to having a vibrant local food/local beer movement, we have a parallel local arts movement.”

Sharon Gamble, co-host of WFYI’s “The Art of the Matter,” first became aware of a critical mass of new theater companies in 2006. She was managing director of the Phoenix Theatre, and she and Bryan Fonseca, the Phoenix’s founder and producing director, started answering a slew of phone calls that started out: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? I want to start my own company and need some advice.” Gamble says a confluence of factors contributed to the surge—audiences willing to support up-and-coming companies; printing companies, PR agencies, caterers, microbrewers, and other for-profit firms who see new arts groups as beneficial to the city, so they offer them in-kind goods and services or “friend rates”; support from various foundations; and universities that are turning out graduates with arts and arts-administration skills.

“There was a time when emerging artists felt that they had to move to bigger cities—Chicago and New York in particular—to have a chance at finding audiences and funding to fuel their dreams,” says Gamble. “Now, in addition to having a vibrant local food/local beer movement, we have a parallel local arts movement.”

Nowhere is that more evident than Tanjerine, a four-night film/fashion/food event that debuted in April as a spinoff of Oranje, Indianapolis’s annual multisensory showcase of everything hip in art and music. Ryan Hickey, founder of both events, says the city’s burgeoning food-and-beverage scene “definitely played a significant role” in the decision to create Tanjerine, which featured a fashion parade that evolved into a spontaneous dance party, a culinary roundtable moderated by Martha Hoover of Cafe Patachou, and a bartending competition.

In decades past, if you wanted to start an arts company in Indy, you needed infrastructure—especially a place to perform. Advertising was prohibitively expensive, word of mouth was hard to come by, and good luck getting audiences to accept anything outside the mainstream. Fonseca, who started the Phoenix Theatre in 1983, still remembers the grief he got for staging Love! Valour! Compassion!, a show that features nine naked men onstage, in 1996. “We’ve helped redefine the center,” he says, referring to the Phoenix and Theatre on the Square.

That’s not to say a startup is easy. It’s not. There are artists to put together, money to be raised, and shows to be staged.

Still, today’s arts startups have certain advantages. They can spread the word through social media and don’t necessarily need a permanent home. It’s possible to work at IndyFringe, which established a permanent location in 2008 at 719 East St. Clair Street and has, in 10 years, returned nearly $1 million to artists who perform in its space or as part of the annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival. And with all the opportunities for site-specific performances, like at the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, you don’t even need a physical venue.

“Some of this is a symptom of the greater economic culture that we live in now,” says Georgeanna Smith, a member of the NoExit Theatre Company, which was founded a decade ago and began producing full seasons of plays staged around the city in 2008. “Even before the recession, we were starting to see a trend where people were not graduating from college and going immediately to work for big corporations. They were working for smaller businesses or they were starting as freelancers. Then with the recession, the arts community certainly felt that too—there’s less money to be had, theaters weren’t hiring as much, etc. I think [indie groups] were born out of people anxious to work.”

 

Like every company interviewed for this story, NoExit exists because its founders wanted to do something that wasn’t being done. They had nothing against the arts establishment; they just saw an opportunity to add to what was already here. Their DIY battle cry: If work isn’t coming to me, I can make my own. In NoExit’s case, that meant a collaborative effort performing innovative work at non-traditional spaces, venues, and stages. Smith, who joined the company in 2008, says site-specific work became a necessity because permanent space was unaffordable.

NoExit is known for a dark, tutu-free version of The Nutcracker.
NoExit is known for a dark, tutu-free version of The Nutcracker.

Photo by Zach Rosing

Also almost everyone involved in an indie company has a day job. Know No Stranger’s Goffinski is a social worker. Smith’s day job is head of the acting program for Young Actors Theatre, and NoExit runs largely on the strength of volunteers. Artists are paid a modest stipend, but the administrators work for free. “It’s hard for artists and performing artists to stay in the city because there’s a lot of work, but there’s not a lot of money behind the work,” says Smith, echoing a sentiment expressed over and over by different groups. “We want to get to a point where we can pay people, to have lots of opportunities for artists to have paying work.”

