For years, he and I have crossed paths in theatre lobbies and performing arts venues throughout Central Indiana, but aside from occasional small talk, we’ve never had a substantive conversation. Finally, one day it occurred to me that my colleague, Lou Harry, probably had an interesting story and it was time I sat down with him to hear it.
Harry, who has lived in Indianapolis since 1997, is best known as a writer-editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal from 2007 to 2018, where he was the Arts & Entertainment Editor and later became a freelancer for the publication, once it downsized his position. Eventually, IBJ decided to make further cuts, so Harry recently accepted a position as editor of The Quill, the national magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Besides his work at IBJ, Harry has written for 50 publications, including The Sondheim Review, This Old House, Variety and TheaterWeek. Locally, he has written and edited for Indianapolis Monthly, Indy Men’s Magazine and NUVO Newsweekly. Also an author or co-author, Harry’s books include “Creative Block” and “Kid Culture.” Harry’s list of creative accomplishments and current professional activities don’t end there. A produced playwright, his works include “We Are Still Tornadoes,” which is a theatrical adaptation of the novel by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen. Workshopped at Butler University, a full production was presented during Butler Theatre’s 2018 season. The play was given a private reading recently at Indy Reads Books and a reading in New York City is planned. Other plays by Harry include “Popular Monsters,” “Clutter: Or, the Moving Walkway Will Soon Be Coming to an End,” “Midwestern Hemisphere,” and the live auction comedy “Going…Going…Gone.”
Other projects in which Harry’s involved include a monthly podcast called “Lou Harry Gets Real,” Indy Actors’ Playground, a monthly series with local actor Paul Hansen, and SiteLines Indy, which he co-producers with John Thomas. It’s an occasional play reading presentation, in which they partner with an organization that has a specific area of interest. A member of the Indiana Film Journalist Association, Harry is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, for which he chairs the New Play Committee.
Married to wife Cindy, Harry has a young son, Jonah, and two adult children, Katie and Emily, who live in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Austin, Texas respectively, and two grandchildren.
In early January, Harry and I met for breakfast at a Meridian Street restaurant for a wide-ranging interview. Herein is an edited transcript of that conversation and comments drawn from subsequent email messages.
How do you manage to wear so many hats?
I have always had multiple tracks going. There has been the journalistic track, which has been my bread and butter, pays the bills and is what I love and enjoy. Then, there is the producing piece and the book writing and the theatre work. I come from a small town in New Jersey, a beach, honky-tonk town called Wildwood, New Jersey. It’s a mob scene in the summer and a ghost town in the winter. I graduated with 100 people. The island is five miles long and a mile wide with four municipalities within it. It’s a tiny place. Nobody had big ambitions to leave town, so I never thought I would actually work in the arts. I started writing plays while doing other jobs while working in Philadelphia. I co-founded and co-ran a children’s theatre company as a sideline and I wrote plays for that. It was adult actors performing for kids. That was the first stuff I produced and some of those plays were picked up by other theatres. That was the first time my plays were done by someone other than me. That gave me a little bit of confidence, but producing was placed on hold until about 14 years ago when I arrived in Indy because I was always doing the arts journalism thing. I was very aware of separating the two and trying to avoid conflicts of interest and things like that. It all weaves together.
Do you have a “brand?”
I don’t know about that. It is hard to gauge that. When I was doing a morning segment on Fox59, there were people who were seeing my commentary and recommendations. I am aware there are silos, people who sort of follow it and know it. I came here to edit Arts Indiana and ended up at Indianapolis Monthly, then Indy Men’s magazine and IBJ, so at each of those stages, there are people who follow you, but there are also unique audiences of those publications. I have never wanted to write for the hard-core academic journals or that sort of thing. I have always been about trying to reach an audience of strangers in the same way as the books I have written. It has never been about selling to friends and family. I want strangers to read my books and see my plays. I love it when the community and friends and family are supportive of the theatre work I do, but I am more enthused when I have no idea who those people are who are reacting to my work.
As a producer and an arts writer, how do you avoid conflicts of interest?
My interest has always been I am going to give honest reaction to the work I have seen. I am going to try to write intelligently and in an engaging way about my experience with that work, while incorporating past productions I have seen. I just wrote a piece about “They’re Playing Our Song” for NUVO. That was the first Broadway musical I ever saw with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz. It wouldn’t have been genuine to ignore the fact that I was going into it with a degree of nostalgia. So, I ended up writing a little bit in the lead about my experience with the musical. We can pretend to be objective, but one of the realities is the work we are exposed to early on can sometimes make something that is just OK into something more—not necessarily make a bad play good, but we can influenced by our history. I have never shied away from bringing my personal experience into the writing if I thought it was helpful and engaging. I was never big on plot synopsis. I am also hyper aware of spoilers. I love going into a work when I don’t know much about it. I love having theatre as a primary experience, with Shakespeare even. I decided early on that I was never going to read a Shakespeare play unless I have seen it first. Seeing it first was going to be my primary experience and sometimes that meant not being exposed to “Winter’s Tale” until maybe eight years ago. I just saw “Timon of Athens” for the first time and the same with “Merry Wives of Windsor,” so I want my primary experience, if possible, to be in the theatre.
