Raising the curtain: Theater at the Fort presenting live shows for the first time in more than 2 years


Theater at the Fort in Lawrence is proving that the show does go on.

Live theater returned to the Theater at the Fort this month, with “The Laramie Project” being the first production at the theater in more than two years. “The Laramie Project” ran from Oct. 1-10.

First, the theater was closed for renovations. Then, it remained closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Live theater returned to Theater at the Fort this month.

The theater closed in 2019 after its parent organization, Arts for Lawrence, received a $5.8 million grant from the Lilly Endowment’s “Strengthening Indianapolis through Arts and Culture Innovation” initiative. The grant money went toward establishing a cultural campus with an amphitheater and moving a repurposed Fort Harrison communications building to the campus to be used for visual arts programming and gallery space. Renovations were also completed at the theater.

The theater reopened in January 2020 and offered swing dancing, and then it closed again because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Programming began again in June of this year, but live theater didn’t return until this month.

“When we closed for construction in summer of 2019, I didn’t anticipate that the theater would remain closed for two very quiet years.  It is surprisingly invigorating to receive an audience once again, to dim the house lights, raise the stage lights and get absorbed into the stories that the actors portray on the stage,” Arts for Lawrence Executive Director Judy Byron said. “There is nothing like live theater, and we are so proud to offer quality programming in the newly renovated historic theater.”

The theater’s first foray back into live theater is “very heavy,” according to program director Jay Hemphill.

“‘The Laramie Project’ is about Matthew Shepherd and his murder that happened in October 1998,” Hemphill said. “It focuses on hate crimes, language and descriptions of torture, so it’s a heavy show, but one we felt we should do as we try to expand our offerings out here.”

“Queens at the Fort: A Drag Show” was Oct. 15. The show was hosted by local drag diva Heather Bea and featured Indianapolis drag performers. Upcoming shows include “Macbeth,” which will be presented in cooperation with Bard Fest and the Agape Theater Company. “Macbeth” is Oct. 22 to 30. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for seniors, students and military. Following “Macbeth” is “Elizabeth Rex,” which is a play that starts with the meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and one of the actors from Shakespeare’s troupe. “Elizabeth Rex” runs Nov. 5 to 14. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for seniors, students and military.

Then, Circle City Tap will return with its IndyFringe production, “ONE US.” The performance features themes of equality, acceptance and unity through dance, poetry and literature. “ONE US” runs Nov. 20 to 21. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for seniors, students, and military.

To celebrate the holidays, “Peewinkle’s Christmas Puppet Show” will be at Theater at the Fort Dec. 4. The show is designed for the whole family and features holiday marionettes, music and audience participation. There will be two performances. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors, students and military. Children ages 2 and younger are free.

Hemphill is hoping the theater makes a splash with its reopening.

“We want to have our programming reflect our community,” Hemphill said. “We are a very diverse community here in Lawrence, so we need to have that represented on our stages.”

Hemphill said the theater offers a “blend of music” during its summer concert series so there’s something for everyone. It also offered a cultural festival Oct. 9 and partnered with local schools for a Día De Los Muertos event at the cultural campus. There was a Juneteenth Jubilee in June.

“I want the stage to reflect my audience, and I want my audience to reflect my community,” Hemphill said. “When you have that goal in mind, you know exactly what you need to be doing and finding partners to fulfill that duty.”

For more, visit artsforlawrence.org.

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Actors perform on stage during an improv event at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence. (Photos courtesy of Arts for Lawrence)

Uniting with the city

In addition to live theater, Theater at the Fort also offers free showings of popular films. One upcoming film is “It’s a Wonderful Life” Nov. 27 in conjunction with the city’s annual holiday event, A Lawrence Christmas.

“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ coincides with A Lawrence Christmas, which is the Lawrence parade that happens here,” Theater at the Fort Program Director Jay Hemphill said. “It’s their kick-off for the holidays. So, people can go to that and come see the film at night.”

The film is a free showing and will feature live carolers.