“Theater isn’t a competitive sport. Even if you had five different companies all doing a production of the same show that opened on the same date, it still really wouldn’t be a competition because you would be doing it in a different way.”

All the arts activity “is making the city come alive in kind of an underground, rising way,” says Ben Asaykwee, a founder of the theater company Q Artistry, which opened shop in Irvington in summer 2010 and does four shows a year featuring original work. Asaykwee, an Indianapolis native who makes his living as an actor and writer, was based in Chicago when the company started. When he returned to Indy, he looked in vain for a group that solely produced plays by Indiana playwrights. “Even finding places in Indiana to submit your work was difficult,” he says.

Q Artistry started with a show called Cabaret Poe, a musical Asaykwee wrote and the company performs annually based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Since then, its shows have included East Side Story, a West Side Story parody pitting adults against neighborhood kids (the young actors audition and get mentoring from the working professionals in the show), and Zirkus Grimm—a circus-style retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytales.

Grimm featured Georgeanna Smith from NoExit and Thomas Cardwell from EclecticPond, one of the many new Shakespeare/classics theater companies in town. Indy went without Shakespeare for more than a decade after the Indianapolis Shakespeare Festival went bankrupt in 1991. Then came Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre in 2006, Garfield Shakespeare Company in 2008, and, more recently, Hoosier Bard, EclecticPond, and IndyShakes—each with its own approach.

“Theater isn’t a competitive sport. Even if you had five different companies all doing a production of the same show that opened on the same date, it still really wouldn’t be a competition because you would be doing it in a different way.”

Cardwell, who’s from across the pond in England; his wife, Cat; and another friend started the company after moving to Indianapolis, Cat’s hometown. Their goal: Create a company that does adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works, with a focus on taking the shows to schools. “To show that this is not stuffy and boring and dull,” said Cardwell, who works as an actor at The Children’s Museum and in the Indiana Repertory Theatre box office, “but fascinating, fantastic, fun, frightening, scary. Whatever you want them to do, they are still relevant.” So EclecticPond performs shows like a family-friendly version of Dracula, complete with songs and slapstick humor, and 10 x 10, which is Shakespeare’s top 10 plays in 10 minutes each.

Hoosier Bard, by contrast, is giving Indy—and the world—a scholarly take. The troupe is run by IUPUI professor Terri Bourus, an Equity actor who’s also a general editor for the New Oxford Shakespeare Project. The university hired Bourus with marching orders to make meaningful connections between the campus and the Indianapolis arts community. She and company dramaturge Gary Taylor do that by using lots of local actors to examine and perhaps reconsider Shakespeare’s work. “Lots of people do Shakespeare, and lots of people do Shakespeare beautifully,” says Bourus. “But there are no other companies that I know of that do Shakespeare in quite the way we do it.”

After putting her acting career on hold for several years while she raised a family, DePauw University theater professor Amy Hayes founded IndyShakes two and a half years ago to get back in the game presenting Shakespeare and classics-based theater. She looked around Indianapolis and thought the time was right. “Mass Ave had exploded, and as I became acquainted with people, I thought something could happen here,” she says. “There seem to be people who pay to see art.” So she went to her friend Ronn Johnstone, who has a company called Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project, and asked him to produce her. IndyShakes is now a branch of Wisdom Tooth, which presents its first season at IndyFringe beginning this fall.

IndyShakes is one of many groups that would have faced a tougher road if not for IndyFringe, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Fringe’s home base, the 100-seat Basile Theatre on St. Clair Street, serves as both a low-cost rehearsal and performance space in a city that has few such spots.

Fringe connected the audience and per-formers, helping the artists build a following, and encouraged the arts through competitions such as DivaFest (female playwrights), Onyx (African-American playwrights), and Magic Festival (Spanish plays, in conjunction with IU–Bloomington). The performers made Fringe and, in turn, Fringe helped make the performers, says executive director Pauline Moffat.

