Lori Raffel is rarely without a script close at hand. She reads plays as voraciously as an avid book lover devours good novels. It’s a hobby she began while studying theater at Indiana University in Bloomington.
“I just love reading plays -- bad plays, good plays, anything. Somebody put so much time and effort into it and maybe this is the only thing they’ll ever write in their whole lives,” says Raffel, with a bookmarked script of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe sitting on her desk. “I wonder, ‘How do they want me to feel?’ And I always think about what it would look like on stage. I’m really not happy unless I have three or four scripts with me.”
- Photo by Jami Stall
Theatre on the Square Artistic Director Lori Raffel enjoys poring over scripts, mining for that next hit to bring to the stage.
As the artistic director of Theatre on the Square, Raffle now has a permanent home to produce the plays she falls in love with.
She took over the reins in April 2014 from the retiring Ron Spencer, who founded the community theater and directed most of its productions for more than 20 years.
Spencer, who moved to Mexico, basically handpicked Raffel for the job.
“Ron struggled with who to have in charge here, who to take his place,” says Raffel. “They put an ad out for the position, and one day Ron contacted me and asked me to look at the ad to see if it was something that I wanted.”
She was definitely interested, but was also nervous about making such a big career move. At the time Raffel was working as the marketing director at the Phoenix Theatre and occasionally directing shows. While happy there, where she'd worked in various capacities for almost seven years, personal tragedies were pushing her to re-evaluate life.
“In one year I lost four people really close to me, including my mother and my sister,” says Raffel, the “baby” of her family. “But there’s something about that happening that gives you a freedom, like ‘What else can I possibly lose?’ And I thought, ‘I’m gonna go for this.’”
With the blessing and encouragement of Bryan Fonseca, her boss at the Phoenix, Raffel headed over a couple of blocks east of the Phoenix to set up shop at Theatre on the Square.
Most days Raffel can be seen working in her makeshift office inside the TOTS lobby. Here she sits with her laptop and several scripts on a long table facing the large picture window that fronts Mass. Ave.
- Photo by Jami Stall
With the rapport of BFFs, Claire Wilcher, actor and TOTS marketing director, and Lori Raffel pitch in at the ticket counter and wherever else they're needed at the Mass Ave theater.
“Even if I had a beautiful office upstairs, I love being down here. It’s like my window on the world -- watching everybody go by, watching people come in and buy tickets. I would miss it if I weren’t here,” says Raffel, who started in theater in junior high school and graduated with a directing degree from IU.
Raffel admits her first full week at TOTS was filled with excitement ... and doubts.
But as she approaches her second year at the helm, she’s found her rhythm.
Raffel is using her experiences in life and 25 years in the theater – as an actor, director, set and costume designer and now artistic director – to develop full seasons of productions with mass appeal.
“I have plays that I’m passionate about, and either I’ll direct them or sometimes it’s matching up the theater with the director and the shows,” says Raffel, who prefers to choose directors before deciding on scripts.
“I want to respect the history of TOTS because it’s so important to so many people, but there has to be something that brings in new audiences, people from all persuasions and from every community.”
Raffel was clear about the shows she wanted this season, including Killer Joe, which opens this Friday, (Feb. 19th).
It’s a dark, twisted play about a father and son who conspire to hire a hitman to kill the family’s matriarch for the insurance money. One of the most disturbing aspects is that it’s based on a true story. For anyone who knows Raffel, this would probably seem like a script on which she’d pass.
Soft-spoken Raffel seems more of a of Kiss Me Kate fan, which she admits is her all-time favorite, than that of a contract killer tale acted out by the twisted characters the author created.
But she was almost giddy talking about what a great production Killer Joe will be, and how she's thrilled to be directing it.
- Photo by Jami Stall
Claire Wilcher and Lori Raffel amid the Christel DeHaan Main Stage theater at TOTS.
I love Tracy Letts. I just can’t get enough of him and his characters, who are too stupid to live sometimes. You just can’t help but like their vulnerability and their struggle,” says Raffel, who also directed Bug, another Letts piece a few years ago for Spotlight Players.
“A lot of people don’t get it, but I just thought it was hilarious and sad. Somehow you care about these people even though they make such horrible, horrible decisions about their life. I always wanted to do Killer Joe.”
Raffel has the right venue in TOTS to produce the play. She also secured her dream cast, which started with Ben Asaykwee (of Cabaret Poe fame)who will play Joe. Raffel says she worked for eight months to get Asaykwee to commit to the role. The other actors quickly fell into place.
“I already knew the people that I wanted to be in it, and I wasn’t going to do it until I found those people,” she says. “I approached them one by one over the last year and a half.”
With titles such as Killer Joe, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and Leonard Melfi’s Porno Stars at Home rounding out this year’s season at TOTS, Raffel is showing she’s confident pushing the envelope on Indianapolis’ theater scene.
She’s also not afraid to tame things down a bit to attract families to the downtown theater, which she displayed with A Christmas Story. However, in true TOTS fashion, there was a “naughty” and “nice” version of the holiday classic.
- Photo by Jami Stall
Raffel directs Killer Joe, which opens Friday at TOTS. The trashy trailer setting befits the characters who plot the devious demise of their family matriarch.
“It got people in this theater that had never been here before,” says Raffel. “It was something for everyone.”
Although she’s been at the theater for almost two years, Raffel is still in awe to have the freedom to produce what she wants.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m here, but I’m so glad I did it,” she says. “My family would be so proud of me. I still have days when I think, ‘Can I do this and why did I do this,’ but there’s always something positive that happens that makes me know why I did this,” says Raffel.
Ultimately her goal for TOTS is for it to continue to be an institution on the local arts scene ... for life.
“I guess I’m greedy in that I want all audiences. I want it to be here forever, because I think we need the theater,” says Raffel. “I want to be proud of every single thing that people see here, and it’s getting there. Everyday when I come to work, I feel there are a lot of ghosts of the past in here who are just waiting for this theater to come back and be wonderful.”