How can you put yourself out there when you are critiquing other work?
My loyalty, when writing a review, is to the art, the reader and the publication. I don’t owe anything to the talent involved but respect, even if I have worked with them in the past. When a company in town has produced work of mine, I may not review something by the person who directed it for an extended period of time or I might not necessarily collaborate with that theatre for a while. I try to keep those things separate.
Do you have fears as a playwright or producer that someone will retaliate, settle a score, etc. by criticizing your work?
I am not worried about it. There has been some social media stuff. I remember a string of comments that led me to re-evaluate a comment in a story, whether it was appropriate or not. I am trying to think of an example where that might have been a factor. I honestly can’t think of anything. My hope is that I have built a reputation for integrity in my writing, even if I am very critical of work, that I am not out to get anybody. As far as my producing work, I have made sure that actors have gotten paid for “Going…Going…Gone” for over 100 productions, demonstrating that I respect them. My support for the acting community and making sure they are compensated speaks for itself. Because of SightLines readings and the stories I have written about the arts, I hope it is very hard to say, “Lou just hates theatre or Lou has it in for this or that company.” There hasn’t been a theatre company for which everything I have written has been negative and when people have asked, “What is the best theatre company in town?” I say, “What I love most about Indianapolis is that every company I have seen is capable of excellence and has demonstrated it.” Does that mean there won’t be someone new in the market who might take a comment and say “Oh, Lou hates everything”? Yes, there is going to be some of that, but it doesn’t bother me.
Since so many publications have let them go, what has happened to theatre critics?
Critics are migrating to blogs. I’m on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, so I am aware that many career arts journalists now have blogs. Previously, there were theatre critics at the newspaper of record in any given town; then as the position faded away, they became the arts critic, so they end up covering everything. Then, they either take a buyout, forced retirement, layoff or whatever and then they end up starting their own blog. Or they help develop a community blog, a sort of a collective theatre hub of reviews. DC Theatre Scene is an example of that. Down in Dallas, it’s TheaterJones. There is one in New England. They are saying “We want theatre criticism in this town and the theatre community wants criticism in this town, so let’s see what we can do to make a home for that.” That is the way things have migrated, but I think there is still a value in having work written about. Part of it is a legacy of the town and a chance for the town to develop new work as well. If I took one of my plays that was premiered here and tried to have it done at another theatre, they would want to see the reviews. They would want to see the outside assessment of how the show did. I could show them all the marketing materials and posters I want and they’ll read the play, but they’ll ultimately make the decision based on that. If I can show them three reviews, I’ll have a better chance of getting it produced. If you apply for a grant as an arts company or an artist, the decision-makers want to see artistic documentation.
What is the difference between a good blog and a bad one?
The test is the quality of writing. What I think can make for a not-particularly-good blog is when the writer has never worked with editors before. Hopefully, if you have written long enough for a publication, you sort of become your own editor to a certain degree. It is always helpful to have another set of eyes though.
Do you consider yourself a critic or a reviewer?
I consider myself an arts journalist. Reviewing comes off to me as “I am going to pass judgment. I am going to review this. I am going to give it a pass-fail. I am going to give it an A to an F. I am going to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.” I am not even remotely interested in doing that. As far as critic, it’s a word I am not in love with either. Critics give themselves a license to write about anything in the production, up to what happens in the last moments. I try not to spoil an event for a potential audience member. I try not to write about anything that happens more than a third into the show.
What was your impression of the criticism of the theatre writers for Indy’s two newspapers when you relocated here?
I wrote a piece for Indianapolis Monthly asking, “If everything is great, how do we know if it is any good?” When I moved here, I did see that as a problem. To oversimplify, there seemed to be two kinds of people here: the people who thought “Well, it’s from here, so we have to praise it,” or on the other hand, “Well, it was created here, so it can’t be any good.” I set a goal for myself at Arts Indiana and beyond, I want us to have discussions in that middle ground. So, “commentator” feels more comfortable to me. I think one of the problems is we tend to uncritically present previews. That bothers me when I read them in publications. To preview is a critical act. There should always be some kind of judgment. I never want to steer people to something that I haven’t found a way to be optimistic or enthusiastic about.
Do you consider yourself an advocate journalist?
