Having written for various local publications and websites for many years, it is such a pleasure to now have my own blog because I am free from restrictions such as deadlines, subject matter and conflict of interest. Also, I no longer have to be concerned with word count or length. Now I can be more like the PBS’ MacNeil/Lear Report and examine stories in greater depth than I ever could writing for traditional news sources.
I am aware, of course that due to technology and the vast amount of information available in cyberspace, many of us (including me on occasion) sometimes have the attention span of a flea. Nevertheless, there are those who may wish to deeply delve into subjects that interest them. So count me as as one who will always try to give you the complete story rather than just a capsulized version.
With that in mind, I offer this in-depth interview I recently conducted with Phoenix Theatre founder and producing director Bryan Fonseca and philanthropist, arts patron and community leader Frank Basile who was recently appointed president of the organization’s board of directors.
I was an original board member of the Phoenix Theatre which was founded in 1983. I first met Fonseca when he was free-lance directing for the former Broad Ripple Playhouse. He cast me in his 1980 production of “Marat/Sade” and later asked me and others to help him to establish the Phoenix. Basile and I met at an art exhibit in 2009 and he has been a supporter of mine ever since. I have written about both men numerous times and have covered the Phoenix from its inception, so we all share a common history.
Since the association of these two visionaries has been instrumental in the Phoenix’s development, culminating soon in a new home for the organization, I asked them to sit down with me to discuss the theatre’s past, present and future. Herein is an edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation which took place in the Phoenix Theatre lobby a few weeks ago.
What is your history with the Phoenix, Frank?
F.B. Well, I first became acquainted with the theater 34 years ago when I started attending and have seen every play since then. And I have often said, it is not for a lack of anything else to do in our city because there is a lot to do but I thoroughly enjoy the plays that are presented here. Then, through the years, off and on, I would talk with Bryan and one he day came into my office at the Glick company where I was employed at the time, and asked if I would chair the capital campaign to renovate the church building the Phoenix is currently in and that Scott Keller had donated to the organization. And after some thought, I agreed to do so and a couple of years later we had the grand opening for the building situated here in Chatham Arch, with Mayor Hudnut present. Then fast forward a few years later and I joined the board in 2002. In 2003 I served as president. That was 15 years ago and now, 15 years later, Bryan and the then board president asked me I would come back on the board and serve another couple of years as president to complete the capital campaign and serve during the transition to the new building.
Why you of all people?
F.B. Perhaps because of my history with the organization and my love of the organization and probably my experience with other organizations, serving in this capacity.
Wouldn’t you say that it is also because of your connections?
F.B. Yes. I do have a lot of contacts in the city which I would have used anyway because I was part of the capital campaign for the new building before becoming board president.
There was a time when the corporate community was reluctant to support the Phoenix because of its play content. Didn’t you write an IBJ article encouraging your business colleagues to keep an open mind?
F.B. At the time I was writing my weekly column for the IBJ. Bryan called me to say that two or three companies had withdrawn their support because they didn’t like a play that we were running at the time. I decided to write a column about the need for the community to support various organizations in the arts and culture area if we were ever to become a world class city. Certainly, the Phoenix Theatre serves an important niche in our community in providing issue oriented contemporary new productions. I think the article did some good because a couple more companies stepped forward to fill the gap of those who had departed. But it has been an ongoing struggle.
Did you get a lot of negative comments about the Phoenix brand?
F.B. Yes, a lot of those and as I like to say back in those days we were really cutting edge in our city. I remember when no one was talking about the AIDS crisis and Bryan had a production here that brought it out into the open and started the conversation in our community about HIV/AIDS. I liked us being cutting edge but now we are almost mainstream except for a recent production that explored the transgendered issue which proves that we are somewhat still on the cutting edge.
Bryan do you remember the first time you met Frank?
B.F. I do remember, very clearly, visiting him at his office and asking him to get involved with us. I was very nervous because I never had any kind of professional relationship or any relationship with Frank other than saying hello in the lobby. I was very young at the time and not very savvy as an arts administrator and leader. That was a sense that we all had as artists, that wasn’t a good and healthy sense. But we felt somewhat inferior in our community especially as it related to the corporate community. We didn’t realize at the time that a good community, a solid community is these aspects working together—the corporate community, civic leaders the arts and service agencies—how we all combine to make a good community. We were just hearing no, repeatedly, from the corporate community. They said “We don’t like your programming. you are too far out there, you have too many plays with nudity and strong language.” And it really did make us feel very inferior and I think it wasn’t until Frank spoke out on our behalf that we felt comfortable making a connection. Frank had, and rightfully so, a reputation as a civic leader, a was a role model for stewardship in the community. He was involved with all these other organizations and campaigns and we felt somewhat timid and shy. So, I remember that first meeting for me just being very nervous.
