Tag Archives: Bryan Fonseca

COVID, The Arts And Bryan Fonseca

When I went online yesterday, I learned that COVID had killed Bryan Fonseca–for many years one of the most consequential people in our city’s arts community, and a wonderful friend to so many of us.

Bryan was the founder–and for 35 years, the producing director–of the Phoenix Theatre. The Phoenix was the first local professional theater to produce cutting-edge new plays and emerging playwrights, and to focus on issues of inclusion and social justice while maintaining professional and technical excellence. The Phoenix was a major factor both in the revitalization of the downtown Indianapolis neighborhood in which it located in 1988 and in the enormous growth of the performing arts in our city.

When Bryan left the Phoenix, he established the Fonseca Theatre on Indianapolis’ west side, offering classes and performances and generating community and excitement in previously neglected, predominantly low-income neighborhoods. His essential mission remained the same: social justice. He was a persistent advocate for intergroup understanding, and the inclusion of people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ communities–and his steadfast commitment to that mission often made fundraising incredibly difficult.

City leaders talk a lot about the importance of science and technology to economic and community development, but a flourishing arts community is equally important. Bryan understood that a vibrant arts community–galleries, theaters, festivals, poetry readings, Fringe festivals–is essential to the forging of genuine community and to the quality of community life.

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. I have previously noted that 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 tells universal stories through a female lens. What I hadn’t previously reported was that Bryan’s effort to create a artistic “collaborative” at the Phoenix was a major impetus to Summit’s formation.

I posted earlier this year about a play I had just seen at the Fonseca. It was called “The Cake,” and it was quintessential Bryan. “The Cake” was described as a play about a same-sex wedding and a bakery. I had 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 superbly acted, 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, no easy villains, no preachy morals–just people trying to reconcile their own contending beliefs.

One of the many reasons that the arts are so important– not just as outlets for human creativity and communication– is that they provide the 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 its statement on Bryan’s death, The Phoenix quoted something he’d said in an interview:

“We are still on the precipice of revolution and revolutionary change. We have to keep pushing. We can’t retreat. Not budge. Not give an inch. Once again, don’t be placated too soon or at all by small change. Demand more. Vote. Get involved on the local level. Everything grows from the ground up. Change is grassroots.”

It will be much harder to grow and nurture those grass roots without him.

I can’t help thinking that if it weren’t for the utter lack of national leadership in combatting this virus, and the coddling and encouragement of the self-centered jerks who don’t want to wear masks, Bryan and many others might still be with us.

Vote. Your life and the lives of your friends and neighbors depend on it.



Points Of Light–Indianapolis Edition

Remember the “Thousand Points of Light” that George H.W. Bush used to talk about? He was referencing the efforts of good people around the country (and for that matter, around the world) to make a difference in their communities. At the time, it reminded me of Voltaire’s famous admonition to cultivate our own gardens.

At times like these, when so many of us are disheartened daily by the displays of hatefulness, mendacity and unashamed bigotry being encouraged by a morally and intellectually deficient President, we need to remind ourselves that there are points of light being emitted in our own backyards and gardens.

Here in Indianapolis, we don’t have mountains or oceans or other geographical assets, but we have historically made up for those deficits with a population that “pitches in” (we have more not-for-profit organizations than any other city in the country). The other day, I had lunch with Bryan Fonseca, who is currently “pitching in” in a big way in four of Indianapolis’ least affluent, most diverse and most challenged neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods, adjacent to downtown and the campus where I teach, are on the West side of White River. They make up an area called (duh) River West.

Local folks know that Bryan founded the Phoenix Theater some 35+ years ago. For many years,  Phoenix’ plays scandalized a lot of locals:they were cutting-edge works that highlighted the barriers faced by LGBTQ, Latino and other minority citizens. Over the years, what was initially scandalous became much less so. The Phoenix succeeded brilliantly; it recently moved from a donated converted church into a ten million dollar building, and from bare-bones existence on the margins of the “respectable” art scene to status as a highly valued part of the mainstream.

While that move was underway, Bryan was working with the River West community under a Transformational Impact Fellowship grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis. And now, after leaving the Phoenix, he has gone back to his scrappy, social justice roots by establishing The Fonseca Theater Company in the heart of River West.

My husband and I attended FTC’s first play, and it met the high standard Bryan had established at the Phoenix. It was powerful and well-acted. But Bryan’s plans for his new venture go well beyond offering professional theater.

The Near West community has long faced major economic, educational, and public safety challenges. However, as Bryan points out, the area is also home to one of the most vibrant and diverse communities in Indianapolis, and he and his team of dedicated and resourceful artists intend to work with and within the community to improve quality of life and create a variety of opportunities for residents. As he says, the new organization is “invested in the concept of in-reach, which encourages artists to move into and become part of the fabric of life in the community we serve.”

The arts are a time-honored way of raising awareness, but the ambitions of this new venture go well beyond the traditional role of theatrical performance.

Research confirms that the arts improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So in addition to a six-show season of plays and a Latinx concert series, the organization plans  community plays in which participants write, direct and act in their own stories; a teen acting program; and continuation of an existing children’s program consisting of 10-week classes filled with kids from the surrounding community. (The class is priced at $15 for the entire course, and parents of children who have taken the classes report improved grades and communication skills.)

In addition to plans to develop a soccer team and exercise programs, the theater is partnering with Indy Convergence, a neighborhood collaborative, to spearhead neighborhood events such as clean-ups, crime watches, neighborhood association meetings and eventually, a neighborhood festival, all designed to increase civic pride and neighborhood engagement. As he says, “We are more than just a theater. We are a community center designed to inspire civic engagement.”

This is an enormously ambitious undertaking. But Bryan and his longtime team have overcome daunting obstacles before, and as he says, he’s happiest when he has a cause.

In these dark days, we just have to remember that for every Trump wannabe, for every self-absorbed “it’s all about me” asshole, there’s a Bryan Fonseca working hard to cultivate a garden and make his community better for everyone who lives there.