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Lou Harry on HART

Much Ado

Professional Shakespeare in the park to returneth this summer

Lou Harry June 4, 2013

Thanks to grants from the Central Indiana Community Foundation and Lilly Endowment, professional summer Shakespeare will return in August to White River State Park. Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre has staged free productions in the park every year except one since 2008, but funding has always been an issue.

The foundations' funding—$50,000, which covers about half the production expenses—will go toward not only paying actors, but also the purchase of a new sound system.

“Our only complaint that we’ve heard over the years is with our sound,” said Butler University Theatre Department Chairwoman Diane Timmerman, a former HART company member who recently took over as HART's producing artistic director. “We just haven’t had the money to purchase or rent a decent sound system.”

(Full disclosure, HART staged a play of mine in 2008 and I was involved in the early days of its development.)

For its first three years, summer Shakespeare was under the umbrella of the White River State Park Family Fun series. Since then, HART has had to search for funding each year, with last-minute saves every year except for 2011. The pledge of ongoing support from CICF (led by Brian Payne who, not coincidentally, ran Shakespeare Santa Cruz before moving to Indianapolis) means HART can focus on long-term planning, including the possible construction of a permanent stage in the park. HART currently uses the amphitheater between the NCAA Hall of Champions and the bridge to the Indianapolis Zoo.

“We have a fantastic designer working on a plan for the permanent,” said Timmerman. “But it’s still in its embryonic stage. It’s a state property—there are a lot of hoops to go through."

Robert Whitt, executive director for White River State Park, applauds the return of theater to the park and is open to the idea of a permanent stage. "We are open to anything that would enhance the experience of our visitors. But we have a number of considerations. That's one of the best vistas in the park so we wouldn’t want to do anything that would obstruct that view. The other thing is, we have a lot of other uses for that area. It's popular for weddings, for instance. And we need to take all of that into account."

While the permanent stage isn’t happening this year, other changes are in the works for the Aug. 9-10 performances of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Loyalists will note that there will be a slight change in the orientation of the audience and performance space—a move aimed at keeping the sun out of the audience’s eyes (Timmerman would prefer Indiana switch to Central time, but realizes that’s unlikely). HART is also considering adding premium (paid) seating for a small section and is working to attract food trucks and wine and beer purveyors to add to a festive atmosphere. Previous productions drew an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people, many armed with picnic baskets, wine and even candelabras.

It’s a lot of work for two performances. But the space can handle up to 2,100 people. “If we get 2,000 people to come to ‘Shrew,’" said Timmerman, "we would consider that a big success.”

“I have two jobs right now,” Timmerman said. “One is to make sure ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is an awesome production. The other is to build an infrastructure for the company so we are not ever again in the 11th-hour situation we found ourselves in during the last two years. And we’d like to build it to more weekends, create new programming, and have multiple shows in repertory.”

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This article from Lou Harry's A&E on Indianapolis Business Journal.

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Reviews for The Exonerated

 

 

The Exonerated was gripping, graphic, heart-wrenching, poetic and dangerous as several former death row inmates ruminate on the fragility of life and the chaos of fate. The packed house included overflow viewers watching via live feed. Produced by Butler University and Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, this simple staged reading presented complex and fully fleshed relationships, where the slightest nod of the head or lift of the face cues us in. The versatile ensemble of professional actors carried our attention with their razor sharp focus. Director William Fisher created an empathetic atmosphere for each inmate's story, where the facts are justice is an illusion and the state is the enemy. Yet, Fisher is careful not to answer the questions raised in the production, instead he leaves space for the audience to choose between belief or doubt. This evening was a true event in theater: unique and impermanent, just like life. Nuvo Newsweekly

Under the right direction, play readings—with actors reading from scripts—can be just as powerful, memorable and theatrically magical as full productions. That’s been proven time and again on my visits to L.A. Theatre Works (most recently for “Lobby Hero” with Tate Donovan). And it was proven closer to home with the Aug. 29 reading of “The Exonerated,” Jessica Blank’s and Erik Jensen’s play that examines the alleged crimes and redemptive aftermath of six cases where death-row inmates were released after new evidence came to light.

Rather than a fully staged production, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, in conjunction with Butler University Theatre, simply parked 10 of Indy’s top actors on stools in front of music stands (after just one rehearsal, per union rules) and allowed them to tell these stories.

And it worked, hauntingly, with crowds watching not just from Butler’s Studio Theatre but also in other rooms via closed-circuit TV.

Granted, the material itself is inherently compelling. The play immerses us in the true stories of Delbert Tibbs (David Alan Anderson), a prison poet not even in the same state where the murder he was accused of occurred, and Gary Gauger (Michael Shelton), a mild man accused of slaughtering his parents. We learn of Sunny Jacobs (Diane Timmerman), a self-proclaimed hippie who allowed her romance with her husband to blossom while both were in different cells on death row after being found guilty in a police killing. We share the story of Robert Earl Hayes (Ben Rose), an African-American horse groomer accused of killing a white woman he had had relations with (even though she was found with Caucasian hair in her grip). And that of David Keaton, a would-be minister (Monte Tappler) coerced into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. Then there’s Kerry Max Cook (Ryan Artzburger), brutalized in prison after being found guilty of rape and murder.

Yes, it’s somber stuff. But, counterintuitively, the material works when the characters come across as living, breathing, flawed, unique people, not as noble martyrs. And that’s the gift that the entire cast of Indy all-stars—including supporting cast members Milicent Wright, Jen Johansen, Matthew Roland and Doug Johnson—gave to “The Exonerated.” Even in “off camera” moments, the actors were engaged, touching and true.

I’ve hinted for a long time of the potential benefits to the Indy cultural scene of a regular series of such readings. Not only do audiences get to gain from the opportunity to experience work they otherwise might not get a chance to see and hear (at least, not with such a top-notch company), but the actors themselves gain by being able to work with one another and to explore a wider range of roles without needing to commit to lengthy runs. They also get a chance to be seen by theater lovers who might not have the means to attend theater as often as they would like.

We’ve got a talented pool of performers here, and “The Exonerated” showed off what they can do when their forces are combined. Here’s hoping for more such readings in the future. Indiana Business Journal