You were on a learning curve, right?
B.F. I was totally on a learning curve. And especially because we were doing programming that was pushing the envelope, and speaking out loud about issues that were whispered about, and were very controversial. Certainly, we were finding other members of our community that were supporting what we were doing. They wanted a place to come together, to learn to mourn or to share their concerns and the theatre provided that. But it didn’t include that segment of the community that we perceived Frank to be in.
Weren’t you were pretty much preaching to the choir in the beginning?
B.F. Yes, it took it took a long time and it took advocates in the community like Frank to open doors for us. He really helped bring us together and provide that learning curve not just for us, but also corporate leaders when in the article he said “This is important if we are going to build a good strong community. If Indianapolis is going to realize its promise, or its potential, that we have to learn to embrace innovative ideas and the arts forms that are expressing those new idea.”
F.B. You know, it is very interesting that 25 or 30 years after that conversation took place for me to realize Bryan’s state of mind at that time. Frankly, I considered it honor to be asked to be involved, because I never really chaired a capital campaign like before. I had a little bit of trepidation. However, I felt honored to be asked because I felt strongly about the Phoenix and believed in its mission.
B.F. Sometimes it just takes reaching out across the aisle. Putting a hand out.
As an observer, Frank’s involvement at that time signaled a shift in the Phoenix’s community outreach? Would you say that is true?
B.F. There was a maturing that took place As you know, from our early days, we were just young artists only thinking about “Well, we got this show up. It was a lot fun. What is our next show going to because we want to have more fun.” It took a while for us to develop as a business in all aspects. We finally embraced the idea that the plays we were producing were our product and not just some fun diversion. We realized that as artists we were creating remarkable things that were sparking conversations.
Like many arts organizations you learned you had to develop a business model to attract donors, didn’t you?
B.F. I think that Dance Kaleidoscope. may have been the first to cross over. I am not surely how they truly began but I know that by the time they were invited to be a part of the Pan Am Games. They were certainly becoming better at becoming a business model and we were trying to figure out how we could catch up and how we could do that too. However, they never presented things that were as controversial so I don’t think they had the same barriers that we had to cross?
Frank, would you say you helped the Phoenix develop their business model
F.B. Many people were involved in doing that because Bryan was successful on bringing, besides me, other business people onto the board. Even though Bryan did start out as a business person, he always was and an artistic genius. He has a sharp learning curve because he put this place on a business-like basis early on. The productions here have an astounding quality and professionalism and are produced on relatively modest budgets. That brings to mind an anecdote. I wanted to invite a well-known business person in the community to join our board. He wanted to study the financials before he agreed to do so I sent the financial report to him and I will never forget his response, He said he attended our plays but didn’t believe the budgets saying, “How on Earth do you produce such quality productions at such a modest budget.” And it took some persuasion to convince him that this was an accurate budget and that part of the reason we can do this is because we re-use things. We don’t always have new stuff, plus we have volunteers doing a lot of the work and the Phoenix is operated like a bona fide business operation.
B.F. Because I always recognize their contributions, I would add that the artists are a big part of that too because that is the focus of what we want to accomplish. Now we offer a better living wage, health benefits and those things than in we were not able to do in the early days. Artists are willing to sacrifice a lot and so they were really working at sub level pay. So, in addition to the art they shared, they were also, in some ways, volunteers themselves. I have seen salaries from throughout the years and I am so happy to be in a position now to say we want to make that our focus and that is a big part of our case statement. We want to create more employment opportunities, better wages, and health benefits for the artists in this community We want not only retain them but provide ongoing training for them and train the next generation. I feel that I have also matured as an arts administrator and I have learned so much, even from the time Frank was the board president previously Now I know how we can be even more efficient and more wisely use our limited resources. We’ve positioned right now for a big transformation. Not only the building but I think our position in the arts community. Yes, we have been very important as a small arts group but I think very soon that we are going to be recognized as a solid mid-sized group.
The news building will help you expand your programs, will it not?
Yes. The new building is offering us so many more opportunities to do something bigger than just be the home of the Phoenix Theatre. How can we now share what we have learned with other arts groups? The model that we followed in the church did not allow us to do that because out of necessity we go from show to show to show. We didn’t have the stage time to share with other groups and now we can see are looking at we are looking at how we can partner and make it effective for all the groups involved. Speaking from a business point of view, to partner with other groups will create additional sources of revenue. We are really looking at these as just collaborations, though we see this as a collective experience. We are creating programming and opportunities together with a specific shared mission or vision. Where a collaboration might just do a program or two together. The building is going to allow us to expand programs such as spoken word, an international folk music series, and a town hall series. We are creating more of a community center, not just a home for the Phoenix Theatre. I think that is important. The city has talked for years and years about a performing arts center downtown and never able to achieve it. That’s what we are planning to do but on on a much smaller scale Our shows are always very intimate. We are very comfortable with a small house format. I wouldn’t have wanted a 500-seat theater and try to run a performing arts center at that level. I think we can be more effective in an exchange of dialogue ideas in a smaller environment.
