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Bill Wilkison: Theater as escape hatch

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After 20 years in retail, Bill Wilkison decided it was time for a change. The Indy theater scene was his escape hatch. Fearless and versatile, Wilkison has established himself in short order in productions by Q Artistry, Main Street Artists, Acting Up Productions, NoExit Performance, Hoosier Bard and more. In the coming months, Wilkison will perform in Theatre Non Nobis' Raft of Medusa and NoExit Performance's The Nutcracker. And he continues to work on behalf of the Cathleen Casazza Memorial Fund established in his late wife's honor to benefit the Muncie Civic Theater. Here's his story.

NUVO: I see, through my Facebook stalking of you, that you attended Ball State. What did you study?

Wilkison: I started at Ball State in 1987 in telecommunications. And I abruptly changed my major to theater. I spent four years at Ball State and then made my way to Chicago. It was early in the '90s, and there were a lot of opportunities. I found a home in the underground theater scene. There were a lot of theaters in basements and backrooms, cellars of restaurants, just all sorts of places. Any place people could find a space they were putting on live theater. I ended up in a place called Café Voltaire. I worked there for several years on different shows, working as an actor, a director, a writer. We tried to raise money to keep it going. Unfortunately, it turns out that we did not raise enough.

NUVO: And you moved to Indianapolis in 2005. Why?

Wilkison: Originally I'm from Merrillville, Ind. I met my wife at Ball State, and we went to Chicago. I was working retail at the time. When all is said and done, I spent 20 years in retail. I relocated because I was opening a store here in Indianapolis: Crate and Barrel. I opened the one at the Fashion Mall in 2005. And that's when the story gets interesting.

NUVO: How so?

Wilkison: In January of 2006, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the next three years that proved to be a challenge. You know, therapies and so forth, her dealing with breast cancer. She had been acting all through her treatment. She spent three years with cancer. No remission, she was on her 14th different type of treatment when she died. All through that time she was doing theater in her hometown at the Muncie Civic Theater. That's where she grew up doing theater. It was her passion, her love. So I was sort of out of theater at that time supporting her. And when she passed, I knew at that moment that my time at Crate and Barrel was limited. That I was going to throw myself back into the theater, which is also my passion.

Wilkison, second from right, appeared in Q Artistry's recent Brothers Grimm-inspired production ZirkusGrimm.
  • Wilkison, second from right, appeared in Q Artistry's recent Brothers Grimm-inspired production ZirkusGrimm.

NUVO: How has her death informed you as an artist?

Wilkison: It definitely was a wakeup call that life is short, and you need to follow your passion. That was really the writing on the wall. I literally threw myself into that passion whole-heartedly, fearlessly. Luckily there has been a great amount of opportunities in Indianapolis to catch that free fall I embarked on. I've landed and worked with many of these small theater companies in town who are doing big things. Also, in a sentimental way, every time I walk into a theater of any type, to me, it's become somewhat of a church. That's where I feel my late wife's spirit is.

NUVO: Since taking that leap, what have been some of your favorite projects?

Wilkison: I recently was in Our Experiences During the First Days of Alligators written by David Hoppe and produced by NoExit Performance. And I am now the newest member of NoExit Performance. That experience was by far something that really made me at home. The way that they work I understood immediately. The joke is that for me there is now a time before Alligators and a time after Alligators.

NUVO: And how do you expect this time after Alligators to unfold?

Wilkison: I have a lot of things in the works. By day I will be working at Conner Prairie as an actor-interpreter. By night, obviously, devoting time to NoExit Performance. And on the weekends I am also a player at ComedySportz. That has been a great learning experience - being allowed to improvise with that family every week.

NUVO: And you did a Fringe show with Main Street Artists: Menagerie Macabre: Theater du Grand Gugniol?

Wilkison: It's French and it literally translates to "big puppet." We begin where we left off last year with Cabaret Absinthe. It's based on a theater that started in France over 100 years ago. The focus was the horror show, the special effects, the thrill and suspense of seeing horror shows on stage. It lasted for over half a century. It's such a fascinating era of naturalistic theater, which is what I love. It just captivated me.

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