Academician Turned Playwright Fills Void With Southbank Theatre

November 29, 2021

Maria Eppich-Harris – Courtesy of Southbank Theatre Company. Used with permission.

It is always gratifying to see new theatres emerge in Central Indiana. Not only do they provide more opportunities for local artists to practice their craft, they also give audiences more options for experiencing live theatre and works they may not be exposed to otherwise. Such is the case of Southbank Theatre Company, now in its first season. Founded by professor and playwright Marcia Eppich-Harris, the company debuted in September with “Seneca and the Soul of Nero.” Its second offering, “Rabbit,” a comedy by Nina Raine, will run December 2-12 at Storefront Theatre in Broad Ripple.

Though I haven’t seen any of Eppich-Harris’s work, I had heard of her and Southbank Theatre Company and was eager to learn more. Luckily, she reached out to me about her upcoming show, which she is directing. We ended up on a Zoom call to chat about it. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Tell me about yourself?                                                        

I am new to the theatre scene and the producing scene and everything. My background is in Shakespeare and dramatic literature on the academic side. I was an English professor who taught dramatic literature. I grew up here in Indy until I went to college at St. Mary-of-the-Woods for a music degree and decided to go back into English and I started as an English major. I got my masters and PhD and fell in love with Shakespeare. I was an academic for 16 years. I lived in California for a while until a job at Marian University brought me back here. I left there two years ago to focus on my writing, so I am now a fiction writer and playwright. Mostly, I focus on plays now. I just had my first full-length production, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero,” presented at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, produced by my company, Southbank Theatre.

How is that you started writing plays?

I got involved in playwriting through meeting playwrighting teacher Andy Black. I did not take any of his classes, but one of my former students did and said, “Oh, you should really meet Andy. He’s so great.” He and I had coffee one day, during which he talked about forming a playwright’s group called the Indiana Playwright’s Circle (IPC) and asked if I would be interested in being involved. I said, “Sure.” That was March of 2019 and then we really got going in September of that year. Ever since then, I have been the scene night leader. We meet every single week, except on holidays, and have local actors read our works for us. We get to workshop and develop our play. That’s how I wrote my “Seneca” play. So, I now have three full-length plays. One is called “The Profession,” which is a critique of academia and then “Seneca,” and my third play, which I finished this past summer, is called “Seeking Nietzsche” about the philosopher. And I am writing another play now called “Chiaroscuro” about the painter Caravaggio. It is a magical realism piece about Caravaggio and the philosopher Kierkegaard, who meet in Florence, Italy. I am very interested in philosophy and history and how those things from the old-world impact our lives today.

Is Storefront Theatre a 501(c)(3) nonprofit?

We applied for it six months ago and are just waiting for the government to give us the go ahead. My husband is a partner and does marketing and what not. I also have a board and some of those folks are friends from Marian and some are theatre folks, whom I have met from around town, and some are people who are interested in theatre. So, we have monthly board meetings and talk about our vision and where we are going and what we would like to do. So, it has been a process and we have really learned a lot. I love doing this. It is fun.

Are you paying your artists?

We are paying people now, but it is very minimal. We pay our actors and crew $100 a show.

Do you plan to join Actors’ Equity at some point?

That is our dream, but we have to get a building first and that would take some major donations.

Currently, you are just renting venues, correct?

Right. That has consumed more of my time than I care to give.

What did it take for you to start your theatre?

