Can The Arts Save Us?

Indianapolis, like many cities, has experienced an explosion of arts over the past ten to fifteen years: theater companies, art galleries, dance venues…all have proliferated. Even more significantly, the quality of those venues has dramatically improved.

Last weekend, my husband and I had tickets to two plays and a cabaret performance. (It was an unusually busy weekend for folks in our age cohort.) The cabaret performance was wonderful (Indianapolis has one of the very few Broadway-caliber cabaret theaters in the U.S.) but I really want to focus on the two plays we were privileged to see, because that experience illustrated why theater, especially, contributes to a culture of inclusion.

In times like these, when Americans are so divided, theatrical performance becomes particularly important, because it is through stories that we advance human understanding and self-awareness. (It was recognition of the importance of stories and how they are told that led to the establishment of Summit Performance, a new, woman-centered theater company in Indianapolis that endeavors to tell universal stories through a female lens.)

Last weekend, we saw two truly riveting performances: The Agitators and The Cake.

The Agitators, at the Phoenix Theatre, explored the long and often-fraught friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas–a friendship of which I had been totally unaware. It may be comforting to believe that representatives of different marginalized groups fighting for equal rights will do so in solidarity, but of course, reality is much more nuanced. The play–superbly acted–probed uncomfortable questions about uneven progress toward equality and our inescapably parochial perspectives–questions that we tend to gloss over.

The Cake, at the Fonseca Theater, defied my expectations. Part of the Fonseca’s stated mission is to be a forum for “pressing conversations.” The Cake was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery, so I expected a theatrical presentation of the legal challenges that have been in the news–the baker who refuses to lend his craft to an event he considers inconsistent with his religious beliefs, and the clash between civil rights and claims of religious liberty.

What I saw, instead, was a deeply affecting story about good people who were–inescapably– products of their upbringing, and how they reacted when forced to respond to a changing world, especially when people they dearly love are part of that change. No legal arguments, just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.

Both performances reminded me that the arts are important, not just as outlets for human creativity and communication, but as necessary “threads” that very different people use to stitch together a social fabric. Plays, movies, well-done television presentations and the like allow us to travel to places we otherwise wouldn’t visit –some geographic, but others interior and highly personal–and to understand the issues that divide us in new and more nuanced ways.

In the program notes accompanying The Cake, Brian Fonseca quoted a patron saying “We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light.”  I don’t think it is accidental that so many artists–actors, painters, dancers, whatever–are among the more compassionate and accepting people I know.

Readers of this blog who are in Indianapolis or surrounding areas really should try to see both of these productions.


  1. First, I commend you on your three late nights and stamina. Secondly for attending our cities thriving cultural programming. Thirdly for your support, accommodations and recommendations. Inspiring comments are welcoming, calming and informative. Bravo Shelia and kudos to Bob. ??❤️

  2. If only more of us here could afford to be entertained and enlightened by the arts locally.

  3. Or we can look around us and ignore Trump’s rant. Our reality is so much more advanced than Trump’s attempts to portray us as living in the 1950s.

  4. Brian Fonseca is one of the truly bright lights of the Indy theatre scene. When I lived there, he was bringing unusual and entertaining works to the Phoenix Theatre. I’m glad to see he’s still doing that, even tough at a different venue.

  5. Did you have to dress up, or did they serve beer at the theatre?

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but the forms of entertainment sought out by most Americans consist of couch sitting or lying on the bed with remote in hand. I went to a Wendy’s restaurant in Lebanon yesterday, and they have a big-screen TV. What was playing?

    Fox News

    Books and theatre are now luxury items in the USA to be consumed by only the enlightened or open-minded while being mocked by everyone else…”Only libtards attend the theatre.”

    The programming at an early age and then the continued onslaught of propaganda has produced a dumbing down of America at an incredible rate. With the dumbing down has been the mass production of closed-minds.

    We’ve been manufacturing consumers, but only a few participate in the consumption of the arts in all its forms once their high school careers end.

    It’s been fascinating watching the response of European world leaders versus US leaders to Covid-19. Night and day…

  6. I’ve seen most of the productions from Brian Fonseca’s theatre, and every single one has been top rate. We’re so lucky he stayed in Indianapolis. If you’re reading this, Mr Fonseca, you’ve created a not-to-miss oasis on the near-west side. Thank you isn’t enough, but — thank you.

