Celebrating 100 years with Civic Theater

You could say it began with Booth Tarkington, a native son of Indianapolis and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in fiction.  His career as a novelist and playwright contributed to the success of the Little Theater Society of Indiana, whose first production took place in 1915.  It was renamed Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in 1949 and today enjoys the distinction of being among the longest continuously operating community theatres in the country.  The largest of over 70 community theatres in Indiana, it is also in the top ten of more than 7,000 nationally.  Currently Civic accounts for 25% of the traffic to The Center for the Performing Arts, with 54,000 patrons served in the 2013 – 2014 season alone.

Statistics, however, can’t capture the vitality of this remarkable facility. To appreciate what Civic offers, you have to step inside.   I was able to do just that when Catherine Dixon, Director of Development, took me behind the scenes on a personal tour. We met in the lobby between the Tarkington and the StudioTheater that fronts Center Green across from The Palladium. 

Catherine started with a little background.  “The Center for the Performing Arts is our fifth home in 100 years.  Most recently we moved from Showalter on the grounds of the IMA to an interim space at Marian College (now Marian University) in 2004.  We made the decision to become the principal resident theatrein the Tarkington at the Center in 2009 and opened here for our 2011-2012 season.   Our performances, education programs and administration all take place in this building.”

Lots of new vocabulary words (for me anyway) followed as we entered the auditorium.  “The Tarkington has 500 seats with a proscenium stage, simply defined as a stage with a frame that separates the audience from the performers and allows space to hide scenery and equipment such as lighting.  Additional features include the fly tower, which allows for more intricate set designs and theatrical effects, and the orchestra pit to house the musicians that accompany every Civic musical.  These tools make it possible to host Mainstage productions as varied as large-scale musicals, comedies and intimate dramas.  In contrast, the Palladium is called a ‘concert hall’ since its stage is completely open to enhance acoustics.”

From the auditorium we walked back to one of the dressing rooms.  Along two walls, chairs faced long mirrors with spotlights above, much like what is depicted in movies.  “The Tarkington has separate areas for men and women that accommodate up to 20 people.  Cast members with prominent roles have private rooms for make-up and wardrobe changes.  Showers are available as well.”  It was easy to imagine the controlled chaos that reigns during a production.

Our next stop was the ‘War Room’ upstairs.  Here we found models for each scene built to scale for upcoming shows.  They looked like pretty dollhouses lined up and ready for play.  According to Catherine, “Our resident scenographer, Ryan Koharchik, builds these miniature scale models for each scene so that every aspect of stage design is imagined before production.  Elevations and blueprints are drawn to ensure that all scenery is constructed to precise specifications.  Costumes are also created onsite under the direction of resident costume designer Adrienne Conces; we have a fulltime production staff of eight who bring our stage to life.  Prior to an opening, we allow two weeks for load-in and technical work followed by three to four weeks for the show.  Our performers usually have day jobs so rehearsals are held during the evening.”

All of this work behind the curtain leads to the outstanding performances we enjoy each season.  But what about education and outreach programs at the Civic?  “Our mission is to ‘foster a love of theatre through imagination, education and participation,’”Catherine explained.  “We offer numerous classes to students as young as 18 months all the way up through teens and adults.  There are also opportunities to perform.  Each summer, for instance, Jr. Civic produces a fully-staged musical for kids and by kids with children from 6 to 14, and the Young Adult Program provides performance opportunities for high school students.  If you visit our website at CivicTheatre.org you can read about the many programs which are available for every age and ability.”

Catherine continued with some of her favorite examples of community outreach.  “School matinees enable us to reach students across the state that might not otherwise have access to live theatre.  For those children with autism, we hosted a ‘sensory friendly’ performance of The Cat in the Hat last season and plan to increase to two adjusted performances in 2015.  Lights are up in the auditorium and we provide a safe area for time-out if needed.  Experts are positioned in the audience and demonstrations teach that the play is make-believe.  We’re the first company in Indiana to do this in conjunction with VSA Arts of Indiana, the state organization on arts and disability.”

Since Civic is a non-profit organization, Catherine spends much of her time raising funds.  50% of the operating budget is earned through ticket sales, class tuitions and rentals of scenery and costumes; the rest is raised through the support of individuals, corporations and foundations.  The Christel DeHaan Family Foundation is only one example of the many generous organizations that annually support Civic programs.

To celebrate its milestone centennial, Civic plans several special events throughout the season.  There will be an exhibit in the lobby telling the story of its last 100 years and looking ahead to the next century; opportunities to explore the working areas of the Tarkington during SPAMALOT; and events to celebrate the organization’s birthday.  And of course there will be the inspired performances that promise to entertain audiences for years to come. 

Your family will love Civic’s next production, The Wizard of Oz, on stage December 12 – January 3 in the Tarkington. You can book tickets for the whole family now at CivicTheatre.org or by calling the box office at 317/843-3800.

Interview by Jackie Holloway
Special thanks to Catherine Dixon,
Director of Development