Well, it certainly did not happen overnight. Being involved with IPC (which is affiliated with the Indiana Writers Center) and seeing so many terrific playwrights read and have their workshops there, I thought, “It’s a shame the bigger theatres don’t have an avenue for local playwrights to get their work done there.” Previously, I was on the board of Fat Turtle Theatre Company, which was around for three years. Aaron Cleveland, its founder, died recently. They were trying to do new works by new writers. In fact, my first play was chosen by the new play festival they were going to put on. But then COVID hit, so the festival was canceled and holding up on producing “The Profession” because I was hoping the festival would get staged again, but it ended up not. So, having been working with these playwrights, I really wanted to have a place where we could do some of these local writers’ works. I knew that Fat Turtle was going to fold because of the pandemic. So, knowing that Fat Turtle’s mission to produce new works was going by the wayside, I thought I would be interested in starting something like that and so I did a lot of research. My background is academia. I do a lot of research and I thought about it for six months or so before I pulled the trigger. I talked to a lot of people in the industry, including Chelsea Anderson, who was formerly at the Phoenix. An immense help to me, she is on our board; however, she just got a job in Phoenix, Arizona and will be moving in a couple of weeks.

“Seneca and the Soulf of Nero” – Photo courtesy of Rob Slaven. Used with permission.

Here’s a devil’s advocate question. Did you start this company as a means of producing your own work?

I understand that. We are doing four shows this season and only one of them is my work. Our next play is by a British playwright by the name of Nina Raine. It is a dark comedy. The following play I have scheduled is a musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night” and then the last play of the season we have scheduled is by a Chicago playwright, Terry Guest, who is a black, queer playwright. His play is called “Marie Antoinette and the Magic Negros,” which is a hybrid of the French Revolution and Black Lives Matter. It is a really terrific play. When I read it, my heart was thumping out of my chest. It was so, so good. I am the writer-in-residence for the moment, but I have at least three other playwrights in mind…four…whose work is local. I already talked to one woman named Laura Goodenow regarding a work for next year. She is writing a musical about the medieval couple Heloise and Abelard. We workshopped that at IPC and I absolutely loved the story. We talked a few weeks ago about doing a concert reading of her play because she doesn’t feel like it’s quite ready, but she would like to do development work on it. Doing the full play as a concert reading would be helpful to her.

What does Southbank Theatre Company mean to you personally?

I have had opportunities to see the best theatre in the world, which has given me a different perspective. I would love to create something that is not only sustainable as a business, but something that will retain really wonderful talent in Indianapolis. There are so many actors I have known, even in the years I have been involved in the scene, who have moved to Chicago because they don’t think Indianapolis is a place where they can have a career.

What would you like the community to know about your mission? What sets it apart and why it is important?

Because of my background in academia, I used to teach a bunch of different classes, including of course, Shakespeare, but also on women playwrights and modern drama. I also taught a larger humanities class, a lot of drama from the ancients Greeks and Romans and medieval drama. I think history in drama is sometimes neglected. It seems to me a lot of companies keep doing the same kinds of work repeatedly and I would really love to produce plays by women who are not well known, like Nina Raine. She is well known in England, but not here. We also really like to do musicals, especially newer works. We want to get away from…although I love these kinds of shows…shows such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” works you could see every two to five years in any given town. We want to do something different. Especially because my interests in writing and watching plays are deeply rooted in history and philosophy. You will see a lot of history plays from us.

My connection to Shakespeare is why we produced the name Southbank because his theatre was on the south bank of the Thames River. What Shakespeare and his company did was they looked at historic stories and fairy tales and works that had already been written and adapted them and made them relevant to their own world. That is something I am really interested in, both as a writer and a producer. Our theme for this season is history and we have a couple of different ways we are going about that. My play was a straight-up history play and this play we are getting ready to produce, “Rabbit,” is a personal-history play. It is about how the main character and her history with her father impacts all her relationships and how it creates a sort of chaos in her life. “Twelfth Night” is not a history play, but it is a modern adaptation and uses music in really interesting ways and speaks to some of the political concerns we have in America right now regarding identity. Then, “Marie Antoinette” is based in history, but it’s also quite political and speaks to the issue of Black Lives Matter, which I think is really important. I think a lot of local theatres, the smaller companies, are trying to do things that are new and different. For me, it is a history and philosophy-based mission to put on plays that are rooted in the humanities disciplines.

For more information about Southbank Theatre Company visit southbanktheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

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 Life. Style. Live!

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.

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