Reviving the Arts: Fort Benjamin Harrison Theater reopens with first performance

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By Zach Dunkin

The year is 2023 and the City of Lawrence is celebrating its bicentennial. The focal point of the celebration is along the now pedestrian-only Otis Avenue at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where visitors stroll along in search of a bite to eat, a cocktail to sip, or a piece of artwork to purchase from a hand full of galleries. Maybe they’re just window shopping or people watching.

The festive street scene has come a long way since 2015 when a small group of visionaries decided to turn a nondescript, two-story brick building that once housed an old theater built for the soldiers stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison into a reborn playhouse – The Theater at the Fort — that sparked the cultural movement that spread east and west along Otis.

At least, that’s how Judy Byron, executive director of Partnerships for Lawrence, envisions it.

“My dream is bigger than this theater,” said Byron, who has been working tirelessly for more than a decade to bring arts and culture to the Lawrence community. “My dream is that we have partners up and down the road (Otis) – restaurants, shops, galleries. To create a cultural destination.

“We hope to partner with all the businesses and other entities in the area so that we truly have a place where, not only our local residents come to, but visitors will want to come. We’re hoping that the theater is the spark that lights the fire to make that happen.”

Originally located in a small space on Franklin Road in Lawrence, Partnerships for Lawrence has offered visual art programs and summer camps for its students for years.

“But in spite of all of the programming we have done in the past, it was hard for people to recognize who we were until we had a good, established spot,” said Byron.

Now, with its new digs at Fort Ben, the organization can offer new entertainment for the community as it partners with various arts groups seeking a performance venue.

“This is a huge break for us,” said Byron. “We’re much more noticeable and we can make a bigger difference.”

Built in 1929, the theater ran movies and hosted band and theatrical performances for soldiers and their families. The fort and its theater were decommissioned in 1996. The building was most recently used as a practice space for the 38th Infantry Band of the Indiana National Guard until the Partnerships for Lawrence and the city of Lawrence partnered to pay for repairs and refurbishment to make the 208-seat theater a viable entertainment venue again.

The ribbon cutting was on Oct. 22, and Spotlight Players became the theater’s first visiting arts group with its recent production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play.” Indy Axis Dancers, a youth dance school, performed “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 18. A jazz orchestra is booked for a spring performance.

The group will also partner with Dance Kaleidoscope and Storytelling Arts of Indiana in future productions. Film showings are possible. Students in the Partnership for Lawrence summer art camps will do weekly performances in the theater. Area schools are also invited to use the theater for musical or theatrical performances.

“We’ve hit the ground running,” said Byron, who shares her Fort Ben “dream home” with her husband and sons. “Groups are lining up to perform here.”

Byron acknowledged the redevelopment that has been happening on the fort such as new apartment complexes and homes and a new business complex “but without this cultural element, the word about Lawrence is still not getting out there.”

“We feel we are bringing that piece to the redevelopment that is missing,” she said.

How you can help

Partners for Lawrence is funded by donations, advertisements and ticket sales. Funds are now needed for big ticket items such curtains, lighting and sound and for various repairs. And, as executive director Judy Byron noted with smile, “There’s a good reason why it’s called The Theater at the Fort. Naming rights are always available.”

Donations can be made at www.lawrenceartcenter.net/bringbackthetheater.


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