During my many years of covering the performing arts, which includes my experience as a founding board member of Phoenix Theatre and managing director of Edyvean Repertory Theatre and Ballet Internationale, I have had an affinity for arts administrators and those in charge of advancing the missions of the organizations they lead. And since I am currently managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret, a small performing-arts organization, I am especially interested in advocating for other ones similar in size to MTC. One such theatre that fits that description is Catalyst Repertory.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with director-producer-playwright and Hanover College graduate Casey Ross, who reached out to me about Catalyst’s recent production of “The Pillowman.” During a Zoom call, we discussed the company and its mission which “…aims to provide the Indianapolis community with shows both new and veteran theatregoers want to see by focusing on presenting all-new plays, and bold, visceral adaptations with a fresh scope, new edge and professional quality. Catalyst Repertory also provides a local platform for writers to receive outstanding script development, programming, and opportunities for career growth.”
Below is an edited transcript of my Zoom and email communication with Ross.
Who founded Catalyst Repertory?
Originally, I founded Casey Ross Productions, which is what I called my company that produced IndyFringe Festival shows during the years before associating with “Catalyst.” “Catalyst” originated through Fringe when I met Dave Pelsue in 2013 and Taylor Cox, mere months later, in 2014. Both auditioned for my Fringe shows, and I individually clicked with both. By 2015, the forces that would become Catalyst came together in a single project, as Dave and I co-wrote a musical in which both he and Taylor appeared, and I directed. Once I saw that these two guys were not going to be going anywhere in my theatre career and after I started going to spaces with Taylor trying to find a place to sit a first non-Fringe production of a budding brand, I realized a company called Casey Ross Productions was not right. We produced what I consider to be our first season in 2015 under the Casey Ross Productions (or CRP) brand. After that season was a success, we brainstormed a new name. Catalyst was Taylor’s suggestion and Dave and I loved it. So, then I made up a logo and from there on that’s who we became. We have many artists we consider to be a part of our history and team and called it a “repertory” because, truly, that is how we have worked.
What year was Catalyst officially founded?
We became a 501(c)3 in 2015 and our first home was the Grove Haus (now an Airbnb) in Fountain Square.
How many shows has your company produced?
We have produced 31 shows, as a team. That includes six seasons (this one being our sixth), many Fringes, Bard Fest work, and three associate shows, where someone has partnered with Catalyst to create a show under our umbrella. I have written original Fringe scripts since 2007 and participated in 13 festivals, with 11 of those being original scripts of mine.
How was the “The Pillowman” run?
The run was fantastic, and people really responded well to the show. We also had great houses, considering the weather, Valentine’s Holiday, and the fact that “The Pillowman” is a three-hour play that is full of difficult subject matter. We were happy with the reception of the audience and the work the IndyFringe team did for us. I think everyone in the cast felt great about their work by the end as well.
What was the audience’s reaction?
Of course, we had a couple of walkouts. When you specialize in shows like this, or “Equus,” or “Tooth of Crime,” you expect it. But the vast majority responded very well. Reviews were glowing for the actors and most of the shows ended in standing ovations once curtain call would get to the four main characters’ bow.
What were your biggest challenges producing it?
On top of the lingering fear of the pandemic and wanting to take care of my cast, crew, and audience, the flu tore my cast up. We had a short rehearsal period, as my partners at Catalyst are exceptionally busy people, so we only rehearsed two nights a week for about six weeks. When we added to that a cast member being out one or two weeks and the fact this play has HUGE dialogue bricks for the Katurian character, mostly, but also, at times, for all the main four in the show. Then, we hit some weather. Of course, it is also a show that could be costly to produce, and Catalyst is still really finding our sea legs in exploring funding, so we are gathering program ad sales and small donations, at best. That is the struggle we have faced since day one. We also did a very brutal piece of theatre on Valentine’s weekend, while Adam Pascal and “Pretty Woman” were in town. I think everyone at Catalyst craves theatre that comes with a bit of a challenge.
What’s next for Catalyst?
We have applied to the IndyFringe Festival and are waiting to hear results of the lottery. But, even before the festival, we will have a world premiere of a Bennett Ayres piece directed by our own Zach Stonerock. Zach also directed the other Bennett Ayres premiere we produced in 2017. The play is called “Lanista.” Lanista, by definition is “a trainer of gladiators in ancient Rome,” which is an apt title for this play. We had a kick-off meeting virtually and discussed some cool things we can do with this piece. Everyone should be happy to know, even though we had two intermissions in “The Pillowman,” there will not be one at Lanista. It is about 90 minutes long.
What does theatre mean to you?
Collaboration and community, which is why I work within a repertory. Great theatre is challenging and pushy. I think the reactions in the room should always vary. Theatre is a large part of my identity and my friend circle, so it means a lot of things. It is a career, passion, therapy, and my entire community, all in one.
Who are your theatre influences?
Ironically enough, Adam Pascal is one. I appreciated that he became a Broadway legend, without a stitch of theatre training. He was just an excellent singer and entertainer, who has grown into a reliable, great performer. I just respect the heck out of his story. Martin McDonagh. I am not as tough as McDonagh, but my personal writing style, as a playwright, gravitates toward difficult comedy. Locally, I looked up to things I would see at the old Phoenix Theatre. The new one is great, too. I just have many fond memories of the old space. I like pushy, bold stuff, so too many Fringe performances come to mind. I really love Fringe theatre. And I would be lying if I didn’t mention my two creative partners Dave Pelsue and Taylor Cox.
Who are your influences, in general?
All through high school (Cathedral), I was wildly obsessed with Pete Townshend and The Who, but just Pete Townshend. I read his books, even. Hayao Miyazaki’s work always has something so beautiful; it makes me cry. Chris Claremont, the “X-Men” writer. Tony Kushner. The National Theatre.
What are your long-term goals?
Having a home base, having a shop and offices for my team, not having to lug our suitcases around town. We like big shows and we enjoy doing them close up and minimal, but there is always going to be those projects you want to do with less concern for rentals and budgets and also hauling to a place, rather than putting together and taking apart at a home base.
How can the public support Catalyst?
We do have a donate button on our website. Companies can buy a program ad and we love to partner with creative sponsorship opportunities. Coming to our shows. Subscribing to our YouTube or following us on Facebook. Donation of talent, skill, or time. Providing press. We have a variety of ways to support and are happy to have it.