Industry leaders offer innovative programs to keep local audiences flocking to area venues
The magic of live theater continues to mesmerize audiences—from large to small—across the Region. Whether it’s in a more intimate venue or in an almost 100-year-old historic landmark, community members are falling under the spell of stages filled with music, comedy or drama.
“It’s a place where people come together in the same room and share an experience whether it makes you laugh, cry or think about something in a new way,” said Linda Fortunato, artistic director at Theatre at the Center in Munster. “Actors on stage create a relationship with the audience, (but) it’s not complete until the audience is in its seats.”
And no two show experiences are the same, she said. Performances may vary slightly each night based on an audience’s reaction.
“It breathes in a different way depending on each audience,” Fortunato said. “That’s what’s magical about the theater: It happens and then it’s gone except in the memories of the people who experienced it.”
Industry leaders are helping preserve what theater is all about by creating strong community connections and unique events and programs. They also spark conversations on timely topics.
At the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, guests are greeted by an almost 100-year-old building. It was renovated in the late 1990s. The stage was expanded, and theater capacity grew to more than 2,500 seats.
“It has been a treasured community asset for nearly 100 years,” said Jeff Jarnecke, executive director of venues. “The building has come to life through incredible shows, performances and events, and has been an integral part in creating memories for generations.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Morris had a record 102 events in 2018 and is expected to have 115 events this year.
While the theater has had a significant economic impact on the city, Jarnecke feels the theater’s longevity and impact are rooted in its effects on the more than 100,000 guests who grace the seats each season.
“The Morris is something guests look forward to experiencing not because of what it is, but rather what it represents,” he said. “It is a shared experience. It is where memories are made. It is a sense of belonging in this community.”
Jarnecke said, because of that, it is important to his organization to offer a variety of artists, genres, performances and experiences that speak to all cultures and people.
“Our sole measure of success cannot be attendance, but rather if we helped create an environment where our residents and culture can thrive,” he said.
Jarnecke said he is driven by the Morris’ legacy and the passion of its audiences.
“To stand on the stage with just the ghost light on staring into the vast darkness of 2,500 seats and think about the history and what this building has ‘seen’ is awe-inspiring,” he said. “From our wonderful ushers who give of their time, to the patron who has supported the symphony for so many years, to the diversity of our audience, I’m challenged every day to ensure an experience at the Morris is nearly a rite of passage for South Bend residents.”
He said he wants the next 100 years to be even better than the first.
“The Morris can be a sense of identity, a catalyst for change and an incubator for celebration of all that is positive for our community,” Jarnecke said.
An evolving story
With strong roots as a volunteer-led theater group, Chicago Street Theatre in Valparaiso has taken a more professional turn since the early 2000s. It added a managing director and part-time box office manager.
“It’s no longer a volunteer sitting with a card table and cash box taking tickets—now that we have professionalized to the point that people can order tickets online,” said Eric Brant, director of marketing at CST.
The group has grown from sharing a stage at the Memorial Opera House for four decades to having its own building beginning in 2008. Today, the 130-seat theater continues to offer an intimate environment for a variety of shows in its 65th season.
Brant said the crew strives to follow a formula of sorts when putting together a season of shows. The goal is to entertain and engage longtime subscribers while cultivating new audiences.
“We have our family-oriented show during the holidays and pair it with an adult-themed show as an office party destination,” he said. “We have our challenging or controversial show during the winter to bring in the best talent with something ‘edgier.’”
They also offer a comedy and drama show, as well as the Shakespeare in the Park series during the summer. That last one brings a classic to life outside at Central Park Plaza in downtown Valparaiso. Educational opportunities also are available for adults and children.
“Shakespeare in the Park is a culmination of so many relationships,” Brant said. “We’re able to give a great big cultural gift to the city each year. You can see Shakespeare downtown for free, and we throw a big festival party.”
Brant himself has been involved with CST since his high school days and sees CST continuing to flourish.
“We’ve not really shed our roots as a 60-plus year community theater that started as a group of people putting on plays,” he said. “We have longevity because we have established supporters who believe in the validity of what we do in terms of improving quality of life.”
