Behind the Scenery: A Student’s Perspective
By Ross Reagan

I’ve been going to IUPUI for three years now, but it recently dawned on me that the IRT is within walking distance to campus. As I made my way to the theater, I did a double take: turning around, I could see the student center, the library, and the science building. This newfound wisdom started a string of questions in my head: if the IRT is so close, why aren’t more college kids coming to see live theatre?

You walk down West Washington Street and there it is—this beautiful building with gorgeous architecture and a marquee with hundreds of bulbs inviting you to take a look inside.

 And that’s exactly what I did.

It was opening night for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was excited to see the classic piece of literature that I grew up with come to life. But I was even more curious to understand why audiences were so excited for the show.

As a student reviewer, I was immediately transported into a world that seemed to bridge the gap between classic historical charm and contemporary beauty. I entered the lobby, picked up my ticket, and my investigative journey began.

Golden pillars, white marble floors, and decadent carpet lined the main lobby. The elevator lobby seemed like the set of a musical number from Astaire and Rogers, and I was tempted to just jump in and press all the buttons.

The mezzanine, or second floor, has displays of costumes from past performances with a side bar and furniture so plush, you could easily take a hundred-year nap. Each hallway is like walking into a new land of surprises and I couldn’t help but snap pictures on my iPhone. Anybody who enters this place for the first time couldn’t help but pick up their jaw in amazement.

That being said, I was coming to this performance free of charge. One of the greatest things about the IRT is the great discounts they have for students. Their Encore Pass is the Holy Grail for all theatre enthusiasts. With it, you can see any performance as many times as you want for any show. So if you’re hankering to see The Mousetrap as many times as possible this summer (which I plan to do), you have every right to exhaust the box office.

As I took my seat, I found out three girls sitting to my left were theatre majors. At intermission, I wanted their opinion on if the IRT is appealing more to college kids.

“It’s important that people don’t miss the relevance of this play,” Zakeya said.

Zakeya and her friend Charell are both theater majors at Butler, and they came to see one of their friends in the performance. Both had also seen The Great Gatsby, which the IRT did last year as an adaptation of the literary classic.

And To Kill a Mockingbird happens to be one of Charell’s favorite books.“I appreciate the fact they broke the fourth wall,” she said. “This is everything.”  

And the play really was “everything” in a sense. That broken fourth wall literally had Atticus addressing the audience during his closing argument. The perspective had all of us acting as the jury. Scout, Jem, and Dill, along with the rest of the townsfolk walked up and down the aisles, which added to the intimacy of the performance. All of the classic scenes from the book are there.

So theatre lovers definitely are interested. Harper Lee fans, or anyone with an appreciation of literature would find this play appealing. But as I looked around at intermission (and struggled with not buying all the cookies at the coffee bar) my age group was lacking in attendance.

The season itself is appealing. The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fences—I would say this season is alluring and compelling just by the choice of plays. Students have been introduced to these elements since high school, but perhaps they don’t know that live adaptations even exist.

“It’s so important to have live theater in your life. It’s about figuring out the world around you,” Hilary Martin said.

Martin is IRT’s Company Manager. With kids of her own, she knows the value of introducing kids to the theatre at a young age. Since more than thirty percent of audience members are in high school or younger, it’s urgent to promote awareness. Giving kids an opportunity allows them to see what live theater is all about.

“Kids should be excited,” she added. They should be saying, ‘Mom and Dad’ we have to see this again!”

For my sixteenth birthday, I begged my parents to take me to see The Giver. It was my first show at the IRT. I remember trying to compare the book to the live performance, which was a fun attempt. But I was sixteen and too busy trying to impress my mom and dad with giving a play-by-play explanation instead of actually understanding how the performance was shaping my passion for theater. Instinctively, it was there.

And here I am, years later, trying to figure out why some of my peers haven’t shared the same experience(s). IUPUI does have an emerging theatre department, but they aren’t as established as IU or Ball State. Nevertheless, the IRT is centrally located and should have access to other nearby campuses.

But IUPUI isn’t a typical college campus. Many students aren’t residents downtown. Could it be students aren’t aware that the city has this hidden gems scattered among huge banks and hotels?

My mind began ruminating again. Is it the lack of advertising? If IRT and IUPUI had a conversation, would they be best buddies? I remember getting a complimentary ticket for A Christmas Carol two years ago and thinking I had struck gold, but other than that professional theater isn’t alive and well on our campus. And I don’t think many people on campus know professional theatre exists a block away.  

One tradition that the IRT has kept is letting the audience step onstage after the show and explore the set. I jumped at the opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to touch Boo Radley’s house! Or peak inside the Scout’s Redwood tree? I felt like a kid again, seeing the set up close as if I was in the world of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935.

Brian Newman, Production Manager of Mockingbird, made some valuable insight into why college-aged kids are in a pinnacle point of their adulthood.  

“Our sensibilities evolve and change as we grow in life. You can kind of put yourself in both shoes.”

This is true. College kids are adults and remember reading classic literature growing up. But it wasn’t too long ago we were introduced to them. We aren’t teaching these novels in an English class or reading them to our children. Our experience is in medias rae. The cultural significance should appeal to us most. We are the young adult generation, yet our engagement with the community is hard to gauge.

Before I left, I was able to snag Scout’s autograph, and talk to Ryan Artzberger, who played Atticus. When I told him I was a student and wanted to know why kids should be interested in seeing live adaptations, he beamed and then went back to his matter-of-fact and honest tone.

“It [live performance] all of the sudden becomes bigger. These things that Atticus says aren’t old. It’s idealistic and it shouldn’t be.” 

Maybe college students think of theater in an idealistic way. Maybe they think it’s too expensive or you have to wear a dress or suit and tie to be admitted. False and false again.

Maybe they don’t understand this bigger picture the IRT seeks to promote: community engagement. When I was there talking to the actual production team on the set of a professional theater, I realized that I wasn’t a student reviewer anymore—I was a part of this community.

I left considering my own role in writing my experience for an audience who may or may not know the IRT.  For college kids to be interested, the most urgent step is getting them through the door. Letting them see this new medium and letting them know that it’s affordable and accessible would break new ground.

This investigation isn’t over, and I look forward to delving deeper into these issues as the season progresses.

Follow Ross on his journey at the IRT by searching #IRTStudentReview