Janet Allen’s fondest wish is that IRT exist for another 100 years

June 8, 2019

Janet Allen – Indiana Repertory Theatre Executive Artistic Director. Courtesy of Indiana Repertory Theatre. Used with permission.

When I reached out to Indiana Repertory Theatre Executive Artistic Director Janet Allen for an interview, she suggested we meet at Coat Check Coffee located in the landmark Athenaeum along Mass Ave. It wasn’t until we began discussing the IRT’s and my own history with both the theatre and Janet herself, that I remembered the Athenaeum was the first home of the IRT, co-founded in 1972 by Ed Stern, Ben Mordecai and Greg Poggi. In 1980, IRT moved to its current home, Indiana Theatre, a former Paramount-Publix movie theatre at 140 West Washington Street, built in 1927.

Allen started working at IRT in 1980 as the theatre’s first literary manager-dramaturg. After four years in NYC, she’d returned to Indy to serve then as associate artistic director, under mentors Tom Haas and Libby Appel. Now in her 23rd season as IRT’s fourth artistic director, she was named to that role in 1996. In 2013, she became IRT’s executive artistic director.

Allen and I first became acquainted when I was a young producer at RTV6. Assigned to produce a TV special on IRT’s 15th anniversary in 1987, the theatre chose Allen to assist me in working on the project. Having reviewed plays at the IRT from its inception, it was especially meaningful for me to have the opportunity to tell its story up to that point. Allen and I have maintained regular contact ever since as I continue to cover the theatre.

Back in February, IRT announced the public phase of an $18.5 million capital campaign named “Front and Center” and indicated it was already nearing its goal. The campaign aimed to fund more programs, update technology, remodel the theatre’s Upperstage and preserve the building. The theatre also sought to double its endowment.

With the news about the capital campaign and the theatre’s upcoming 2019-2020 season piquing my interest and aware of the theatre’s upcoming 50th anniversary, I realized it was time to sit down with my longtime friend and respected colleague for a broad discussion of these topics and more. Herein is an edited transcript of our extensive conversation.

What was the impetus for the campaign?

The need to do major campaigns always accumulates over a period of time and there are different theories about how often you do huge campaigns. Most fundraisers say you should always do a huge campaign. Our last campaign was finished in 2001. We also did a number of micro-campaigns, like $2 or $3 million. We had needed to get back into campaigning and I would define “need” as we were looking at moving forward…future limitations of the size of our endowment. You can’t really do endowment growth regularly. It takes extraordinary campaigns to do endowment growth. We had never done a campaign that had a really strong legacy giving plan…asking people to pledge to IRT in their estate planning.

When we first talked to Suzanne Sweeney (IRT managing director and co-CEO) about being promoted into the job that Steven Stolen had as managing director, she said, “Well, I have a couple of caveats. I don’t want to talk about this unless we are concertedly going to get a big campaign.” She had been IRT’s CFO for 15 years, so she had a little bit of understanding that maybe we needed a bigger wind in our sails and it is not hard to look at year-after-year, annual gift increases. Those were incremental. It is very hard to get an annual campaign to be multi-million-dollar growth. It takes a concerted campaign to do that. So, she and I were largely interested in institutional sustainability. We said, “Let’s make sure the IRT is here for a long time. Let’s dream for 100 years.” That’s what the campaign is about.

How much of the campaigns funds will go toward the endowment?

A lot of it. Of the $18.5 million, about $13 million is going to endowment. We do have some very significant planned giving, multi-million planned gifts from donors who are still alive, so those are gifts that you hold. They count in the campaign, but we won’t derive income off of them for a long time.

Planned giving for nonprofits of all sectors to stay robust in this country is imperative. We will have to permanently have to be in a planned-gift position. We will always have to be telling people the importance of planned giving. We are going to be permanently explaining planned giving to all generations now. Clearly, that’s a lot harder with millennials than it is with Gen-Xers. It is still pretty hard with Gen-Xers, and the baby boomer generation’s sunset makes it a better time. We just haven’t had the institutional capacity to know how to do it well because it is a different investment strategy. It is also a different conversation that you have with a donor. Or it’s a different kind of donor that you going to be able to successfully ask for a planned gift.