The constant among these young arts groups is motivation. Craig Mince, board director of the 11-year-old Indianapolis International Film Festival and its newer offshoots—including Roving Cinema, which shows movies in unexpected locations (Newsies at the Indianapolis Star building, most recently)—would love to have a full-time person to take the pressure off. But the organization’s members are motivated by passion. “I’d take a bucket of passion over a bucket of $10 bills anytime,” says Mince, whose day job is running the IMAX Theater at White River State Park. “It helps ensure that the quality of the product is up to par.”

What spurred Mince’s group was the desire to fill the need for year-round film programming in the city. So it created Film to Fork, a dinner-and-a-movie experience, and Roving Cinema to supplement the annual film festival. Everybody can go to a movie theater and watch any given movie on any given weekend, says Mince. “But it’s a rare occasion that you do these fun, experience-centric activities around movies.”

Dan Ripley’s creation of WARMfest, likewise, was motivated by desire. In this case, it was to raise money for a cause—cleaning the White River. Festival director Jack Shepler says that leading up to the 2013 debut festival, organizers teamed with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful to remove the honeysuckle along the river in Broad Ripple Park. Days later, more than 10,000 people came out to the multi-day music fest.

Polina Osherov of Pattern, a fashion collective that hosts monthly meetups and circulates a magazine in seven countries.
Polina Osherov of Pattern, which hosts monthly meetups and circulates a magazine in seven countries.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Polina Osherov, board member of the fashion collective Pattern, says what we’re seeing in Indianapolis is largely an offshoot of the “maker movement”—the ability for people to be able to create things and market them online. “The threshold for making your own stuff, selling it, and making it accessible to the rest of the world has dropped tremendously,” she said. “There’s no middle man. You don’t have to find a manager, an agent, or even a store to carry your stuff. You just get an Etsy account, and if your stuff is good enough, and you’re on social media and you promote yourself, you have as good a chance of making a living doing it as anybody.”

But it takes time. Pattern got started almost four years ago as the Indianapolis Fashion Collective, in reaction to the surge of people who wanted to be part of the fashion industry in a city that, realistically, had no fashion industry. For two years, Pattern has held monthly meet-ups, and what started with 50 members now has 1,050, says Osherov. Their efforts have been so successful that Pattern now publishes a twice-yearly magazine and opened a retail storefront on Mass Ave in August.

Some arts groups have found teaching to be an effective way to build their reputation. When Motus Dance started in 2004, Indianapolis had no place for adults to take dancing without children in the class. Motus, now operating from a Fountain Square studio and offering classes of 5 to 15 students, serves as a bridge between students studying dance and the world of professional dance.

“If you chose to not take the starving-artist route and to pursue another life, it made it impossible to pursue a professional career outside of that,” says executive artistic director Heidi Phillips. “So Motus filled the gap of bring-ing people together who still wanted to create and pass on their knowledge and contribute to the community with their art and with their work, without having to give everything up.”

Phillips, a full-time mom, says the challenge has been to build community support. There’s a big leap to make, she says, from having supportive friends and family and doing the best you can on a shoestring budget to taking the next step to solidify things. Ten years in, Motus still can’t support a full-time position. Phillips is paid as an independent contractor, and on a part-time basis. Everyone else is a volunteer.

“Dance is one of the most poorly supported arts,” she says. “Yet people love it. It’s popular in pop culture, and kids absolutely connect with it. But we don’t support it. So there’s still a gap in the funding and the support of the community that we’re trying to bridge.”

And that, WFYI’s Gamble says, is key. Starting an arts organization is the glamorous and relatively easy part of the equation. It’s the sprint that’s difficult—that is, building a core audience, securing corporate sponsorships, foundation funding, and loyal individual donors. There’s also figuring out infrastructure issues such as location (rent or buy), how to keep employees if the group can’t afford health insurance, the right price point for tickets, and how to cost-effectively get the word out about performances.

Because in the end, says Gamble, “Only the fittest not-for-profits survive.”

 

EclecticPond Theatre Company

How they describe themselves: A nonprofit touring company based in Indianapolis whose goal is to produce high-energy, fast-paced versions of classical and modern texts that link to the plays students are required to read and study.
What they’re known for: 10 x 10—Shakespeare’s top 10 plays in 10 minutes each. If you think you don’t like Shakespeare, well, each play only lasts 10 minutes, and the next one is completely different. If you do like Shakespeare, you get to see 10 works in one show.

