- Ron Spencer in 2008, when he received NUVO's Cultural Vision Award on behalf of Theatre on the Square.
Where else would I interview Ron Spencer but on the stage of Theatre on the Square? We're seated at a table in the midst of the set of Superior Donuts, a play that's something of a swan song for the theater's founder and longtime artistic director, an opportunity for him to direct and star one last time before retiring from his full-time gig and relocating to his vacation spot of Puerto Vallarta for good (if he can stand the heat, that is).
Sure, we may have ended up doing the interview here out of necessity; He and his compatriots at TOTS aren't working out of their second-floor offices these days because their Mass Ave location is need of improvements, including a new roof and better climate control. But the stage has been Spencer's home for the better part of 25 years, sometimes to the detriment of romantic relationships, he admits. And what better place for Spencer to recall and occasionally act out some of TOTS's greatest moments.
Wearing a beard for his lead role in Superior Donuts that he scratches uncomfortably a few times, Spencer may appear more youthful than your average 67-year-old, wearing a snug black Puerto Vallarta tanktop. At the same time, he's somehow managed to gracefully hook three pairs of eyeglasses on his shirt and around his neck — and along with that beard, the props give him something of a professorial air, consistent with a wisdom and confidence informed by his successful, long-fought struggle to keep TOTS open through the years. He says it's taken "absolute gall, determination, excellent friends and wonderful support" to keep the lights on, with no room for fear: "I never doubted. Even in my darkest hour, I never thought, 'This place is going to close.' I don't know why. Maybe I'm just denying reality. Isn't that what theater is all about?"
- Spencer and Jean Adams in Superior Donuts.
A quick history: Theatre on the Square was founded in Fountain Square (hence the name) in 1988, settling in a space most recently occupied by Deano's Vino across from the Fountain Square Theatre on Shelby Street. There was room for an 80-seat house, an office and workshop, but not much more, and in 1993, the outfit moved to its current location on Mass Ave. Early seasons consisted of Indianapolis premieres of shows like A Chorus Line, and Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and Pacific Overtures, mixed with more familiar fare such as Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam and the Aubrey Hepburn vehicle Wait Until Dark. All things change, and according to Spencer, "It evolved over the years that we did less and less traditional pieces and more obscure premieres and newer things from off-Broadway and the NoHo area."
Spencer says that, after his move, he'll remain "a sort of an emeritus individual out there, floating around with an opinion" until TOTS hires a new artistic director. He also hopes to remain on the board of directors. It's the latest step in a gradual transition away from the theater. For the past three years, while he's retained the title of executive artistic director and performed all the tasks associated with the job, he's taken half of his previous salary and spent six months of the year in Puerto Vallarta. He plans to continue working in theater there, directing a play he wrote for his Indy-based company, Assorted Fruits and Vegetables, and playing Dr. Dysart in Equus. Here's more from our interview, edited, of course, for space:
NUVO: How did you come to make Puerto Vallarta your second home?
Ron Spencer: Ever since I saw The Night of the Iguana in 1964, I thought, 'What a marvelous looking place! So primitive and jungle-like, but really beautiful. I'd like to go!' And 40 years later, I finally did. I went down with a friend initially, and we just had a splendid time. I thought, 'Why don't I come back here and check it out myself and see how I fare.' I didn't speak Spanish at all. I took French in school. Quel dommage, because I really needed the Spanish! I went down and just felt right at home there and made friends right away. I went back every year until finally, about year seven, I thought, 'Well, it's about time for you to think about where you want to spend the balance of your life. You love Mexico. You love the people. They love you. Why not be there?' It struck me, I'm 67, closer to 68. It's just better for me to kick back and relax, knowing you don't have to be somewhere in the morning.
NUVO: Have you been looking for a replacement at Theatre on the Square?
Spencer: We've been fishing over the last couple of years, and we haven't come up with the individual who's going to fill that position yet. Quite frankly, and not to underestimate my contribution — because until recently, I was just about everybody: housekeeper, marketer, fundraiser, director, actor, choreographer, all that. But I personally feel that it's critical to have your operational staff in place before you really worry about the art. There are so many talented people in the city that don't run theaters or aren't locked into one institution that are willing to come and direct. I think that variety of directorial styles is interesting. There were times when I directed every show in a season. And I thought, 'Boy, this is counter-productive, not only because it's exhausting me, but it's also taking away my appreciation of the process, and I love directing.' So I started talking to other directors, saying, 'Hey, is there a project you'd really love to do that you haven't been able to do because you couldn't find a venue?' So we started putting together our seasons in that way; taking lots of recommendations from board members and other artists. And I think that's been very productive and very collaborative.
It's interesting how people go: Oh, that is your theater. I say, 'No, it's not my theater; it belongs to the community.' I founded it. I had the pleasure and the pain of working here for 25, almost 26 years. I hope the theater does well. I wish them well and hope that they stay afloat. In terms of the types of shows that they do, that's going to be up to someone else. I would like to see them continue to be an off-Broadway playhouse and do the things that you would not see in Indianapolis if we didn't do them. It's what sets us apart — and also what holds us in disfavor with some of the funding organizations in town. So you have that balancing act there of walking the tightrope between the traditional and the new.
NUVO: What's your take on the future of the Indy theater scene? Its strengths and weaknesses?
Spencer: I have to say that the more conservative theater element in the grander houses — I think they're pretty much set. They do what they do and more power to them. It's just too museum-like to me, especially now that I'm writing. As a writer it's hard for me to say, 'Yeah, we have to keep doing Neil Simon every season. We have to have Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe.' No, you don't! There are new people out there, and unless you encourage those new voices, they're not going to keep putting it out there. You can only throw your pearls before a swine for so long before you say, 'What a minute; I'll just hold on to the pearls. I might be able to hock 'em!
I worry a little bit because it seems like there are quite a few little groups all over the place that, yes, may have a talented spearheading individual or two involved — but I hope they're not premature in terms of expecting the talent pool here to withstand that amount of production, and the audiences here to support that quantity of newer, more experimental theater.
NUVO: How have you tried to balance your professional and personal life?
Spencer: I've had several long-term relationships in my life, and I have to say that theater has really taken a toll on pretty much all of them. To most of these gentlemen who've gone on their way, I've said, 'Well, when did you fall in love with me? What do you love about me?' You saw me in this show or you met me in this theater. That's part of what you loved about me. And now you want me to give that up to watch WWE on Channel 4 at home with you at night? I don't think so. It's just not my thing. I said, 'Why don't you try getting a night job, second shift, so that you'll be getting to work about the time that I have to go to rehearsals, and when I'm getting out of rehearsals, you'll be getting off and we can have time together.
It's interesting because people don't consider theater real in a way. They don't consider it legitimate work. They have no idea how taxing on every single level theater is. The brain challenges of selecting and interpreting material, choosing the people that you want to help establish that particular work of art. Building the sets and lights, the props and the costumes. Worrying about marking and people coming. It's a very taxing, taxing business — and when you're a small operation like Theatre on the Square has been, and it has fallen squarely on this set of shoulders you're looking at for a number of years, it's certainly taken a toll. But it's also given me a tremendous sense of accomplishment, a sense of artistic freedom, a desire to go on and write. My means of continuing the artform is writing.