I take it you now have adequate staff to engage in this effort?

Our development staff does do training. Our major gifts officer has a master’s in School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) from IU Bloomington, so that is deep pedagogy fundraising. There is a lot of science to it, but there is also a lot of instinct to it as well. In addition, there is also a lot of accepted policy and that is why you want those people. We have a strong development team in place to do this campaign.

As far as more funds to support programming, how will it help?

Next season, we have three large-cast plays, such as “12 Angry Men,” anything over eight actors is big for us, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Sense and Sensibility” are all casts of 13 or 14, maybe a little bigger if we can stretch. That is a lot of investment and some of those projects would have been hard to do before we were in campaign. Those kinds of plays tend to have more name recognition and better ticket sales, so we want to keep building.

There is some great capital stuff in this, $3 million in capital and we front-loaded on the production side. Before we put new carpet in the theatre, we bought a lot of theatrical equipment because in the last campaign, the first five years I was the artistic director, we front-loaded the public spaces because they really needed upgrading and we never really got the production infrastructure, so we reversed that and we are about a million and a half in production investment of equipment and that’s new lighting technology, new sound technology, video, the videos been huge, but we now have in this moment, some pretty big, state-of-the-art video stuff.

Do you need more technology because of competition from films, TV, concerts, etc.?

No, Tom, mostly we are competing with getting you off your couch and off your phone way more than competing with other entertainment. We are competing with getting someone out of a bar, getting out of their house, supporting live anything. No, I think it is about artistic flexibility.

It seems like all sectors are eager to target millennials because they are tough to attract.

Our art form has historically been more supported by older people and that is not just the IRT. That’s live theatre, in general, for millennia. It has tended to be more attractive to older people, so we go through this thing where we’re bringing 40,000 to 45,000 kids a year to see student matinees. Then, they go away and go to college; maybe they get married and have a family. Maybe they are hipster young people…they are harder to attract. Once they have families, however, they may say “Oh, there’s a thing I can take my kid too.” And then slowly, you woo them back as just humans. There is a big gulf in our business between the ages of 18 and 35.

Lack of arts education in schools is part of it too, right?

In part. It also has to do with more focus on making a living, especially if they are in an era of their lives where they are really focused on whatever it is…billable hours.

They remember their school trip to IRT experience fondly?

Yes, or somebody takes them. The way we get new people to the theatre is if somebody brings them. Someone says, “I have a subscription to IRT, Phoenix or Broadway in Indianapolis. Have you been lately?” “No, I haven’t been in years. I don’t even pay attention to it.” “Oh, then why don’t you come with me to X?”

What else matters most to you about the capital campaign?

What matters to me is that it’s the first-ever major gifts campaign for IRT that includes some basic programmatic art support. Part of a “Front and Center” gift names the playwright in resident position. Last time we did a campaign, we did not have a playwright in residence, so the idea of having a playwright, whoever it is, at the IRT is “We want this position and we want it forever.” It’s a new thing. It’s an endowed chair. We also endowed, kind of separately, new play development and within that, the Indiana Series. Twenty-three years ago, we did not have an Indiana Series. We started to tinker with it and what would it mean to be place-specific or to find work that was being made elsewhere that is, in some way, place-specific and that is important enough to our donors and board. We did say there is not going to be an Indiana Series you can support in the feasibility study. That came from a demand from donors in the campaign. They said, “Yes, we want to support new work, we want to support the Indiana Series.”

Where did your push for inclusiveness come from?

I think our world tells us that and I do not mean to be obtuse. It did not come from our board. Our mission and our values include inclusiveness, but we are pushing that value up right now. My job is to know, not everything, but more than a subscriber, what’s being created in American playwriting. What are playwrights writing? I have been saying the best new writing I am seeing is coming from people of color.