NoExit

How they describe themselves: A collective of Butler University graduates and their friends whose goal is non-traditional performances—often of well-known works like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
What they’re known for: A dark, tutu-free version of The Nutcracker, and a performance of all three of the Theban Oedipal plays on the Indianapolis Museum of Art grounds.

Know No Stranger

How they describe themselves: A collective group of friends and artists set on making Indianapolis a more enjoyable place using video, storytelling, puppetry, illustration, and anything else they can think of.
What they’re known for: Optical Popsicle, an annual festivity of art, fun, and frozen delights, and performances at PBS Kids in the Park, where they have a dinosaur character lead aerobic exercises.

IndyFringe

How they describe themselves: A hub for performances and rehearsals for independent, uncensored artists in all genres.
What they’re known for: The IndyFringe Theatre Festival, 11 days of performances in eight venues featuring almost 400 different shows, as well as playwriting festivals for women, African Americans, and Hispanics.

Pattern

How they describe themselves: A new way of thinking about and doing fashion in Indianapolis. As such, it endeavors to become a safe space for fashion-minded individuals to engage with each other, creating a network of people with diverse backgrounds and ambitions.
What they’re known for: Monthly meetups in various locations and Pattern, the magazine, which circulates in seven countries and almost exclusively features the work of the Indianapolis fashion community.

Q Artistry

How they describe themselves: A non-profit collection of artists dedicated to enlightening, educating, and entertaining through original and re-imagined productions, presentations, and events.
What they’re known for: Cabaret Poe, a musical featuring the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and East Side Story, a musical romp about a friendship on the east side of Indianapolis that parodies West Side Story.

Motus Dance

How they describe themselves: A nonprofit modern-dance company based in Fountain Square that teaches classes, holds workshops, collaborates with other artists, and presents original, contemporary dance performances.
What they’re known for: “Site-specific dance works that are not conservative,” says executive artistic director Heidi Phillips. Their performances often take on topics like suicide, bullying, and exclusion.

Roving Cinema

How they describe themselves: An offshoot of the Indianapolis International Film Festival that brings movies to unusual (but topic-appropriate) places.
What they’re known for: Screening Fight Club in the catacombs beneath City Market (below), Field of Dreams at Victory Field, and The Big Lebowski at Jillian’s Hi-Life Lanes.

Oranje

How they describe themselves: An annual contemporary art and music event showcasing progressive artists and musicians, creating an interactive experience presented in a stimulating and festive environment. Recent additions include an all-vinyl record-store lounge and a beer garden full of craft brews.
What they’re known for: Exploring the boundaries of art, music, and culture and presenting them to the public in an exciting, interactive, and stimulating environment where you can indulge your senses.

Hoosier Bard

How they describe themselves: An experimental Shakespeare company trying to build on what we know about Shakespeare while also creating a new sense of who he was as a playwright and what he has to contribute to theater in the present. It’s the theatrical arm of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis’s New Oxford Shakespeare.
What they’re known for: The History of Cardenio, which got global attention and was the subject of the documentary C.S.I. Shakespeare and a book. The show was inspired by the first translation of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

IndyShakes

How they describe themselves: IndyShakes exists to produce language-driven, movement-charged, and emotionally truthful classics and classics-inspired plays with simplicity in order to frame and serve the actors who embody the story.
What they’re known for: Shakespeare—most recently The Winter’s Tale at IndyFringe, helmed by frequent Indiana Repertory Theatre director Richard J. Roberts.

WARMfest

How they describe themselves: A three-day music and arts festival dedicated to helping preserve the White River. WARMfest promotes environmental responsibility, independent business and artisans, and sustainable goods and services through the magic of music, art, and culture.
What they’re known for: A freewheeling music festival that kicked off in 2013 featuring Michael Franti & Spearhead and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

 

Ticket14_cover3This article appeared in The Ticket, a 2014 special publication.

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