  7. We, too, saw “The Agitators” last weekend, and it was an excellent history lesson. Everyone would benefit from seeing this play, and if I were still teaching I would take my students.
    Can the Arts and Humanities save us? Of course they can. This fairly recent focus on STEM education is important, but it’s the Humanities that feed our souls.

  8. We are blessed to have so many arts and culture choices in our City. The value of public broadcasting can not be under estimated as a force for opening minds and hearts as well. Government allocations for PBS & NPR are cut in IMPOTUS 45’s budget. A gift to WFYI allows us to stream artistic content into our homes, a consideration during this time of quarantine.
    Thanks for reminding us how fortunate we are in Indy.

  9. We saw the opening of “The Agitators” because it was about Rochester NY where we live.

    It was very well done. Two conscientious and principled people caught up in their times.

    In some was it was startling how much and how little has changed.

  10. Per Pat Grabill’s comment – the arts are a fantastic way to educate and engage young people and inspire critical thinking.

  11. Responding to Pete—I made the same comment to my husband about the more things change the more—to some extent—they stay the same. “The Agitators” is very current in many ways.

  12. Todd,
    here in NoDak,er,(north dakota) thats all there is in our coffee and chat spectrum,drummed by the alert banner by and for..carry on wayward,er sons..Fargo is about as far west any culture goes,until ya hit the water over the other side of the hills..Moorehead,mn along side Fargo..
    the downtown is walk easy open,the fargo theatre has ongoing films,and music, but to get deep ya head for msp, minneapolis/st paul..My wife and I are avid music junkies.we usually fly out for a week of pre planned concert dates starting the north side of the pacific,nw, down to l.a. las vegas.. fly back.(glad cars are rented by the day now..2500/3500 miles in one week typical.) the desert blooms in socal is always a bright spot. but supporting the local main street where we reside is a fifty mile drive one way..we plan, we whim,we dine. not much for entertainment in bismarck..typical fox news central. since the question of global warming,we decided to see more in the MSP area.. jazz is the forte,and dinning is our hobby.. challenge the chef and waitstaff,with a smile of course,banter,and jokes,and always leave a tip to show there was more to their work,than just another table..thats how we are entertained,and keeping our main street for another day..maybe if trumps dump leaves,people will lighten up and resume where we left off…and,would someone tell those restaurants that food that mimicks the looks of a bug on a plate,just dosent cut it…(sorry Anthony)

  13. I am such a fan of Bryan Fonseca and the tremendous and loving work he has done in Indianapolis. He is a true pioneer, dedicated to producing issue-driven theater that makes us think, learn, and most important, TALK to one another. His productions invite us to consider alternative perspectives, not in a preachy way, but in a respectful way and in a safe environment. Thank you, Bryan. You embody one of my favorite admonitions, to do all the good you can, for as many people as you can, for as long as you can. Can the arts save us? No, WE ALL have to do that–but theater is essential for providing a communal, unifying experience in a pluralistic society. Go to the Fonseca Theatre!!! You won’t be sorry!!!

  14. Can The Arts Save Us? Save of Us from What??? I would say the easy answer is no.

    What I see when I am out and about are people young to old with some electronic connection in their ear, or busily texting, or watching something on “U Tube”. A few years ago I took my Grandson out for dinner. A family Mom, Dad and three off spring in tow (teens and pre-teen ages) sat down at a table near us. They each began texting away. They only stopped to order food. They hardly spoke a word to each other while they sat there. Ha, a family dinner.

    You do not even need to inconvenience yourself by browsing in a video store anymore, you can order a movie up and watch it at home. You can watch some sporting event 24/7 on cable. If you buy a sports package, there is no need to go watch your favorite team in person. If you play a video game on your computer, you can play against A.I., no need for another person.

    The book Bowling Alone published in 2000, brought up this disconnect.

    Per WIKI on the book, He (the author) has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives.

    He noted that some organizations have grown, such as the American Association of Retired People, the Sierra Club and a plethora of mass-member activist groups. But he says that these groups do not tend to foster face-to-face interaction, and are the type where “the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter.” He also draws a distinction between two different types of social capital: a “bonding” type (which occurs within a demographic group) and a “bridging” type (which unites people from different groups).

