whatzup2nite • Monday, Nov. 30

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Things To Do

Fantasy of Lights Drive-thru holiday light event featuring over 70 animated light displays depicting holiday scenes; horse drawn carriage rides available Friday-Sunday, 6-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 6-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday thru Dec. 31, Franke Park, Fort Wayne, $5 per car, $10 per 15 passenger van, $25 per bus or trolley, 744-1900

Festival of Trees— More than 55 trees decorated for the holiday season by local artists and businesses, Santa Land and Animated Holiday Windows, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30 (family photo night, $50 per family); 9 a.m.- 1 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Dec. 1-2;  (family photo night and Fort Wayne Children’s Choir sing-along, 5-9 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 2, $50 per family), Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne, $3-$7, 800-745-3000

National Shows

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Music & Comedy

Kings Road — Variety at Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 432-8966

Karaoke & DJs

American Idol Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 483-5526

Mantra Karaoke w/Jake — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038

Stage & Dance

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Art & Artifacts

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Featured Events

Fort Wayne Dance Collective — Workshops and classes for movement, dance, yoga and more offered by Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Fort Wayne, fees vary, 424-6574

IPFW Community Arts AcademyArt, dance, music and theater classes for grades pre-K through 12 offered by IPFW College of Visual and Performing Arts, fees vary, 481-6977, www.ipfw.edu/caa

Sweetwater Academy of Music — Private lessons for a variety of instruments available from professional instructors, ongoing weekly lessons, Sweetwater Sound, Fort Wayne, call for pricing, 432-8176, academy.sweetwater.com


Festival of Trees

More and Merrier

Warm Winter Wishes await you at the Festival of Trees. What are warm winter wishes? What is the festival of trees? If either of these questions popped into your head when reading this, you’ve either had your head in an igloo the past 31 years or your house overlooks Whoville. Warm Winter Wishes is the theme of the 31st Annual Festival of Trees. The Festival of Trees is the flagship event of the Embassy Theatre during which people from all walks of life ooh and aah at the amazingly creative and beautifully decorated Christmas trees that fill the lobbies of the theater and the adjacent Indiana Hotel. Along with the Night of Lights, the Festival of Trees is the most popular holiday season event Fort Wayne has. Last year more than 19,000 people strolled past the 59 trees in the two lobbies and took part in the many events the festival has to offer. This year there’s even more to love. In addition to Santa and wreaths and singing and wassailing, there is a special night for families wanting to preserve their Festival of Trees memories in the form of an 8-by-10 photo. According to marketing director Barb Richards, Family Photo Night makes getting that perfect group shot a snap. “People really want to get pictures but it’s really hard to do during the festival,” Richards said. “For a variety of reasons you can’t really stop the line to get a great shot, so we decided to dedicate a night. We will have a photographer set up on the stage, and when they come in, each family wanting a photo will be given a time ticket. When it’s their time they will report to the stage to have their photo taken. We’re limiting it to 100 families, and they’ll get their photo that night.” Family Photo Night is Monday, November 30 from 5 to 9 p.m. Tickets for Family Photo Night are $50 per family and can be purchased from the Embassy box office. November 30 is also Senior day, which runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The other new thing this year happens Wednesday, December 2. It’s a community sing-along with the seven ensembles of the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir. The different groups from the choir will lead the audience in rousing renditions of favorite holiday tunes. “People coming that night are going to get a 90-minute performance with the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir,” Richards said. “They can do the Festival of Trees before, after and during the concert if they like. It’s just very exciting to hear these young voices throughout the Embassy Theatre.” Also on December 2 is Festival of Trees Tots and Trees Day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with Holiday Photo Fun on Stage featuring Anna and Elsa, the Jedi Knights. “Icy and the Mad Ant will be here as well,” Richards said. “And we’ve got a Peppa Pig stand-up so kids can put their faces through get their pictures taken. We encourage lots of picture taking. It’s a spectacular time for the Embassy to shine.” The Festival of Trees exists thanks to serendipity and hard work. Back in 1984 a board member was talking with her neighbor about ways to utilize the theater. “A board member named Maryellen Rice was looking around the theater and thinking we’ve got to find some way to come up with some money because this theater’s a pit,” Richards said. “And it was. It took a lot of repair to get it back and going. This was in ’84. So she talked to her neighbor, Barb Wigum. Barb was the general manager at channel 21. And she had just come back from a festival of trees in Erie, Pennsylvania. She thought it would work really well for the Embassy.” So board members visited similar festivals and decided to go for it. Thirty-one years later Festival of Trees is the Embassy’s biggest fundraiser of the year, WPTA 21-Alive is still a sponsor and the theater is anything but a pit. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that a love of tradition at Christmas time has helped make the Embassy the jewel that it is. Special events director Kyle Snare said the format of the festival has changed over the years to include more corporate sponsorship to help support the cost of the event. But the holiday spirit of regular people has not diminished. “For a while the decorators would auction trees, and that was how they funded it,” Snare said. “Now we look for corporate sponsors to come in and offset the cost. Some of those sponsors have people within their organizations that decorate the trees. Then there are separate Christmas-loving folk that just love to decorate trees, so we connect them with a sponsor. There are some families that just love to do it. Some have been decorating trees here for three generations. They just love it.” What’s not to love? With the 12-foot tall, decorated Christmas trees comes all sorts of other holiday bonuses. A big bearded guy from the North Pole for one. Breakfast with Santa has been another long-lived tradition at the Embassy. The three days of Breakfast with Santa have already sold out, but Santa will be on hand to listen to wish lists and let loose a few jolly ho-ho-hos. And of course there are the decorated windows of the Indiana Hotel on Harrison Street. Richards said the Embassy has borrowed some of the original Wolf & Dessauer animatronic figures from the History Center for the display. Tickets to the Festival of Trees includes a $2 off coupon for the Indiana Artisan Holiday Marketplace at the Grand Wayne Center on November 28 and 29. The Embassy is a stop on the Holly Trolley Tour on November 28, so savvy shoppers can pick up gift items from the theater gift shop. Festival of Trees is open Thanksgiving Day as well, from 4 to 8 p.m. “It’s a great thing to do with your out of town guests,” Richards said. It’s a really peaceful way to spend a couple of hours. People love everything about the whole holiday season in downtown Fort Wayne. And the Festival of Trees was the catalyst in starting those events.”