Let’s talk specifically about the capital campaign. What do you need Frank?
F.B. Our goal right now is 10.1 million dollars. We are currently at under 7 and a half million. We do have a tax credit program that is almost finalized that will enable us to add another million and a half to a million nine leaving us with about over a million to raise. In most capital campaigns that last amount of most difficult because you have already had the big donors make the initial large gifts so we are inviting the entire community to come together. Those who have been patrons of the Phoenix, those who have yet to be patrons, those interested in community development and community support, to come in and to help us to finish this campaign.
How is the campaign faring?
F.B. It’s going well. We are going to achieve the goal. Our goal is to move into the building without a mortgage,
B.F. Right, and that’s amazing. Most arts groups don’t try to achieve that as the goal. They just want to achieve that. The goal of “Yes, we are going to build something.” Our goal is “Yes, we want to build something and we want the monkey off our back immediately so we want to build that into the campaign. We want to focus on the programs and running the programs. And not having that mortgage payment is going to help us stay focused on our programming.
In this final stretch are you asking for specific amounts? Or are you leaving up to prospective to donate whatever they wish?
B.F. In that we’ve got a pledge sheet and we have a listing of naming opportunities there is an implied suggestion for you to choose where you are comfortable. Beyond that we don’t suggest a specific amount.
F.B. We do have seats that donors can name and it gives them an option to really become part of the building. First and foremost, we sell it as supporting the mission of the Phoenix Theatre. That’s first and foremost and then and additional part of it is your legacy being a part of an organization you believe in and leaving your imprint on the organization.
B.F. With this space we will be able to offer so many more programs. For instance, we are creating this area where we can bring donors in for special recognition. We are calling it a donor lounge but it just allows us to access a space that before or after the show you can sit and relax and have a drink or a cup of coffee. And there are other programs we are starting to develop that will just recognize our donors that we haven’t been able to because of a lack of manpower and of space. This new space is going to allow us to do be more comfortable, create programs for special level donors to be in on any activities, like our “Pitch In’ nights, where artists pitch plays we are considering for the next season and a pitch in dinner is served. By the way, there is so much fun stuff that you can sponsor such as an actual make-up stations for the actor. There are six men and six women. 12 in each dressing room. Your name will be right there and actors will know who is where at a particular “John Doe” station.
F.B. This also gives donors a sense of ownership and merely assures that they are coming back and taking a vested interest in what’s happening in the organization. I have noticed in some cases where we have sponsors who have named a gift shop where we are intimately involved in watching what products are selected for it, even the financial statement for it. Again, it insures the investment and the ongoing interest of the donor in the organization.
Tell me about the house parties you have been having?
B.F. Right now, we are in that area of strategy now and as Frank says we have gotten the large gifts. Now we are going after more of the roots of the tree and so the strategy is to do 50 of these parties specifically. We have on our books, about 33 so I am looking for about 17 more people who are willing to host parties. It is fun cultivating in the way that it works. We hope that the host will invite people that may be interested and hear more about supporting us and give us the opportunity to present our material, and talk to them about our case.
What do you expect your hosts to provide?
B.F. The host usually provides the food, the refreshments, although we can help as always help with providing beer because Sun King is a huge supporter of the arts in Indianapolis and they help us supply some of these parties and so that we hope they will supply the space, the food and the refreshments.We also show a video, put up displays and provide entertainment. Because we want to share our product. Bill Simmons our capital campaign director, myself and usually a board member or two help us. In addition to meeting the mission of raising money, we also raise new friends and patrons who will come see the shows and friends and I have to tell you I have gotten exciting ideas from people at these parties “Have you thought about his or that? or “Are you organizing a committee. I would love to work on that.” They are terrific for networking.
F.B. Yesterday we had a very interesting aspect of this when we presented at the Scottish Rite Cathedral to a group of 33 Masons at their monthly meeting so we wanted to acquaint them with the organization
Does seeing the building act psychologically on people as they drive by it?
B.F. Oh, yes. So many people are say “OMG, I see that building now.” We had no idea.” and “the location is so wonderful.” So many people pass by and there is a lot of excitement about it going up
F.B. And what it also does is connect us to the cultural trail because we are right on the Glick Peace Walk. It gives us a physical location that is dramatic. That is noticeable and that people remember. It makes quite an impression.
