By Stephanie Dolan
Growing up is not always comfortable. What many experience as the innocence of childhood is often lost to the sudden and traumatic drama of junior high. This is a place where nearly everyone wishes to be an adult and – in that relentless pursuit of adulthood – children are very often presented with frustration and cruelty. Onward to high school, where the maturity levels are – usually – raised a bit but where the search for who you are – or at least who you wish to become – is typically frantic and exhausting. These trials and tribulations are enough to make anyone want to pull the covers over their head, never to return to homeroom again. But there is a local group of young people who are making greater strides in figuring out who they are, who they want to be and how they want to relate to others.
The Agape Performing Arts Company, a ministry of Our Lady of Greenwood Catholic Church, began on the Southside of Indianapolis and now performs on the Old Northside. The company welcomes young people of all ages to audition for roles typically undertaken only by adults. In spite of the shocking amount of talent within this company, there is very little ego at work. The Golden Rule is at the forefront of every interaction, both on and offstage.
Founded by Dr. Kathy Phipps in 2016, Agape has tackled everything from “Into the Woods” to “Les Misérables”; from the “Pirates of Penzance” to “Sing Down the Moon.”
Currently, the company is in final rehearsals for Bardfest, Indiana’s biggest Shakespeare festival.
“There will be four productions in two theatres downtown,” Agape Community Outreach Director Tracey Rollison said. “There will be multiple performances on Mass (Massachusetts) Avenue.”
Bardfest initially began in Carmel, presenting three productions for theatregoers to enjoy. Typically, a street performer of some kind would be utilized to draw people into the theatre. This year, Bardfest wanted to do something different and they solicited a lot of different theatres looking for just the right company.
“They weren’t even thinking about a youth production but once they saw us they realized that we were doing things they wanted to see,” Rollison said. “They know it’s not just a kids’ show. That’s the hardest thing to express about Agape. People have in their mind what a ‘kid production’ looks like. No matter how much we say that it doesn’t look like a kids’ show, people are still shocked the first time they see one of our productions. We typically perform on the Old Northside of Indianapolis but we rehearse in Greenwood. I’d say we’re as good or better than other professional theatres. Others have said we are as good or better than professional productions they’ve seen.”
Something else that sets this company apart is their willingness – and eagerness – to utilize actors who are disabled or delayed in some way. Some actors have even been diagnosed as autistic.
Agape’s Bardfest offering is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There are at least three actors with disabilities cast in the show. Andrew Lorenz is sight impaired. Sophie Lorenz has a cochlear implant and Grant Scott Miller is dyslexic. All three actors are from the Southside.
Miller, a junior, expressed how, due to his dyslexia, he made some mistakes when he was initially reading during auditions. But he was not made to feel self-conscious. Company officials saw his potential and helped coach him through the process.
“We have a great cast of people,” Miller, cast as Demetrius, said. “I have faith in all of them that they’re going to do a fantastic job.”
“It has definitely helped me to gain confidence that even though I have my shortcomings – I take longer to learn things – it’s helped me to still accept myself as I am,” Sophie Lorenz said. “I still talk to people. Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the words that I want to say but I still go ahead and try.”
“I’m a lot more outgoing now,” Andrew Lorenz said. “I have a lot of funny jokes. It’s helped me to be really optimistic.”
For other Southsiders, Agape is a stepping stone to a life of professional acting.
Bright lights, big city
Eighth-grader Gemma Rollison expressed how she wants to be a professional actor. When asked if she were more interested in doing theatre or movies?
“Both!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been with Agape for a long time now. I love my theatre family. Everyone technically is kind of like a family. We take our roles and we see who we’re related to, and in the end, everyone is woven together. I was a completely different kid before I started theatre. Now I have all these friends.”
And in just a couple of weeks, graduate Natalie Stigall will be traveling to New York City to officially enroll in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where she will focus on musical theatre for two years before spending two more years in the same program in Los Angeles.
“I’ve loved the camaraderie among everyone,” she said. “By the end of tech week, you all feel like a giant family. I started acting in seventh grade. I was pretty shy. I was in a little shell. After acting, I started to open up more. It really helped make me more outgoing.”
“It’s a big group effort from the families as well as the students,” Rollison said. “We’re not getting tax money and we’re not very old so we don’t have a history of big grants. It’s so cool to see our people come together.”
In an effort to raise money, Rollison said that the theatre company hosts a swing dance before the beginning of each production.
“We have participation fees but those provide only 10 to 15 percent of the budget,” she said. “We ask every family to go out and get donations. We do have some places who have supported us. As we get a little more established and get our own 501c3, we’ll be able to apply for grants.”
Rollison said the last dance held just a few weeks ago went really well, raising approximately $800.
“We had probably close to 100 people there,” she said.
As for the kids themselves, Rollison knows how many doors Agape is opening, both practically as well as emotionally.
“If it hadn’t been for the theatre, these kids wouldn’t have these opportunities,” she said.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is running Sept. 28 – Oct. 7. For tickets or for more information, visit agapeshows.org.
5 questions with Tracey Rollison
What is your favorite Shakespearean play?
My favorite Shakespeare play is “Twelfth Night”, which is a comedy of mistaken identities. But I do think that our “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is among the very best I’ve seen. The Rude Mechanicals (characters who perform the play-within-a-play) in particular are just hilarious: both the main cast and the understudies! It’s becoming my favorite after working with these kids!
Who played Hamlet better? Lawrence Olivier or John Gielgud?
Gielgud. I wasn’t quite as taken with Olivier’s portrayal. I found it almost too psychoanalytical, which is a bit odd from someone who did psychology for her undergraduate major.
What is your favorite book?
So many books So little time. If I had to pick one, it would be Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” because it’s so meaty. But I’m also a big fan of “(The Chronicles of) Narnia”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”.
What is the best thing about working in theatre?
Theatre uses so many different interests, talents and skills. It is ideal for creative people who can’t put all that into one bucket! On any one day, I might be researching Victorian or other period dancing, working on our website, writing a press release and helping source (materials for the prop) or build a prop. I know I’m not the only adult in Agape who has sharpened up old skills and learned some new ones! But these particular people in Agape are my very favorite thing about theatre! In “Oliver!” this summer, several parents were cast in the show and we all developed much closer friendships as a result. We’ve all volunteered for a couple of years now to benefit our kids but it’s different when you’re relying on each other as cast members. And the in jokes are awesome!
What inspires you?
I believe we create because in doing so, we reflect our Creator. Nature, history, beauty of the soul and mind as well as external beauty, and creating something new out of many pieces inspires me. Agape’s community inspires me and gives me motivation.