Big city in our backyard
Heading into its 30th year, Theatre at the Center in Munster brings access to Chicago-style theater but in a more up-close-and-personal setting.
Fortunato said, as a professional theater, TATC is a platform for Region residents to enjoy a show, concert or musical without having to travel to downtown Chicago.
“We are able to bridge the gap as a lot of our actors, designers, directors and crew have also worked at the big theaters in Chicago,” she said. “But how our theater is laid out, it is a very intimate experience.
“It does take all kinds of theaters and all levels to make theater what it is here in the Region.”
With the Star Plaza venue’s closing, TATC has expanded its reach by adding concert and comedy offerings.
“We strive to create a season with a lot of variety to appeal to a lot of different people,” Fortunato said. “We are closing some of the Star Plaza void with more one-night-only concerts and stand-up comedian shows.”
Fortunato said theater is vital to the Region. “I am very passionate about theater,” she said. “It enriches us as people, and a community is formed in those two hours.”
At 4th Street Theater in downtown Chesterton, first-row guests can literally put their feet on the stage and that is what makes it great, said Angela Heid, the group’s president.
“We’re a really small theater—50 to 60 seats, depending on how the set is,” she said. “The stage itself is 12-feet deep, so it allows us to do shows where the audience is really a part of it.”
The group has been specializing in smaller shows since landing at its current location in the late 1990s.
“If we’re doing a four- to six-person show, we can really bring the audience close to it,” Heid said. “So, the audience can literally feel like they are sitting in someone’s living room or on the same street as the characters.”
She said theater fans accustomed to going to Chicago, walk away pleasantly surprised when they come to one of her group’s shows. Heid said she often hears comments after performances such as: “Wow, I didn’t know this was going on in my backyard.”
Part of connecting to the community for the 4th Street Theater team is to offer an outlet for artistic individuals as well as a place for children on the autism spectrum to experience live theater.
Heid says the crew participates in a 10-minute play festival where anyone can submit a show that hasn’t been done anywhere else.
“It’s a much smaller time commitment, and it can pull in people who haven’t done theater for years,” she said. “We felt it was important to do something unique and not get in the habit of doing the same shows over and over again.”
Heid said the event for children is led by a specially-trained group from Chicago.
“The group’s members sense if a child wants to interact or just sit there,” she said. “We have sponsors, so we don’t have to charge the family. It’s a way for us to give back to the community.”
Aaron Nichols, executive director of the South Bend Civic Theatre, said part of what keeps local theaters going is the drive to support all things local.
“I think there is a resurgent desire to support local, whether it be food, business or entertainment,” he said. “I think that our patrons value our commitment to enriching and creating community.
“When you go to a show in Chicago, you’re engaged and entertained; however, when you see a show at the Civic, you’re supporting friends and neighbors, putting dollars into the local economy and enabling artists to create positive change right next door.”
Nichols said his team also has listened to its community members and recently added two programs. Showtime Child Care is free child-care services during Wednesday-night performances. The Pay-What-You-Can Previews allow patrons to attend a pre-opening night show at an amount that fits their needs.
“Free child care allows our large number of young families the chance to have a date night without worrying about scheduling and paying for baby-sitting,” he said. “Many of our volunteers, local artists and economically disadvantaged can’t afford a $25 ticket. To meet this need, we’ve introduced a performance where patrons ‘pay what they can’ whether that be $1, $5 or $20.”
Nostalgia might have been at the base of community theater success in the past, but Nichols said now it’s something more.
“It’s a safe place to explore ideas and invite debate,” he said. “It’s a public space where people of all opinions and backgrounds gather to be challenged and comforted as well as entertained.”
Nichols said theater education programs are sparking curiosity, nurturing civility and creating connections in a world where these interactions are becoming rare.
For Nichols, telling stories for a living is part of why he embraces the theater world.
“I get to travel back—or even forward—in time,” he said. “I get to see artists shine under spotlights and audiences rise in rapturous appreciation. I get to create worlds. I get to make my community more kind, generous and compassionate.”