I imagine you read a lot of plays and search out new works?

Constantly. Am I aware of it all? By no means. The Phoenix, because of NNPN (National New Play Network), they are on a particular track. The work we are bringing and looking to read, there is a little bit of crossover with that, but it’s all part of a big kettle of fish of new work. I am looking at producers in environments like Indianapolis for what new work they are developing, or what they are finding, so part of it is collegial ….who is working with what playwright and part of it is circumstantial. You know, Ben Hanna (associate artistic director), James Still (playwright-in-residence), Richard Roberts or I will go hear a new work read in New York or Chicago or elsewhere and go “Oh, my God.” IU has a new play development program. They are graduating MFA playwrights. Next season we are producing plays three women of color, with two of them under age 40.

Your upcoming season is certainly racially diverse.

Native American, African American and Chinese American.

It reflects the face of America.

And like I said at that media event you attended when we announced the season, we have really hewed to the African American community based on the demography of Indianapolis. I continue to think that is enormously important and we will never desert that work, but I really want to expand it. And we had a couple of donors who said, “We want to help you expand it.” And so we are.

You have been color-blind casting for some time haven’t you?

I no longer use that term because we are the opposite of blind to color in this country. There is color-conscious casting. We got a beautifully written objection letter and email about how we had color-consciously cast “Amber Waves” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the maid character in the latter and Johnny, the farmer in the former. The writer of the letter, whose color I do not know, felt we were diminishing people of color because they were both old characters who were fragile. Now, I don’t agree with that, but that is a valid communication and people thought we were marginalizing people of color through this application. Now, I could have argued back, they are both the people of wisdom in each play and they are the elders, who must be listened to, so they have tremendous agency and power. It came to Suzanne Sweeney and she responded beautifully, mostly by saying, “Come see ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ and let’s have this conversation again.” We were very careful to color-consciously cast it. We have vast debates and conversation about this internally.

Do you have people of color on your staff?

Yes, but not on the artistic.

Do you get push back about that?

We push ourselves back about it. We have been unsuccessful in recruiting people of color to the staff. One of the golden moments of the IRT was when Libby Appel was artistic director and we had a big grant to diversify a variety of things. Audience and staff were two of them. We had a Chinese-American associate director; I was the associate artistic director and we had an African American artistic associate. We had the best conversations ever. Now how we replicate those conversations is with freelancers. We have lots of abilities to hire freelancers of color.

In terms of the plays on racism that IRT has produced, what are you most proud of?

We have done African-American stories forever and that precedes me by a longshot. Our co-founders Ben (Mordecai) and Ed (Stern) were producing plays by Altho Fugard about apartheid as well as American racism in the 70s, so it is not new to the institution. But, I will say, five years ago, I was afraid we would not be able to diversify and it gives me joy that moving forward, we will. The zeitgeist gets lots of us to reach the same conclusion. If anything comes of horrible national hate propaganda that we have had to endure, if anything comes of “Black Lives Matter” and the “Me Too” movement is that we now ask ourselves “Whom does this oppress and who perpetrates this abuse and is that the culture we want to be?” And I think for a lot of humanists, the answer is no and because we have the power of $7 million every year to say something different about that; I am glad we are.

Now let’s talk about you. Has your time at the IRT been what you expected or more?

I think it has probably been more fulfilling than I would ever have imagined. When I was promoted, the first five years, I felt like I was kind of a deer in the headlights. I felt like I had observed the work of two artistic directors very closely, Tom and Libby, and I had done a certain amount of their producing work because they were principally directors and were in the rehearsal room three to five months a year. Tom more so because all Tom wanted to do was direct, so I learned a lot. So, that was an immediate uptick in sleepless nights.

Did you experience a lot of pressure from living in their shadow, from the public or the staff?