Mark Hunter

Last Comic Standing

NBC’s Last Comic Standing is the definition of a tough room. Week after week, comics compete against each other in front of a live studio audience, whose members get to up-vote those they think show promise and down-vote those they want to send home. It’s not your grandmother’s living room, in other words. In order to advance in the competition, you have to be not only funny, but quick on your feet and demonstrate clear potential in a field that is notoriously fickle. The five comics coming to Wabash’s Honeywell Center Wednesday, December 2 as part of the Last Comic Standing Live Tour are the proverbial cream that rose to the top in the show’s most current season. Comedy fans will have a chance to hear the unique comic stylings of Wabash’s own Michael Palascak, as well as Dominique, Clayton English, Andy Erickson and Ian Bagg. Hoosiers might be particularly interested in Palascak’s performance, given that his routines often touch on his Midwestern roots and his choice to pursue a life in comedy from the safety of his parents’ basement. In addition to his work on Last Comic Standing, he’s performed on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman. Now’s your chance to see him at a nice, normal time, aka 7:30 p.m.

The Piano Guys

Sensations of YouTube

Pursuing a career in music, or in other areas of the arts, can be daunting, And risky, if eating is a habit you wish to maintain. So it’s not surprising that Jon Schmidt, the talented pianist from the YouTube sensation The Piano Guys, was not in a hurry to pursue his passion for music professionally. In fact, he notes that concern in his bio, which states, “Schmidt worried about a career in music. He worried that his family would think that sheet music does not taste good with ranch dressing, so in college he studied English with plans to get an MBA.” But ironically, it was after he got married that he decided to take that risk. “It was a joint decision that my wife and I made together,” says Schmidt. “I had been playing at fundraisers for schools and fun things on the side like recordings. I did a lot of things here locally in Utah, and I did a series of benefit concerts in Washington D.C. for the homeless, and people started buying my cassette that I had put out. We decided I should try doing it for a year to see what happened. It just felt right.” Schmidt managed to pay the bills through regular gigs like weddings, and his knack for composition provided money through the sale of sheet music, which apparently wasn’t required as a canvas for ranch dressing after all. But it was his collaboration with cellist Steven Sharp Nelson that was to ultimately push him into a much higher stratosphere than he could have possibly imagined. “I started having him come play at some of my shows about 20 years ago. Then we started collaborating much more about eight or nine years ago. It really took off when I put a microphone in from of him at a concert, and he is incredibly comedic. He made me laugh out loud, and he was a big hit with the audience.” They continued to work together more and more, but it was about 10 years ago that they found a vital piece to the puzzle: videographer Paul Anderson who was the first to suggest that they put some videos on a new thing called YouTube. “He was looking for creative ways to promote his piano store, and he suggested we make some videos and put them on his YouTube channel and billed us as ‘The Piano Guys.’ He really did some research about how to use YouTube, and he had some insane ideas about what we could do in the videos. At that point, I figured we were just doing Paul a favor, helping him with his piano store. But we started seeing this as a win-win for everyone.” Around this same time, Nelson also picked up an electric cello which had an additional string, providing a range that included cello to violin pitches. He also began experimenting with ways to produce new sounds with the cello, which Schmidt said provided “20 to 30 new textures that we were able to incorporate into our music.” A video of “Viva La Vida” became an internet sensation even before social media sites like Facebook made sharing such links immediate. But through a growing network of fans who shared the link via email, the word got out, and The Piano Guys were a hit. Unfortunately, without rights to “Viva La Vida,” they had to pull the video. Ditto when they tried to post a medley of Michael Jackson songs. But they had figured out how to sidestep such roadblocks. “The Michael Jackson medley was a cool arrangement, but since we couldn’t perform it, we added some original music to it and changed it so it didn’t sound like Michael Jackson to anyone and called it ‘Michael Meets Mozart.’” The gambit worked. “Michael Meets Mozart” now has almost 24 million views on YouTube. And their good fortune didn’t stop there. A fortuitous meeting took place when Nelson helped a neighbor carry boxes into his new home. That neighbor happened to have a recording studio, and suddenly The Piano Guys were now about to record audio as well as video. They broadened their musical ability by experimenting further with percussive sounds Nelson, who also plays kick drum, was able to discover on his acoustic and electric cellos. Such experimentation was possible thanks to their free studio time. Everything was coming together far better than Schmidt might have imagined when he took that year to try out music professionally. But that doesn’t mean he thinks everyone should put all their eggs into one career basket. “Music is one of those careers where you have to have a backup plan. You have to have some alternative way to make money. I was able to pay my bills playing at weddings and giving piano lessons. If you pursue two careers, then you have something to fall back on if things don’t work out. The only real formula for success is lucky breaks. My career developed over many years and has been a series of happy accidents that I never could have counted on.” One of those happy accidents came when they were discovered by Shelley Ross, then the executive producer of Good Morning, America. An appearance on that show not only provided an immediate boost to their profile, but Ross’s husband, David Simone, is a music executive and manager. Although The Piano Guys had intentionally avoided the hassles of a record company contract, Simone encouraged them to let him find one. They ultimately landed a lucrative contract with Sony Music. Recent concerts in Red Rocks and Carnegie Hall were recorded, and The Piano Guys continue to stay busy writing, recording and touring. But Schmidt says that all of them are mindful to balance their success with family. “There is so much going on, and we don’t know how to do all the stuff we have the opportunity to do. But we’re all family men – we have 16 kids between us – and if we’re performing too much, we can’t do that right. Our productions could be a full-time job and performing could be a full-time job and doing our videos could be a full-time job. We just have to find the right balance so we can still spend enough time with our families.”

Michele DeVinney

The Queers

The Queers are proof that three-chord, three-man punk is here to stay. Around since the 80s and, as far as we can tell, not about to ride off into the sunset anytime soon, Joe Queer and company – aka Dangerous Dave and Lurch Nobody – are going strong and fixing to rock the Brass Rail Thursday, December 3. Flamingo Nosebleed and the Snarks will open the show. Having got their start in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1981, the Queers have about as many former and fill-in members as Brian Wilson had grains of sand in his study, but the current lineup has been together for nine years and has put out two studio albums together – 2007’s Munki Brain and 2010’s Back to the Basement. They’ve also six-handedly helped keep pop punk alive, for which their legions of head-banging fans are eternally grateful. Often known to cover the Beach Boys and the Ramones, the Queers have an impressive catalogue of originals, including “Squid Omelet” and “Booberella” (off 1990’s Grow Up) and “I Can’t Stop Farting,” “Granolahead” and “Monster Zero” (off 1993’s Love Songs for the Retarded). Their music is irreverent – duh, punk – and shot through with a wicked/puerile sense of humor. Grow up? No thanks.