    He then asks the obvious question “Why is US social capital eroding?”
    He concludes the main cause is technology “individualizing” people’s leisure time via television and the Internet, suspecting that “virtual reality helmets” will carry this further in future.

    Putnam, who wrote this book back in 2000, probably vastly underestimated the expansion of internet onto mobile devices. This “individualizing” plays across leisure into news and in particular social media. No need to leave the Silo anymore, except to shop. Even “shopping” can be done online and your food, clothes or whatever can be delivered to your door.

  15. Hey Sheila, interesting article!

    I think it’s wonderful to cleanse one’s mind and lift one spirit by song and play.

    I love the Steppenwolf Theatre, the Art Institute, the myriads of sculpture, the majestic silhouettes of skyscrapers, to the north, the Genesee theater, little further in Racine Wisconsin which is a haven for artists of all sorts! And then a little further north, the Art Institute of Milwaukee, which in itself is a majestic sculpture! It does make you feel good. Season tickets to these theaters in the area are not that expensive, much less than individual plays and/or genre.

    And let’s not forget the Foodies, this area has several Michelin rated restaurants and such an eclectic mix along the entire western shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago to Milwaukee, you could literally eat in restaurants every day for a year and never hit every ethnic group and their food styles! And just 30 minutes from the city, you’re in farm country, that lends itself to its own beauty! Yes, art and beauty soothe the savage beast.

    King David and King Solomon had some of the best artisans in the known world at the time. They also employed the famous Israeli-Phoenician Hiram who was an unmatched metalworker and Weaver. The Gold covered Ivory Kings Throne was known throughout the world at the time, it is described in 1st Kings 10:18-20.

    Also consider 1st Kings 10:21-29 and 1st Kings 10:1-17! The art was magnificent.

    Although graven images were considered false worship, there was a difference between art and worship. And although a lot of Israelite artwork was not recognized in history, the temple and the city of Jerusalem itself was described in Ezekiel 16:8-14 a city unmatched in beauty including the temple which was known throughout civilization at the time.

    And let’s not forget song, King David’s songs in the Psalms, and Solomons songs in the Song Of Solomon, used in worship but were considered beautiful!

    So yes, art not only can bring joy, it can bring one closer to their God, and therefore closer to their fellow man, that is, if they are not corrupted and conscienceless which led to disaster for the Israelites and should be a blueprint for the present day on conduct.

    With the appropriate heart condition, we can see the forest through the trees, we can see the beauty of every single thing on this planet, including our brothers and sisters worldwide.

    But alas, mankind is a very stiffnecked species, and mankind is going to pay the price for it!

  16. ML,

    Oh come on! Did you ever see Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure? Their music saved humanity!

    As Bill O’Reilly always said, what say you? LOL!

  17. Hey ML,

    2000? Man, like my granddaughters says, those were the ancient times.

    But, you have a valid point, that’s why there is no compassion and empathy anymore. People have devised their own realities, just like that Pokémon fiasco a few years ago, people were walking around looking for Pokémon through their Telephones Pokémon app. They were actually walking in front of cars, walking off of fishing piers, yep, reality killed some of them, at least in the Pokémon world.

  18. Art and entertainment are two different things. What I am reading in this blog today are kudos and lamentations about entertainment.

    I am an artist of the specific variety, as opposed to the generic (actors, musicians, dancers, etc.), and I often survey the Indianapolis area for new or disappearing art galleries. Before the Bush recession and the ascendancy of the deplorables, there were at least two thriving art galleries on 82nd street and one gallery owned by a real artist — C. W. Mundy — and just off of 82nd street another art “operation” by the fabulous artist Nancy Noel. They are all gone now, as is Sigman’s Gallery of Fine Art in Broad Ripple and have not been replaced.

    So, I would dispute the claim that art in on the ascendancy in Indianapolis.

  19. The Raccoon’s Lament:

    Once upon a time, 800 years before Christ, in a land called Greece, the Raccoon became known and highly admired for its ability to adapt to almost any environment. Raccoons thrived in deserts, high mountains, rain forests, and densely populated cities. At that time, Raccoon was the name of an animal and was not yet an adjective, but soon, other animals, who thought they possessed at least some of the Raccoon’s ability to adapt, began using the nominative Raccoon incorrectly as an adjective to describe their own ability to adapt. Consequently, owls and sheep and mice and lions and sharks began telling the world that they were raccoon owls and raccoon sheep and raccoon mice and raccoon lions and raccoon sharks, meaning that they believed they had some quality of the famous and admired Raccoon. In no time at all, those non-raccoon animals began to drop their old name and simply call themselves “Raccoons”; it sounded so much more impressive and respect-worthy than owl or sheep or mice or lion or shark.