Yes. All of the above and, in part too, because I am not a director. I was the fourth artistic director of IRT and the first who was not disciplined specifically as a director. That is not my discipline. I am a dramaturg, producer and curator. That was a big shift in the institution. That was a big shift in how we spend money because I don’t direct a ton of our programming. There are still artistic directors in my generation who do two or three shows a year. Now, I will say, that managing institutions the size of most theatres, people are very hard-pressed to do that work, unless they have huge support staffs. So sure, I felt all those things.

When did you feel like you hit your stride?

Today (laughs). That’s a hard one because there are so many waves with the economy and institutional stability. I have worked with four managing directors. Every time you change upper management, those executive positions, it is like walking backwards every two or three years, except with Suzanne. And also when you do a search for an artistic or managing director, it costs about a quarter of a million dollars, at least, not just in search fees, but in lost income of that person learning fundraising in your community, how to nuance a calendar and ticket sales in your community and sometimes, it is twice that much. So, that was the basis upon which and also why I thought she was more than ready. I said to the board when Steven resigned, “I think our best institutional task is to promote Suzanne. It will save us 18 months of upheaval in the institution for a search. She has a big track record for knowing this institution. She has great ideas about what this institution could be and for the COO because that what she is.”

Does the business side come easily to you?

Some of it does. People parts of it do, more than actuarial or the pure numbers. I still have to have Suzanne explain certain pieces of a spreadsheet to me that I can’t discern. I have become a pretty competent question asker.

How about fundraising?

I love to fundraise, though that was what I was most scared of when I became artistic director.

It’s all about relationship building, isn’t it?

Totally. And it is an opportunity to speak about what you are passionate about, but now I can say wholeheartedly that I love it. I learned a lot from Gene Tempel (former I.U. School of Philanthropy head), the chair of the campaign.

Did he teach your how to conduct asks?

Well, I also learned from Brian Payne (former IRT managing director) and Rob MacPherson (former development director). What we did then and what we do now is we script these things and you are almost never alone, so various people say various pieces. I will tell you that the campaign we are doing now under Gene, we do things pretty much as per the fundraising school and one of those things is we have a board member with us at almost every solicitation. Any solicitation over $25,000 we have a board member with us, but with some of the smaller ones, just a couple of staff members. I don’t worry about asking people for a number because what Gene has taught me, and the most valuable thing he’s taught me, is that most people are flattered if you over-reach. Where it is less comfortable is if you under-reach. To under-assume what somebody’s love and capacity is…that is when you insult people more often. That was a great lesson for me. You put a number out there that has got some research behind it, often or not, you are going to get 50 percent of that number or if it’s kind of a rare day, and we’ve had some of these, there was a “Oh, we are actually thinking of a larger number.”

What are your plans for IRT’s 50th anniversary in 2021?

We’re just starting on it, to tell the truth. We are pricing having a book written by Donna Reynolds who wrote a history of the International Violin Competition, about IRT’s history. Archival stuff is all getting digitized at the public library and IUPUI, and it will all be housed at the public library. Richard Roberts. our dramaturg,  is picking ten slides from every show, programs and newsletters and it is all getting digitized. It’s a years-long process. Videos can be archived, but they can’t even go to the library. They can’t be viewed publicly. We don’t have all of them. We have many of them. We haven’t even convened a committee yet. We will in the next couple of months.

What did Tom and Libby teach you?

Tom taught me about the primacy of the product. Quality had to lead always. Libby taught me the humanity of the way we do personnel. Libby was a consummate artist. Tom learned to make art in this country at a time when it was fine to be kind of a tyrant. Very quixotic. Not particularly focused on the business side. You could be kind of a pure artist in this role. I learned more from Libby that you can’t separate them. The sturdiness of the business has to go right alongside the quality of the art. The reason why IRT landed in a lot of financial trouble when Tom was artistic director was not all of Tom’s making, some of it was, but most of it was the fact that they moved from here to the Indiana Theatre without raising all the money it was going to take to do it. This is very typical.  An institution can suffer if it doesn’t  make hard-headed decisions about what it is going to cost to run a larger facility. When we operate as artists, we get over our skis all the time and don’t stop to make those super hard-headed predictions, so we paid for that for 20 years.