B.F. It is going to be such a wonderful place for advertising and marketing—visual marketing. I heard this report on the news this morning. Mayor Hogsett put die in the canal and it turned blue because it was blue Friday. And I thought, we will have a big canvas to put our logo on it and turn our logo blue on blue Fridays and who knows we can do something visual when the games and our building might get picked up on national TV when show downtown locations. We will be able to advertise something supporting community spirit right on our building.
Frank, what is your job description as it relates to this capital campaign and what will it be once the new building opens.
F.B. It all relates to philanthropy. Earlier when you asked how I got started at Phoenix I mentioned that I loved the plays. That was the initial thing that attracted me. With any philanthropy you need be attracted to the mission first and then the product. You must love and enjoy the product and I do. Then I became involved through Bryan’s outreach to governance which made me join the board. It was also because of Bryan’s outreach in something called FEAT (Festival of Emerging American Theatre). He tapped into my philanthropic goal of helping artists, particularly helping people become all they can become, by giving them a boost in whatever their artistic field is. I loved that because it gave new and emerging playwrights an opportunity to produce plays here. Later he presented another opportunity that was called Cheap seats. It was an outreach to enable people to attend the theatre at a reduced cost. All of this tapped into our (he and his wife Katrina) desire to be a part of an outreach effort with the theater. Also, because it was relatively small we could make somewhat of an impact that we couldn’t make with a large organization, and that was important to us that we be able to significantly assist an organization. O.K. that brings me to the final connection here with the Peace walk. We were significantly involved with the funding of the trail when I was with the Glick company. In fact, Katrina and I named the two blocks right next to the new building. As far as specifically on the capital campaign I use my rolodex to contact people.
There is no question that you have a lot of influence in this community. That must be of value as well, right?
F.B. Well, I don’t know about that but when you believe in something you are able to speak about it with passion. I believe in the old saying that people “are persuaded by the depth of your conviction than by the height of your logic. “We can talk all day long about the Phoenix giving work to all these artists in our community and how they provide a niche that no other organization provides in our city in terms of productions and plays. But it really makes a difference when you can get people on an emotional level by bringing them here so they can buy into it and see the good it does/ They see the quality of the productions and how they touch the heart and move the spirit as well as tell a story from an intellectual standpoint.
What are your main tasks as board president?
B.F. Frank received an email that I save because it the email cracked me up. Sometimes he is out there calling people on our behalf and sending out these letters. This one gentleman sent back a letter and said, “You know Frank, I don’t go there.” And he said, “I don’t believe in the mission but I am going to give you this money so you’ll stop bugging me.” Frank opens doors that Bill Simmons and I can’t. We don’t move in those circles and we don’t have the clout. That’s just the truth of it and I don’t feel anything of it than that is the reality. And there are a couple of other board members. Livia Russell has contacts that we don’t have as does Helmi Banta. There is an effective team on our capital campaign but that’s what they bring to the organization.
Once the building opens what will be your function?
F.B. A successful transition to that building. From a personnel standpoint, from a financial standpoint, from a program standpoint because it is all going to another level.
Our you organized enough to move to that next level?
B.F. We are being asked that question a lot especially by big donors. “What is your business plan? “How are you going to operate a facility that is 3 times your current size.” “How will it affect your staff.” “How are you going to support these latest programs and board members and leadership.” With people like Frank bring business savvy that will help us test our assumptions.
Why should anybody reading this invest in the new Phoenix Theatre facility?
B.F. We are creating a center for cultural, creative, intellectual and political thought. That is part of our mission and we will finally have a facility to accomplish those goals. It is right in the heart of downtown right where we can connect with the business community, the corporations downtown, with the arts community, all the arts organizations downtown and with patrons. We are centrally located so easy to get on and off 65 to get north, start getting east and west. We have the facility, the parking the programs in place to achieve that goal. If you were interested in forward thought in Indy, we are creating a center and we need your support and you can trust that we are going to be true to that and that we are not going to be shy of controversy or anything else. We are just going to be true and fair in our programming which I think we have always been.
F.B. And through the years it would have been easy to modify the mission and produce plays that would have produced more income but Bryan never once compromised the mission and the board, to their credit always backed him, sometimes nervously, but always backed him. In addition to what Bryan said there is one more thing I wish to point out. Just was the Phoenix was so intimately involved in the development of the Mass Ave./Chatham Arch area, I think the theatre is going to do the same thing for what may become the Canal Arts District or whatever we end up calling it. It will elevate that area and that to me will be a civic benefit it will be further enhanced and solidified by this new building.
For more information about how you may contribute to the Phoenix Theatre capital campaign contact capital campaign director William Simmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. For tickets to “Fun Home” currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre until October 22, call (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org