Johnny A.

Have Gibson, Will Travel

When I caught up with Boston-based guitar guru Johnny A, he was walking down L.A.’s Ventura Boulevard, in search of a Starbucks. It was his 64th birthday, and he hoped to score something special at the famous – and lately infamous – coffee roaster. “You know this whole cup thing?” he said. “They just better have birthday cups. That’s all I’m saying.” Johnny A, i.e. Johnny Antonopoulos, was in Los Angeles as part of his stint with the Yardbirds, who’ve been touring the country since October. He’d played with the Yardbirds – the band that launched not only Jeff Beck but Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton – a time or two, but this was his first chance to tour with the band (now led by founding drummer Jim McCarty), and he said it was a dream come true. After all, Beck is one of Antonopoulos’s main influences, and he grew up listening to the Beatles and the Yardbirds and other acts labeled, on this side of the pond anyway, as British invasion. “It’s been great, being on the road with these guys,” he said. “We’ve had strong attendance at all of the shows and the enthusiasm is definitely there. Fans are having fun, singing along with all the old songs.” Once the Yardbirds tour is through, Johnny A will get back on the bus, this time headed for the Midwest. His tour stops at Fort Wayne’s C2G Music Hall Friday, December 4, when he’ll take the stage with a small band. Johnny A is often described as a “guitarist extraordinaire” and a “guitar god.” Back in the 70s and 80s when he was fronting Boston bands like The Streets and Hearts on Fire, he also used to sing, but a bad bout of bronchitis/laryngitis put an end to his singing career, and he refocused his energies on his guitar playing, determined to channel his voice through six strings rather than two cords. His project was to create melodic instrumental music, tunes so catchy yet complex you wouldn’t even miss the lyrics and, while doing so, not to fall prey to the temptation to show off or become just another shredder. “All of the music that’s influenced me, or 90 percent of it at least, is vocal-based,” he said. “They’re good songs and they’re sung well and so they stay with me. I can be wowed by fantastic musicianship and instrumental prowess, but eventually that kind of stuff wears off for me and I go back to songs with a strong melody. And that’s the inspiration for what I do. I want my guitar to act as a vocalist, for the melodies to come through like lyrics, like words.” One listen to Johnny A’s radio hit “Oh Yeah” off his 1999 album Sometime Tuesday Morning and it’s clear that he achieved that goal. You almost forget no one’s speaking because the guitar has so much to say. I asked Johnny A to describe his sound,which critics often claim is an amalgam of jazz, rock, soul and Chet Atkins-style country. “It’s kind of like being in the eye of the hurricane. It’s difficult from my perspective to see what is achieved. I’m always looking out. I’ve been listening to myself play guitar for 50 years, so I don’t necessarily see anything unique. I guess my sound is a mixture of all my influences – of Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix. People tell me, though, that they know it’s me from a note or two, which is good, I guess. You want to have an identifiable sound.” If you’re Johnny A, you also want to write a lot of songs, and he’s certainly done just that. With four solo studio albums to his credit, including his most recent effort, Driven, Johnny A has kept himself busy composing and honing his signature sound. Driven, in particular, is a study in what makes him tick. After spending some time trying to record the album with a band, he realized he wanted to go ahead and play all the instruments himself, make a sort of one-man-band album. For someone who’s been playing the drums since he was six and the guitar since he was 11, it ended up being less about labor and more about love. “At the time I was building a recording studio, and I was throwing down lots of ideas, just spit-balling, and I liked the sound best when I was doing it myself. It was what I wanted to accomplish stylistically, so I went with it.” Johnny A hasn’t always worked alone. Prior to his time as a solo artist, he played alongside Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominos fame and Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band. Such session and touring work helped him do what many guitarists only dream of: make a living as a musician. Then, after the groups disbanded, he had the freedom to carve his own path. He’s also in the enviable position of having a Gibson guitar designed and named for him. Their second-best selling model, it’s been on the market for 13 years, and Johnny A often conducts clinics for Gibson, advising aspiring guitarists about technique, style and gear. What, pray tell, is the advice he finds himself repeating most often? “Become lawyers,” he joked. “Or doctors. Although, if you’re a doctor, that can get tricky. At least if you’re a lawyer and you don’t do your job well, no one dies.”