I consider myself an arts advocate, a passionate advocate for the arts. That doesn’t mean that I need to advocate for every piece of art. I try to do an in-and-out thing, in which I ask myself, “Why am I telling them this?” We have a tendency, if we know some history about something, to pile it in there and then I have to ask myself, is this helpful for them to understand my perspective or am I just showing off? I try to show them what I know. That’s the editing process. What am I trying to say here? If I am going to write about a play or concert or whatever, I don’t want to go into anything that I can’t go into openhearted and open-minded.
What is that you love about theatre?
As an audience member, I love theatre’s “happening now” connectivity. As a playwright, I love the collaborative nature of it—blending the talents and ideas of a team to create something that no one could have created alone.
In a nutshell, what is the state of our Indy Arts scene?
We have a major audience crisis in this town. It is very hard to get audiences to see anything. So many theatres have had to cancel performances, struggled…
What accounts for that?
A body at rest tends to stay at rest. We have a world of Netflix and everything else. It’s harder to find out what’s going on. We don’t have a media landscape where it used to be you could open the Star or NUVO and say, “Oh, here is all the stuff happening and here’s what I can get out to.” There is not an easy access to information unless you are looking for it. The media landscape has widened through the internet and social media. We thought, “Oh, are we going to have to have this infinite number of choices?” But, in a lot of ways, it has created these silos for what you are looking for and that’s it. So, the crisis in media is the increase in entertainment options. The arts have given ground to food culture in a lot of ways. People are more likely to talk about the new restaurant they went to than the new play they saw.
What about sports?
That is going to be in most every city. Philadelphia is a huge sports city. That is where I did my early career. There is a thriving arts community there. There is Chicago. You can’t say it is not a sports town. Those are places on a different level. In Cincinnati, you have a number of solid theatres happening and a commitment to an arts district, but they are having a lot of the same problems. A lot of cities are. It is very difficult to take risks. It is very difficult to be a professional artist. You have actors here who struggle with making the leap to Actors’ Equity. They may get paid better and everything else, but they may not also work for a year.
You obviously support our city’s creative class.
Absolutely. The perception of the politicians on down is that the arts is a hobby instead of a potential, important livelihood. I am not sure of how many actors there are in town who actually make their living acting. The world would be a lot different if IU, Purdue and Ball State Universities were each 45 minutes closer because you would have that sort of teaching-artist professional and have a more likely chance of making a living here.
Are there things you have never done before that you still want to do? Have you ever acted?
Tons of things. No, I have not. I worked professionally for ten years in comedy clubs from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. I did stand-up comedy for ten years, working two or three weekends a month professionally in Philadelphia, Delaware and New Jersey. I started doing it right out of college as a sideline and started to get work during the comedy club boom and that just spread and at the time, there were eight or 19 clubs within one chain in three or four states, so I could work without stopping on Friday and Saturday nights. I retired when I moved here. It was a good side business. I enjoyed it. I was a good emcee. Eventually, I was a decent middle act, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a headliner. I didn’t have the drive to be. I didn’t have the memory, but I loved doing it. That experience really helped in terms of emceeing events and when I am hosting an event and even when I’m writing. Working in clubs, you get a real sense of the audience. You can’t help it. You have to. It gave me an appreciation as a writer, that somebody is going to be receiving this communication. I am aware that in the rhythm of my writing journalistically, that somebody has to read this. Being on those comedy clubs stages and knowing how people are perceiving what’s going on has given me an advantage as a writer. How one word can alter a joke. How restructuring a sentence can make all the difference. I worked with some wonderful people, some of whom have really taken off. National people now.
Do you watch TV?
Never. Almost never.
I watch a fair amount. Being a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association, I get a lot of screeners and vote on those awards. I do year-end awards. I also do a lot of festival writing about Heartland Film Festival and Indy Film Festival.
How about visual art?
I love it. I am interested in it, but that is something about my writing, I try never to pretend I know something I don’t know.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I believe I had the best magazine job in the country as editor of Indy Men’s Magazine. The pay could have been better, but in terms of creative control, working with people I loved working with and having a product I was incredibly proud of, it was. We were publishing original fiction every month. We were doing long-form interviews. We were able to have a sense of humor throughout the publication. I am so proud of that magazine. As tearing hair out as it was, the process was great. And at IBJ, I felt like I had the best arts journalism job in the city and definitely the state and maybe even the region.
Why do you write?
As it relates to my non-fiction, because I’m curious about the world. As it relates to my fiction, I am curious about what happens to the characters. As far as my criticism, I am curious about why I responded or didn’t respond to work.
What do you like most about Indianapolis?
What would you like to see more of in our city?
Adventurous audiences engaged with adventurous artists.
What legacy would you like to leave through your writing?
I have no illusion of legacy about my writing.
Follow Lou Harry at “Lou Harry, writer, etc.” on Facebook or visit his website at LouHarry.com.