    To this day, in the wild, there are about fifty species of insecure non-raccoon animals and three species of insecure plants that secretly call themselves raccoons.

    Coincidentally, 750 years before Christ, also in Greece, a certain insecure tambourine player, who was proud of her skill but ashamed of the title of her skill, wished to be called a name more admired than tambourinist. First, being as clever as she was insecure, she studied lowly animal behavior and observed what had happened to the Raccoon, then she surveyed a list of skilled people and saw that the two most admired skills at the time were Sophist and Artist, and from then on, instead of demanding she be called a tambourinist, she mistakenly demanded to be called an…

  20. Culture…
    My parents, who rarely saw a city and never saw inside an art museum, knew something about culture. When they spoke of culture, they spoke of philosophy, high ideals, art, classical music, sculpture, the world of ideas. When they — and later my teachers in the 1940s and 1950s — spoke of culture they NEVER spoke of pop music, fads of dress or behavior, gutter and alley life, Hollywood actors or movies, hair style, or matters of hygiene.

    My parents and teachers were of course speaking of HIGH CULTURE, although they never had to use the term “high”, because it was understood that everything that was not culture simply was not culture. There was no such thing as pop culture.

    In the 1960s, in college, I heard the term POP CULTURE for the first time. My college was trying to save the Humanities program from lack of interest and created a couple of classes about “pop culture” to use as bait for low-minded students. It worked. It also worked in thousands of other universities.

    So, by 1970, America and the western world recognized two cultures: HIGH CULTURE AND POP CULTURE.

    And by 1980, the world had begun to discard high culture, so that soon the term “culture” meant ONLY pop culture.

    But we were not finished killing culture. By 1980, we began to recognize GUTTER CULTURE.

    By 2000, gutter culture had replaced pop culture as the cognitive representation that the term culture provoked in most people.

    Eighty years after my parents and teachers talked reverently about high culture and sixteen years after gutter culture killed high culture, America surrendered to the deplorables.

  21. I wish theater, music, and art were as significant to Indianapolis as the Colts. And wouldn’t it be nice if all artists got a guaranteed thousand/month

    I am a singer/songwriter. Some of my songs address social justice issues. In response to the current occupant of the White House, I wrote a song titled ” Don’t Look at a Nasty Woman.” I grew up with Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.
    Music emboldened people in the civil rights movement to speak truth to power. We also had music to protest the war in Viet Nam. ( All we are saying, is give peace a chance.)

    The arts like all human creations can be used for good or ill. I wrote a song called “The Small Difference” which the Indianapolis Womens’ chorus sang in 2000. It is my rebuttal to hatred. I was humbled by the standing ovations I received in response to the song.

    What would we be without music, story, and art? My life is enriched by the way they confront me with challenging issues, lift me in times of darkness, and the way they double my joy in times of celebration.

    I hope each of you find your way to a theater, concert, or art gallery so that you too may be enriched.

  22. john Sorg @ 11:24 am, just checking back in Oh Yes, I remember the Pokémon app craze. My daughter and grandson showed me the app, years ago.

    From Google:
    Are there any Pokemon go trackers that still work?
    Though most of the Pokémon Go Maps and Trackers have gone dark, a few still remain. … Thanks to many cease and desist letters and a plethora of straight-up bans on players caught using the game in prohibited ways, most of the Maps and Trackers are no longer online. Dec 11, 2019.

    Pokémon somewhat makes the point, we do not need other humans to have our “fun”. The fewer meaningful encounters we have with other humans, the less we have to learn about getting along.

  23. LK,
    Acting is a “generic entertainment”? Guess I better turn in my Bachelors of FINE ART then.
    Have you ever tried to act? Have you ever tried to do it well? So that you drive the story forward and take an audience along for the journey? To say, “I am an artist and you really aren’t”, screams narcissism. I doubt anything more I say could change your mind about that. How sad.

  24. Larry,
    That post, both of your posts, are works of art! It’s very reflective, and I didn’t know you were so doggone old dude, lol! I was born in 1959!

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