Deborah Kennedy

Fort Wayne Ballet

Sweetness & Light & More

  Although they stage numerous other productions each year, it is The Nutcracker that has put Fort Wayne Ballet front and center over the years, establishing them as the premier dance academy of northeast Indiana. A special part of the city’s expanding holiday traditions, The Nutcracker is an international tradition at the holidays and has been embraced by this area’s festive citizens for decades. Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive and artistic director at Fort Wayne Ballet for almost 20 years, understands the public’s affection for it as well as its importance to keeping classic dance in the spotlight. “I love The Nutcracker. It’s such a great, magical piece, and it’s a great entry point for people to appreciate what we do. People embrace the sweetness and light of it, but it was also the intent of the storyteller, E.T.A. Hoffman, to show the evils that children face. He was telling this story in the 1800s, and all you have to do to see it now is to look at the front page of a newspaper. But the story is great theatre and provides a nice piece of escapism.” The cast for The Nutcracker is huge (230 performers in two casts this year) and reflects a wide range of dancers. The ballet’s professional company now employs nine dancers, four of them men. That alone signals the growth of the organization and its men’s program, a significant shift from the days when FWB had to hire male dancers to round out their casts. The production also includes the ballet’s performing-level students, younger students and even dancers from outside their Academy. One dancer is commuting from Ohio for rehearsals and performances, just for the opportunity to dance with Fort Wayne’s best.   Some of the local talent will also be seen in productions around the country this year, evidence that the Academy’s graduates and current students are ready to shine elsewhere. Talbot Rue, who as a young performer at FWB was often cast as the Nutcracker Prince, is now dancing the part in Richmond while Gibbons-Brown says two other students will be performing in Nutcracker productions in Wisconsin. “Many of our dancers are starting to move onto the next level. I’d love to do a series of stories of ‘Where Are They Now?’ to find out where some of our former students and dancers are. Some are dancers in other companies, and some have moved on to success in other areas. Maybe next year as we celebrate our 60th anniversary, we can find out what those students have accomplished since they left here.” Aside from the dancing, there are set and costume needs to be met, and while there are already pieces put aside from previous productions, Gibbons-Brown makes sure that all parts of the show, including props as well, are refurbished and replaced as needed to maintain the luster of the show. Following the recent retirement of longtime costumer Tess Heet, the ballet has several volunteers and professional seamstresses to address those issues, and the headpieces have been redone, providing, Gibbons-Brown promises, “literally a different sparkle.” Over the years several innovations have kept the show fresh, providing new wrinkles to the tradition. One of the most popular of these has been the snow, not only that which falls on stage but a sprinkling which falls over the audience at the end of the Act I. This year’s twist comes in the cast, where a special opportunity may await a member of the audience. “This year we’re adding a guest party child,” says Gibbons-Brown. “Before each performance, I’ll go out to the lobby area and find a girl to join us on stage during the party scene. No dancing will be required since she’ll be sitting on the sofa with the grandparents throughout the scene. What I’ll be looking for is a girl of a certain size, maybe between the ages of 10 and 12, because we have a dress, and she’ll need to fit into that dress ... I’ll be looking for a girl and, with her parents’ permission, she’ll be part of our cast for that scene and then will be returned to the audience to enjoy the rest of the show.” One returning element, one which has become very popular and has brought national attention to Fort Wayne Ballet’s staging of The Nutcracker, will be the “Muttcrackers,” adoptable dogs who join the cast and then are available for visiting in the lobby following the first act. Dozens of pets have found new homes in time for the holidays thanks to the program, and Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control has seen foot traffic increase during those weeks thanks to the exposure of the production. Other companies have followed the ballet’s lead, and last year the Fort Wayne Philharmonic had a similar program, Holiday Pops Pups, adding to success. Contributing to the community has long been part of the Fort Wayne Ballet mission, and one of the company’s other traditions, the collection of stuffed animals for the Fort Wayne Police Department to distribute to children in need, has been particularly successful. In fact, Gibbons-Brown recently saw the program in action. “I was sitting in my backyard awhile back and heard a loud crash followed by children screaming. I ran to see what had happened, and there was a car that had crashed with a couple of young kids in the back. An ambulance came and the police, and while they were tending to the mother, the police gave the children stuffed animals from the ones we had collected last year. I still start to cry when I think about it. I found myself playing with those stuffed animals with the kids in the back of the ambulance and was able to see this program we’ve been doing for years in action.” While these other pieces of their mission bring joy in different ways, it has been The Nutcracker which has brought holiday joy for many years and will continue for many more. With the first three performances featuring the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, led by Andrew Constantine, and the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir, helmed by Jonathan Busarow, there will be nine performances in total plus school shows keeping them busy for 10 solid days. There are also Sugar Plum Parties following the matinees and, for those looking for unique presents to bestow, a gift shop which this year includes handmade Keepsake Shoes, pointe shoes decorated to reflect characters in The Nutcracker. With so much involved, Gibbons-Brown admits that the work leading up to this annual production is intense, but it’s also worth the effort. “I’m grateful to be part of this community’s annual holiday tradition. Our production has become a brand, and we’re all really humbled and flattered to be embraced by this area the way we have.”

Michele DeVinney

Exit Laughing

Laughing All the Way

A really well written, high quality Christmas show is incredibly difficult to find. Trust me. Arena’s play reading committee, on which I serve, has read them all! In searching for shows for our current season, I came across a script by playwright Paul Elliott entitled Exit Laughing. By the time I had finished reading it, I knew I wanted to direct it and slate it as our holiday offering this year. The play centers around four long-time friends who, for the past 30 years, have gotten together once a week for bridge. When one of the foursome inconveniently dies, what do you do? If you’re Connie (Molly McCray), Leona (Donna Frey) and Millie (Becky Niccum), you break into the funeral home and “borrow” your friend’s ashes for one last game of bridge that erupts into the wildest night of your lives, complete with a police raid, a male stripper (Kevin Boner) and a thoroughly embarrassed daughter (Gloria Minnich). By the end of the show, the three women have a whole new way of looking at life and all the fun you can have when you’re truly living. Yes, I’m aware that this doesn’t sound at all like a traditional Christmas show. Again, you’ll have to trust me when I say that not only is it hysterically funny (my cast of seasoned theater veterans still can’t get through an entire rehearsal without breaking up), but the message that this show imparts about living your life to the fullest and, when your time comes, to exit this life laughing is a message that everyone needs to be reminded of from time to time. To quote the character of Connie, “Tonight was an adventure, and I want a million more. I don’t want to ever have a red dress in my closet I didn’t wear. It’s all the way. Nothing less. To life!” I know that’s how I wish to live my life and, at this holiday season, it’s what I wish for all of you. Arena is also very happy to be partnering on this show with the Allen County SPCA. Making their stage debut in our production as Butter Butt the cat is an adorable, adoptable feline from their facility. If you would like to give a shelter animal a home for the holidays, we will be very happy to arrange that for you with the help of Jessica Henry and her staff from the ACSPCA! So come and spend some time with us at Arena Dinner Theatre over the holidays. I can promise that you won’t be disappointed you did and that you’ll exit the theater laughing!

