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Region theatre is deeply rooted at IU Northwest

From the original theatre built in 1959, to the upcoming gem on Broadway, the performing arts continue to enhance lives, open minds

Wednesday May 31, 2017

In September of 2008, when unrelenting rains pummeled the region, the water slowly creeped into the auditorium at Indiana University Northwest’s Tamarack Hall, submerging the orchestra pit and the first six rows.

As the water rose, hearts sank.

The late Garrett Cope perhaps best summed up the feeling that pervaded the campus and theatre community for years to come.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever have a theatre like that,” the prior theatre director had lamented just months before the building’s demolition.

Tragic as it was, the loss heightened awareness of the significance of theatre and its impact in the region. As the campus looks forward to the August 25 opening of its replacement theatre, a look back reveals the deep roots of theater at IU Northwest.

A theatre, and a community of artists, was born

In 1961, two years after Indiana University gave its Northwest Indiana satellite campus a new building in Gary known as the “Gary Center of Indiana University,” Robert Foor, an IU Northwest alumnus, founded the Performing Arts Department and Theatre Northwest. The new, modern building, which was later renamed Tamarack Hall, came with a beautiful 600-seat auditorium.

Documents housed at the Calumet Region Archives at IU Northwest cited Theatre Northwest’s first performance as “Bell, Book and Candle.” In those early days, a ticket cost $1.50 and as many as six productions per year was typical. Clearly, theatre was respected and support and enthusiasm for the theatre program was high.

The early years

However, memos from the Calumet Region Archives suggest that the theatre program began to struggle in the mid- to late-1960s.

Letters between Foor and then-Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences John Buhner hinted at challenges facing the theatre program. In 1968, for example, they considered reducing the number of productions to two per season, perhaps because the student population was made up of mostly part-time students, which could not sustain the theatre on its own.

Never backing down from its challenges, IU Northwest remained committed to the arts. One thing it did in response was to begin welcoming public auditions, community performances and private events, opening it up to the region even more. IU Northwest Professor Emeritus of History James Lane remembers seeing Jimmy Carter at the auditorium, eventually named Tamarack Hall, in 1976. Jesse Jackson also spoke there when he was running for president, Lane said, probably around 1984.

A renaissance

In 1978, Foor resigned as department chair, and Garrett Cope succeeded him for the next eight years, directing and designing many of the costumes for such popular musicals as “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Hello, Dolly.” He also wrote scripts for children’s productions, which attracted students from area elementary schools. 

“One year, we brought in 28,000 students by putting on as many as 21 productions of a single show,” recalled longtime faculty member Jerry Taylor, who became department chair in 1986, a post he held for 14 years. In total, Taylor served the theatre department for 30 years.

Clearly, by this time, Theatre Northwest had experienced a resurgence, with at least 30 students majoring in Performing Arts in the late 1990s. Five to six productions were staged per academic year, plus a musical in the summer. One production, Taylor remembered, had a cast of 42 players and a highlight was a cast trip to The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Columbus, Ohio. to perform “All My Sons,” by Arthur Miller. Theatre Northwest was one of only six companies to be invited.

As a testament to the theater’s impact in the region, an active philanthropic group helped fund expenses that box office sales could not cover and kicked-off each season with a champagne event to thank its donors.

Flood brings setbacks and a new ‘normal’

When the 2008 flood destroyed the home of Theatre Northwest, the theater department suddenly found itself with nowhere to rehearse and nowhere to have their performances. Their next production, Death of a Salesman,” was just months away.

Still, they found a way, pulling off a successful show at the Towle Theater in Hammond in February of 2009, and continuing to stage productions for the next three years without a permanent home.

In 2011, IU Northwest rented a building a few blocks away on Grant Street in Gary and called it “Arts on Grant.” In addition, the university turned a former video store into a black box theater. This type of performance space is thought to foster more intimate theater experience in a simple, unadorned room with black walls and a flat floor.

For Mark Baer, the Theatre Northwest director that followed Taylor, operating out of a temporary space offered different opportunities for training. Performing in a black box theatre, for instance, can be more demanding and requires more refined acting skills than that of larger venues.

A bright future

In spite of its challenges, Theatre Northwest’s legacy of strength carries on and the arts will continue to remain a cornerstone of an IU Northwest experience.

Baer, now positioned firmly at the cusp of Theatre Northwest’s reimagined future, has much to be excited about. The number of theatre majors is on the way up, due in part to providing current students with more frequent and personal advising, and recruitment visits to area high schools.

“We have the largest and most passionate group of students in the theatre department since I’ve been here,” Baer said. “It’s crazy how much artistic energy there is in the department and all around Gary right now.”

Katherine Arfken, associate professor of theatre, highlighted additional factors attracting new students to the program.

“Working in a building that houses all of our production facilities under one roof will help to create the collaborative environment that is such a vital part of a strong theatre program,” Arfken said. “Access to the newest lighting and sound technology will help attract new students and prepare them for the professional world after graduation.”

Tamarack Hall’s replacement building, a $45 million three-story modern marvel, now occupies a full city block on Broadway Avenue. The auditorium within the new Arts & Sciences building is one of the building’s most exciting features.

“The state-of-the-art theatre technology within the facility is integral to providing a theater education that is second-to-none for our students,” Baer said. “The department is looking at new ways to provide professional theater training that is equal to that of the most respected -- and most expensive -- programs in the region. The community may notice more challenging productions that require more intense and longer rehearsals.”

So to Garrett Cope’s point: No Garrett, we will never have a theatre quite like that.

And that’s okay. Better, in fact. 

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