Performance » Theater

No Sets, No Props, No Problem

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There isn't a single empty parking space in the parking lot of Indy Reads Books.  The shop is full of chattering, animated people, and there is a feeling of anticipation in the room.  Everyone is excited for the upcoming performance.  Actors begin to mount the stage, and everyone starts to shuffle to their seats.  Oh, there's just one tiny detail missing: None of us know exactly what it is we've gathered to see.  This is the May installment of Indy Actors' Playground, and that's just how they roll.  Haven't heard of it?  Don't feel bad.  Indy Actors' Playground may be Indy's best kept secret.  The project is still in its infancy, having hosted its inaugural event in February, and has been kept very hush-hush up until now, but I'm spilling the beans.  It's just too cool not to share.

Georgeanna Smith (center) and Megan McKinney (right) team up as a hilarious mother-daughter duo at last month's Indy Actor's Playground, while Claire Saunders shines in the role of the straight man.
  • Georgeanna Smith (center) and Megan McKinney (right) team up as a hilarious mother-daughter duo at last month's Indy Actor's Playground, while Claire Saunders shines in the role of the straight man.

Indy Actors' Playground is a monthly play-reading series created by Indianapolis Business Journal's A&E editor, Lou Harry, and actor Bill Simmons in which a local actor chooses a play, selects a cast, and performs an informal public reading.  There are no sets, no props, and no costumes.  Just great acting--completely free of charge.  The selected play is always kept a secret up until the minute before it begins.  The reasoning behind this, Harry explains, is so that actors will not feel pressure to choose plays they think will draw a crowd.  "We want actors to pick plays that they are passionate or curious or excited about," he says.  "The idea is that IAP is a series focused on the actor, not--as with most readings--the playwright. We love the professional acting community here and want them to get a chance to publicly read plays that they want to be a part of. We give the actor some power that usually only the most powerful actors get."

The plays can be old or new, classic or unknown, and thus far have included selections as diverse as Courtney Baron's Eat Your Heart Out, which premiered only last year, and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. Tonight's selection, Betty's Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang, was chosen by local actor Scot Greenwell.  It's often hilarious, occasionally disturbing, and ultimately challenging and thought provoking.  Greenwell says, "Immediately upon hearing about the concept of Indy Actors' Playground, I wanted to be involved.  I've always liked Betty's Summer Vacation, but I knew it would never be produced in Indianapolis. So I figured it was a fun choice for the Playground."

And that's exactly the point.  Through Indy Actors' Playground, actors are able to read parts that they might not get a chance to play in full-scale productions.  There are a lot of factors that go into the professional production of a play that IAP can simply throw out the window.  For example, theatres have to consider commercial factors, such as the expense of producing the play and whether or not it will be successful.  They have to consider technical aspects and design requirements.  The only thing IAP has to consider is how they're going to squeeze all those people into Indy Reads Books once the word gets out that we're now just giving show-stopping performances out for free.

It's safe to say that the series is not heavily promoted.  In fact, it's not promoted at all except through word of mouth and the group's Facebook page.  Harry and Simmons never intended IAP to be a secret, but when you're not in it to make money, promoting yourself becomes a non-issue.  Simmons explains, "We're doing the readings because Lou and I enjoy hearing plays read aloud by good actors, and there are way more wonderful plays out there than there are theatres in Indianapolis with the time to produce them."

Actors Zachariah Stonerock, Pete Lindblom, Claire Wilcher, Georgeanna Smith, Megan McKinney, and Rob Johansen (left to right) relax on stage before the reading begins at Indy Reads Books.
  • Actors Zachariah Stonerock, Pete Lindblom, Claire Wilcher, Georgeanna Smith, Megan McKinney, and Rob Johansen (left to right) relax on stage before the reading begins at Indy Reads Books.

The idea to hold a regular play-reading series was an idea that Harry and Simmons had been kicking around, both individually and collectively, for quite some time.  Both are drawn to the simple, no-frills style of play-reading.  Simmons shares, "Reading plays aloud for sheer enjoyment without feeling the pressure to perform or prove yourself is very liberating. I remember getting together in a friend's living room with three other actors and reading Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on a winter night in December about five or six years ago while drinking scotch and watching the snow fall outside this enormous picture window. It was a Christmas gift to ourselves, and it was three hours of pure bliss."

I'm sorry to say that there's no scotch provided at Indy Actors' Playground, but there's certainly bliss to spare.  There were almost 50 people at tonight's reading, and everyone I saw seemed completely captivated.  The great thing about IAP is that everyone is there because they want to be there.  There are few things better than art for the sake of art, and quite apart from the pleasure of watching talented people tell a good story, there's also something exciting about the surprise, about not knowing what you're going to see until you see it.  It's a unique, one-time-only performance, and therein lies the charm.

As he reflects on the evening, Greenwell says, "Indy Actors' Playground will nurture the theatre community here; it was evident tonight that was true. It's a great way to be introduced to new talent and to hear plays that, chances are, you haven't read. I'm thrilled Actors' Playground has been added to Indy's theatre landscape; it's exactly what we all seem to have wanted for quite a while."

I can't honestly say that I'd been wanting it before, but now that it's here and I've experienced it, I sure hope it sticks around.

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