Brian H. Wagner

Fantasy of Lights

38,000 Points of Light

There are two things most people need more of in their lives: light and fantasy. Well guess what? For six weeks beginning on Wednesday, November 25, ample quantities of each will be available thanks to the 21st Annual Fantasy of Lights at Franke Park. Some 50,000 people drove the 1.5 mile Fantasy loop through Franke Park last year. And while they came to marvel at the world of lights and winter spirit, it’s possible only a fraction knew the good their entry fee was doing throughout the community. This year things are a bit different, at least behind the scenes. After 20 years under the direction of AWS Foundation Fantasy of Lights has a new host, Blue Jacket Inc. Blue Jacket is a 10-year-old organization dedicated to helping local disadvantaged residents get back on their feet through job training and career counseling. According to Blue Jacket events coordinator Natasha Kennedy, the change from AWS to Blue Jacket has been seamless and welcomed. “AWS have had it for 20 years, and Lynne Gilmore, executive director of AWS, has a good partnership with Blue Jacket. She noticed that we didn’t have one big fundraiser, so she decided to give it to us this year,” Kennedy said. “We’re thrilled to accept the event. It’s a community favorite and a family tradition. Here at Blue Jacket we’re all about the community and how we can help so we accepted with open arms. We are more than happy to continue the tradition in Fort Wayne of the Fantasy of Lights.” And what a tradition it is. With the theme of Light up Your Silent Night, Fantasy of Lights 2015 promises to deliver all of the spirit and warmth of the season for $5 a carload ($10 for 15-passenger vans and $25 for buses and trolleys). The Fantasy of Lights is part Christmas celebration, part winter wonderland, part lighted artistic magic and all amazing. As a concept, Fantasy of Lights works on a couple of levels. First and most obvious is the imaginary land where passing vehicles cause lights to turn on and off, where Cinderella shares space with Snoopy and where sequenced lights give movement to stationary objects. More seriously, the dream for many people is to live independently in a home paid for by their own hard work, to have light in their lives to alleviate the darkness of their former existence. The funds raised at the Fantasy of Lights will go a long way toward helping that dream come true every year for up to 300 hundred of our neighbors. “At Blue Jacket we have a four-week career academy,” Kennedy said. “It’s a training program, and that’s where the proceeds are going. Blue Jacket helps disadvantaged people in the community looking for a second chance at employment. The four weeks take you through things like resume building, how to be an employee and how to dress.” Proper dress won’t be an issue for the people in the 17,000 vehicles expected to to wend their way through the park. Snuggled and cozy in their cars, those folks can wear whatever they want, unless of course they want to follow the example of Santa and Mrs. Claus. On opening night, Father and Mother Christmas will ride around the park in a hand-crafted carriage. Viewing the lights from a convertible with the top down would be a chilly yet unfettered way to experience the display. It’s also a good way to show solidarity with the Kringles. The 80 displays, five more than last year, represent the goodwill of 50 area sponsors and the handiwork of a local Christmas-themed company. “We work with Herman’s Christmasland which is in Pierceton,” Kennedy said. “Lincoln Financial are putting a new display in this year. They come to me and say what they’d like; then I work with Herman’s Christmasland and we design it, take it back to Lincoln Financial, they approve it and Herman’s Christmasland build and then it gets taken to Franke Park.” The framework displays built by Herman’s hold some 38,000 LEDs and are assembled and synchronized in a way that simulates movement. For example, Lincoln’s display features polar bears putting up a Christmas tree. Fantasy of Lights is truly a community event. While more than half of the displays are sponsored, Kennedy said, some are given to families who have lost a family member. The rest are simply donated. Then there are the volunteers who brave the Indiana’s capricious weather to help with the event. “A good thing about this year with the changeover is we have volunteers every night,” Kennedy said. “They’re collecting money, handing out programs. We have about 380 volunteers. Midweek we have five to eight and on the weekends about 15.” Blue Jacket has not only has adopted the Fantasy of Lights from AWS, but several years ago they took over AWS’s former location on South Calhoun. With a computer lab, a classroom and numerous counseling rooms, Blue Jacket also has a clothing store where clients can get suits and business attire so when they apply for work they not only have the skills required but they look the part. Named for the great Shawnee war chief Wayapiersenwah (Chief Blue Jacket), Blue Jacket was formed in 2003 and started local operation in 2005 with the mission of giving ex-offenders the tools to become productive member of society. That mission has now grown to include everyone in the community who needs assistance getting back on their feet. For Kennedy, Fantasy of Lights represents an opportunity for members of the community create lasting holiday memories while helping people they don’t even know. “I’m going to be out almost every night taking pictures of cars and families and putting them on our Facebook page,” she said. “The scale of the event and the good that it brings the people of Fort Wayne is impressive.”

Mark Hunter

John Byrne

Taking the Next Step

When Liz Monnier retired as artistic director at Fort Wayne Dance Collective, it was the end of an era. Although Monnier continues to work from an office at the Collective, she handed the reins of her baby, the organization she helped found more than three decades ago, to John Byrne, a talented and accomplished dancer and choreographer who has established himself in all corners of the county. But while he’s still deciding how he wants to make his own mark on the Dance Collective, he is wholeheartedly embracing the mission Monnier set forth from the beginning. Byrne comes to Fort Wayne via North Carolina, where he was born, and New York, where he grew up. His commitment to dance seems to have come at the same time he came into the world. “I started in dance from the moment I can first remember,” says Byrne. “I was always moving, and as a child I would watch MGM movies and see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I think I just knew then that would be my destiny.” There was never any question in Byrne’s mind that dance was his future, his only career goal. “It was my only skill,” he says, laughing. “Growing up, I was very theatrical, and I think as an artist you want to be multifaceted. Usually someone who’s an artist is drawn to more than one thing. I like to think of myself as a Renaissance Man.” His studies took him to the North Carolina School of Arts, the School of American Ballet and Julliard, where he says he focused on modern dance and the great choreographers, including Jose Limon, Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor. Byrne’s first professional job was with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and he recently got a call to rejoin the company for a visit. “I had danced with Paul Taylor Dance Company for four years; then last year they called me and asked me to join them on tour. So, 10 years later, I stepped back in. I thought it would be harder than it was. It was easier than I expected because I think I had the maturity and confidence to be more present in what I was doing. Obviously the physicality becomes more difficult. There are days when I can’t get out of bed because I’m sore, but that comes from dance being such an athletic activity.” Byrne’s talent has put him in some very high profile company beyond the dance world. He was hired to choreograph Elton John’s Las Vegas show, and his collaborations with photographer David LaChapelle had included work with No Doubt, Norah Jones, Joss Stone, Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears. He has also directed a video by Florence + the Machine and worked on a variety of television shows and commercials. “Although I do have a classical background, I enjoyed doing commercials for Sony, Target, H&M, Clinique. I like playing between the fine art world and advertising and commercials. It’s been fun to work as a dancer, choreographer and director in all these different projects. “When I was approached in 2013 to direct the Florence and the Machine video, I had already heard the song ‘Spectrum’ and really liked it, so I was thrilled to direct, or actually co-direct with David LaChapelle, the video for that song. I found a great local dance school in Orange County and used the dancers there for the video, and they were able to provide the costuming. It was a great art project.” Bryne now brings this varied experiences to his work as artistic director at Fort Wayne Dance Collective, and he is happy with the approach the Collective brings to the arts and the openness that is encouraged for those who may not have thought dance was in the cards for them. “What was not mainstream is now mainstream, and people’s minds are opening up to accept the unconventional,” he said. “YouTube is the new source of entertainment. Not that TV is obsolete, but it’s not the No. 1 place for entertainment. Everyone has a voice now, and what makes the Dance Collective so cool is that everyone is qualified to express themselves. When I’ve worked in TV and film, I’ve always used people who are interesting rather than just going with the predictable. I think my role in this organization and in this community is to help people reach their hopes and dreams and express themselves creatively. My interest is in cultivating what has already been established.” While he is still settling into his new position and determining what his plans will be for the Collective down the road, he is getting to know the staff and has Monnier on site to help with the transition. Although he visited Fort Wayne in June to get a feel for his future home, he’s already finding things he loves about his new hometown. “I think this is the quintessential American experience. For me, Fort Wayne offers everything you could want but also has a real intimacy about it.” While Byrne hopes to help establish Fort Wayne Dance Collective outside the borders of Indiana, he also aspires to bring dance to people who may not have ever envisioned themselves dancing. In fact, he says, anyone who brings this article with them to FWDC will be able to take a free dance class to see if dance might be exactly what they need in their life. “I want to bring people out of the woodwork, people who maybe are at home and haven’t moved in awhile. Come here and move in a safe way. This is your home, and my office is open for anyone who wants to come by.”