That’s why sustainability is such a big deal to this institution. It’s why breaking even has been such a big deal to this institution because, I guess, I would like to believe that if IRT went down or if the Phoenix went down that Mayor Joe Hogsett would do something about it the way Bill Hudnut did, but I think there have been lots of eras, such as when Ballet Internationale crashed and nobody saved it. Starlight Musicals crashed. Nobody saved it. This town is super real about sustainability. Probably all towns are but boy, this town is.

And as you know, not for profits have learned the hard way how to operate with a business model.

Lilly Endowment leads a lot of that thinking. They kind of create community policy about that in how they gift. And that has been a tremendous education for a lot of us. And what does that mean? We did it in this campaign. They asked us to think hard about what sustainability would look like in our institution and that it is just not about today, but in years, when I am not going to be artistic director

Along those lines. how much longer are you staying?

Well, I am not going to give you a number because I don’t know a number. I am 63. I am definitely talking to the board about my retirement plan and we are doing that together. Moreover, my husband Joel is 69. My daughter Leah, is graduating in three weeks from IU and my daughter Nira is a freshman at Purdue and the chances of me working until Nira graduates are pretty good (laughs). I have not been called upon by the board to name a year but we are working on a process.

How would you like to leave things?

Very sturdy. I very naively thought when we did a $16.5 million dollar campaign, Brian (Payne), Rob (MacPherson) and I, 20 years ago, that I checked that box. So, when Suzanne says “No, God, we got to get back into campaign; campaigns are life-bloods of institutions, big campaigns.” So, it’s another box for me to check. I promised the board I would stay for this campaign, which finishes in 2020, and the chances of me staying beyond that are relatively good, but I am working on a retirement plan with the board.

What legacy would you like to leave?

The legacy I would like to leave is that the IRT is here. Our endowment will go up from $12 million to $24 million when this campaign is complete. It will take some time to do the pledge collection. The new tax structure has changed things, for better or worse. Another thing I heard from one of the big brains in our development department is there is this thing in fundraising school curriculum now talking about the impact of hate and apparently, there is a thing whereby donors who don’t want to support the hate agenda are saying, “I am going to support institutions that I believe support humanistic thought.” We are perhaps the beneficiary of that. I gotta say that makes me very conflicted. I would rather not have the hate speak and the hate. I don’t think of this campaign as a legacy for me. I don’t think that at all. I want to have been as good a steward as I can be in the years I was blessed to steward it and then I want other people to just go on and keep stewarding it. And then somebody remember, I stewarded it (laughs).

What do you wish to be remembered for?

Quality. I want quality to be a hallmark that was so embedded, no matter what we’re producing, that it is produced with very high quality. You may hate the content, but hopefully you will still be able to say “Wow, it was really produced with a lot of integrity and a lot of attention to detail.” I would also love to be remembered, although I am not the only one who has crafted this, for the generational service…serving people throughout their lifetimes. That matters deeply to me.

For tickets and information about IRT’s 2019-2020 season call (317) 635-5277 or go to irtlive.com. If you wish to donate to IRT’s “Front and Center” Capital Campaign go to https://www.irtlive.com/support/FrontAndCenter to make a pledge by March 2020 or contact Director of Development Jennifer Turner at (317) 916-4835.

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and Examiner.com, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Indy Style.

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

On the Aisle Team

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One Comment

  1. Tom Cochrun said...

    Tom thanks for a marvelous interview and profile. It was an historical journey and a wonderful way to recall the rich history of IRT and to remember Janet’s remarkable impact on the community. IRT is an Indiana treasure and so are you and Janet.

    June 11, 2019 at 6:29 pm | link to this reply to this

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