Michele DeVinney

Legendary Trainhoppers

Back Aboard the Old Train

Roughly a year after the Legendary Trainhoppers performed their last gig, the band’s bassist, Damian Miller, got into trouble with the law. He and his brother were sentenced to prison for robbing a Walgreens pharmacy in Indianapolis. Offers for the band to perform came in thereafter, but Matt Kelley, one of the band’s string players and the current owner of One Lucky Guitar, resisted the urge to reunite. “I felt that the Trainhoppers just don’t play without Damian,” he said. “Even going down the bad path that he did, he was the spiritual center of the band.” Miller was eventually released from prison in early 2013. The following winter, Kelley was in Austin, Texas on a photo shoot when he got a call from his former bandmate, Chris Dodd. “He doesn’t call that often,” Kelley said. “I saw him on my phone and thought, ‘What happened?’” Dodd told Kelley that Miller was dead, killed in an early morning altercation outside a bar. This incomprehensible incident only steeled Kelley’s resolve that the words “The Legendary Trainhoppers” would never again appear on a marquee. The year 2014 turned out to be a difficult one for Kelley beyond what had happened to Miller. His father suffered a stroke and his friend, Denise DeMarchis, fought and ultimately succumbed to cancer. “I started feeling these feelings, especially being around my dad,” he said. “I started feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be in his situation and have regret.’” Just before last Christmas, Kelley shared a stage at an annual holiday show with several ex-Trainhoppers and was reminded of how much he enjoys their musical company. “It was kind of a celebratory thing, that show,” he said. After the performance, Kelley said the Trainhoppers’ former guitarist Phil Potts grabbed him by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “It’s time we made the second Trainhoppers album.” Despite his earlier reluctance, Kelley said, “I was excited immediately … I was suddenly obsessed with the second Trainhoppers album.” And so it came to pass that the members of the Legendary Trainhoppers, one of Fort Wayne’s few genuine supergroups, started batting around musical ideas again after the better part of a decade had passed. A much-delayed and heretofore mothballed follow-up to the Trainhoppers’ debut, Ramble On, should be ready for download and phonograph needle early next year. And the band will perform new and old material the day after Christmas at the B-Side, One Lucky Guitar’s intimate concert venue. More live dates will follow. The creation of album number two has been quite a bit different from the creation of album number one, Kelley said. The band members hadn’t actually written any songs together before now, he said. “It didn’t necessarily end very well for the Trainhoppers,” Kelley said. “That album we made, everybody had kind of brought finished songs to it and then we recorded them.” Ramble On was produced in California by Grammy winner Scott Mathews, a contribution that was as flashy as it was troublesome. “Working with Scott Mathews was a wonderful experience,” Kelley said, “but his hero was Brian Wilson. It probably would have been neat if we’d had somebody whose hero is Keith Richards.” Kelley said the Trainhoppers could not subsequently agree on what artistic direction the band should take. “We were trying to come up with songs together and people had differing ideas,” he said. “They ranged from very arty to the notion that the second album should be our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a large band and very democratic and it was like, ‘Wow. This is why there aren’t large bands.’” Supergroups – which is to say, groups fashioned out of musicians who are already part of other successful groups – aren’t built to last. The storied participants usually find many more reasons to swiftly depart than to remain together. The reenlisted members of the Legendary Trainhoppers (who have largely decommissioned their other bands: Go Dog Go, The Brown Bottle Band, The Matthew Sturm Band and Definitely Gary) have grown up a lot, Kelley said. “We’ll just record ideas on our phones,” he said. “We have a website and we’ll just throw them up on there. What people are doing is saying, ‘Here’s a melody idea’ or ‘Here’s some lyrics. Somebody take them and do something with them.’ “That never would have happened before,” Kelley said. “It’s been much more collaborative.” This time around, the Trainhoppers have been intentionally not finishing songs, he said. “It’s been, ‘Let’s beat ’em up,’” Kelley said. “‘Let’s be tough enough that some songs must die, some ideas must die.’” The band has been trying to infuse writing sessions with Miller’s spirit, he said. “He was creative and fun,” Kelley said. “He liked to move things forward. He wouldn’t get mired. That spirit is in the room, that attitude of ‘Let’s make sure we’re all having fun doing this, and let’s do things that are important but also enjoyable for all of us and for the people we eventually play to.’” He said the Trainhoppers are building a new song out of a snippet that Miller recorded long ago at Jon Gillespie’s Monastic Chambers Recording Studio in New Haven. Kelley said that the band is currently looking for a bass player to replace Miller in the live setting. Sturm, who now works for Apple Computer in California, will contribute ideas to the new album and may put in a guest appearance or two, Kelley said, but it is not logistically possible for him to return as a full member. “We will, however, have a Matt Sturm hologram,” Potts said. The re-formed band has no intention, Kelley said, of becoming a staple of the live music scene. “We want to keep it special, keep it something you can’t see all the time,” he said. Kelley believes they could “build a little cottage industry where you can buy a recording of the show you were at.” Smyth said the men have aged long past the stage where a musician dreams of “getting discovered,” whatever that means in the digital age. “You give up a lot for that big paycheck,” he said. “And even then, maybe the big paycheck might not be so big after you pay them back.”

Steve Penhollow

Lynn Fuston

From the Boards to the Page

Several months ago Lynn Fuston found himself at a crossroads. Should he continue his work as a Nashville sound engineer, or should he instead change direction and do something entirely different with his life? At that time, Fuston had 37 years of studio work to his credit, but he could not deny that the recording industry was undergoing a seismic shift. More and more artists were leaving the big studios to take an increasingly DIY approach to laying down tracks, and Fuston, who had spent his career engineering albums for such Christian music luminaries as Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Kathy Troccoli, DC Talk and Twila Paris, witnessed first-hand the results of that sea change. Basically, his work was drying up and he had a crucial decision to make. A few things happened to influence that decision. First, he had an incredibly lucrative couple months at the boards. That allowed him to fly south to his ill mother’s bedside. Ten days after going into the hospital, his mother died, forcing him to do more soul-searching. “I’m a Christian,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I believe God works in mysterious and sometimes not so mysterious ways.” Enter Sweetwater’s annual GearFest. It was at the most recent incarnation of this celebration of gear that Fuston heard Sweetwater was in search of an editor for its publications division. Fuston could boast not only nearly four decades of sound engineering, but roughly 27,000 blog posts about and reviews of music equipment – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ultimately, he chose to throw his hat in the ring for the newly created manager of written content position. “They flew me up here a week later and offered me the job on the spot,” Fuston said. “Then they said, ‘We need you to start in two weeks.’” That was a tall order for someone who had accumulated 40 years worth of stuff and had a house to sell and a family to relocate. Much to Fuston’s surprise, his Nashville house sold 48 hours after he put it on the market, and 19 days after being offered the post he found himself in Fort Wayne, heading up a staff of 11 writers charged with creating web and catalog content. “It was like dominoes. Everything just fell into place.” For a while, he lived in an apartment in Fort Wayne, driving back to Nashville on weekends to finish packing, but eventually he found a home near Foster Park and says he couldn’t be happier in his new surroundings. He takes long walks around the park in the evenings, and right now he’s enjoying the fall foliage and the crisp, autumn weather. The only thing that worries him is the upcoming winter. “Several people have told me that there are two things you need to live in Fort Wayne in the winter – a snow blower and a parka,” he said. “I’ve got my parka, but I don’t have my snow blower yet. I guess I’ll find out soon enough whether I have what it takes to survive here. So far I love it.” Fuston isn’t one to be intimidated by such challenges. At the age of 18 he left his home in Texas to enroll in the relatively fledgling music business program at Nashville’s Belmont College. There he learned the ins and outs of sound engineering, while holding down a series of full-time jobs, including one at a music publishing house and another at a jingles production company. Nashville was a very small world back then, and the Christian music scene even smaller. Soon he found himself engineering a song for Amy Grant. “I was 19 years old, at the time,” Fuston said. “I was a kid and it was such a cool chance. We didn’t start recording the song until 10 o’clock that night and we worked all the way through until 5 a.m. the next day.” Even though the producer ended up scrapping Fuston’s work and recording the song all over again, it was an incredible foot-in-the-door opportunity that quickly led to other work with up-and-coming artists. Fuston thinks the key to his success as a sound engineer came down to listening. “I worked hard to be very in-tune with the artists, to pay attention to whether or not the artist was happy in the studio, and if they weren’t, I made sure to make them happy, to solve their problems and anticipate their needs without their ever having to say anything.” His new job with Sweetwater might seem slightly outside the wheelhouse of a sound engineer, but Fuston has been writing and editing gear reviews for the last two decades, and he sees a strong connection between the work he did in the studio and the editing and managing duties he’s now called on to perform every day. “Oddly enough, my time in the studio prepared me well for what I’m doing now,” he said. “We have deadlines we have to meet, and things change on a daily, hourly and sometimes minute-to-minute basis. You have to be ready to turn on a dime, to make adjustments to assignments, and we improvise a lot, just as we did in the studio.” Which makes it sound like Fuston is a bit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants sort of manager. Not true. His motto is “Good enough is not good enough.” “It has to be excellent. I’ve committed myself to excellence, to getting things right. Sometimes someone will tell me, ‘Only you will know the difference if we replace this word or this sentence or this paragraph. The reader won’t. The customers won’t.’ Maybe not, but I’ll know, and I don’t want to put out a product that I’ve only given 90 percent to. I’m here to push harder, go further, and demand more.”

Deborah Kennedy

Ziano’s Italian Eatery

The Star of the Strip Mall

Since I moved to Fort Wayne over 13 years ago, Casa’s has consistently been the answer to my question, “Where do you go for good Italian food?” Don’t get me wrong. I like Casa’s, especially their chocolate cake served with a decadent raspberry sauce, but I recently visited Ziano’s, and now I wonder why this unsung hero doesn’t get more credit. While it hasn’t been around as long (the first location opened in 2009) it definitely deserves some love. I’ve visited the Covington Road location only (there are two other locations, on Dupont and on Maysville). The restaurant’s slogan says it all: “No frills Italian bistro in a strip mall.” I’ve mentioned before that I don’t typically put a lot of stock in restaurants located in strip malls, but Ziano’s breaks the mold. While the ambiance leaves something to be desired (you really can’t help but notice you’re in a strip mall) the food more than makes up for it. First, let’s talk about the breadsticks. I don’t know what kind of voodoo magic they sprinkle those with, but dang are they good – like eat-the-whole-plate good. I’d be completely satisfied with an entire meal of nothing but their breadsticks. They are handmade daily and brushed with garlic and Parmesan, but that description really doesn’t do them justice. They are simultaneously sweet and savory, a delicious combination, and the texture is soft and fluffy. Trust me on this one. Best breadsticks in town. No contest. And you can get them with a variety of dipping sauces, including cheese, garlic butter and marinara sauce. Of course, no Italian restaurant would be complete without an Italian House salad. Ziano’s version comes in two sizes (small for $1.99 and large for $5.99) and is made with a blend of spring mix, iceberg and romaine lettuces, tossed with mozzarella, shredded Parmesan, green onion, tomato, sweet peppers and hand-made Italian dressing. The small is the perfect size for a before-dinner salad. The large is big enough for a meal. If you make it past the breadsticks and salad, I recommend these main dishes. Chicken Piccata ($12.99): Grilled chicken breast with lemon and capers, reduced in a white wine sauce and served with linguine. This dish is so simple, but the flavors are executed beautifully. It pulls off the perfect ratio of lemon to capers, both of which can be overpowering if not done right. The chicken is thin and juicy. I have dreams about this dish. In fact, I had to stop while writing this article to go get it. Chicken or Shrimp Romano ($12.99): Linguine pasta tossed with your choice of meat, crushed tomatoes and Ziano’s own creamy Romano sauce, which is a blend of their classic red sauce and alfredo sauce. I always choose chicken. This is a comforting dish. The sauce is smooth and savory, with a hint of sweetness. I especially like the chunks of tomato present in this dish. The Pesto Pizza (10 inch, $7.99; 14 inch, $13.99): Homemade basil pesto sauce and fresh sliced tomato, covered with mozzarella. The 10-inch is a nice size for one. Go with the 14 inch if you want to share. I am not a big fan of pizzas made with a lot of marinara sauce, so I especially like that this one is made with the basil pesto sauce. The crust is thick, but not too thick, and has the same sweet and savory flavor combo as the breadsticks. It could use a tad more seasoning in the pesto sauce, but overall, I give this pizza two thumbs up. Because of its casual atmosphere and modest pricing, Ziano’s is a great place for a family dinner with the kiddos, but can also serve as a place for a date night with your sweetie, as well. amber.recker@gmail.com

Amber Foster


We Need 2B Changed

Hold your noses ’cause the boys from Columbia City are back with yet another aromatic love offering. That’s right, Catbox are back with another 15 glorious examples of why their band has been banned from playing the Three Rivers Co-op for being too raucous. It’s kind of difficult to believe that just two guys can be responsible for so much chaos, but then again Keith Roman plays a rather large drum kit (plus a rather small mandolin) and Doug Roush’s bass has more than its fair share of strings and, er, that’s it. There’s no need, and no sonic space, for guitars, horns, cellos, or ukuleles. No sir, kids, this is some of the finest post-rock that this area can provide, with a smidge of art rock thrown in for good measure. The bass is thick and textured while the drums are crystal clear and inventively panned across the stereo spectrum forming a sound unique to this planet. The songs themselves form a perfect skeleton upon which to hang these sounds, that being a melting pot of jazz, rock and experimental, although the nucleus is always a memorable melodic hook. A perfect example of Catbox is “City of Light,” a song so out there and yet catchy that I find myself humming it days after hearing it once. The song starts with Roush’s slap-and-pop bass laying down a funky a groove in the verse before sliding into a smooth section where he feels compelled to strum chords on the bass. “Skeletonz in the Desert” is 70s light rock-meets-strummed expensive jazz chords- meets-an aggressive instrumental bass riff, all playfully tossed around a few times to keep your head spinning. “Iced Chocolate” seems to be channeling the entire band of Iron Maiden, plus a Viking chorus and cowbell, while “Fading Beauty” mixes a very pleasing finger-picked bass melody with mandolin and soothingly sung vocals before throwing the listener down a mountain full of sharp rocks via a few hardcore instrumental passages. As if this cake needed any icing, there’s “I Am the Eyes and Ears,” a compelling song based on a character in the movie The Breakfast Club, and a three-song finale whose meaning I’ve yet to unravel. Indeed, each of the 15 songs on We Need 2B Changed sport intelligent yet often humorous lyrics that invite multiple listens to fully decipher. A brief example from “Get In, Hang On”: “Little by little / Day by day / You suck the joy of living / In every way.” With this most recent release Catbox prove once again that they are the region’s most unique band. Each song is an adventure, so after you pick up your copy at your favorite Wooden Nickel store, be sure to “get in” and “hang on” because it’s going to be an adventurous ride!

Jason Hoffman

Frank Allen

Lines of Expression

Thick bold lines contrast with thin details while swoops and zigzags intersect with each other, creating hundreds of organic and geometric shapes that artist Frank Lewis Allen often transforms into recognizable objects such as animals, crazy eyes or ocean waves. It is the density of line on paper that sets Allen’s work apart from most. His work controls the viewer’s eye, pulling it up, down, across and back over the page. The longer one looks, the more one sees: thick black shards come together to create a bird’s wing; simple repeating patterns add another layer of interest. Step up to one of his works and it will hold you firmly in place as your mind dives in trying to interpret and comprehend the thoughts behind the drawing. One can’t help but wonder about the artist’s process. Without fear, Allen attacks a blank page. With a black Sharpie in hand, his fingers guide the pen in powerful, curls and dashes. After putting down a few long, looping lines, the foundation is set and Allen takes but a few seconds to study the start of a new drawing, then quickly sets in filling shapes with detail and adding more long lines. His pen is swift, and he works fast, trying not to let logical thought get in his way. “The piece is usually in sections,” he says. “I just keep doing different bits and pieces and it starts to look like something. A lot of times I go on feeling like it’s rubbish but then I carry on a bit and it sort of works out.” It has only been four years that the artist has been able to put his thoughts on paper. Before that, debilitating anxiety kept him from making any attempts at drawing. Now you could say it has become a bit of an obsession. Anxiety and obsessive behaviors are typical emotional hurdles that many on the autism spectrum must deal with on a daily basis. Allen is no different. Being an aspie (one who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, which is believed to be part of the autism spectrum) he gives a great deal of credit to a brain he describes as being “so full of ideas it feels like static. “If I find an outlet to put something down, stuff will just come out,” he adds. “Stuff is there; I just can’t see it in my brain. It has to come out to exist.” His first drawing was made as a result of an accident that left him temporarily disabled. Prior to the accident Allen had been fixated on exercise which he took part in for over two hours each day. One day he hurt his back, crushed a disk and ended up bedridden, unable to keep up his daily routine. While being visited by a supportive friend, the two listened to music and Allen picked up a pen. “I just did some scribbling and it was art. It sort of gave me confidence. Now I’ve sort of blown it out of the water.” His anxiety toward drawing has eased. By letting his mind take over, Allen’s drawings are directed by his stream of consciousness. “You can draw whatever. It doesn’t feel like you’re responsible,” he says. During a recent solo show at Jennifer Ford Art, Allen was set up in his own drawing den. The space was filled with music, video and lights, and walls were plastered with pieces of his work. What might be over the top for many people served as the perfect energy that fed the artist’s brain. External stimulus keeps Allen from thinking too much. It allows him to focus on a drawing while keeping his anxiety at bay. With about 300 pieces in his archive, Allen’s stream of ideas seems limitless. (During this interview, Allen drew continuously, stopping only to pull up a few photos on his phone.) Able to pump out 13 drawings in one night, Allen is known for his speed. Drawing marathons like these have recently filled his nights as he prepares for a few upcoming group shows at Wunderkammer Company. Allen is also known to experiment; one painting was rendered in sparkling nail polish while other drawings cover objects such as shoes and even a guitar. He also mixed things up when he tried applying gold ink to black paper. “It seemed to work really well.” Not so for paint. “Watercolor and I didn’t get on,” said Allen. He may not have connected with watercolor, but his work connects with people. He has found success in Fort Wayne and is represented by both Jennifer Ford Art and Artworks the Galleria. Thirteen of his pieces hang in the halls of Indiana Tech. “There are two massive pieces and 11 smaller pieces,” he says. “All black and white with a bit of university colors added.” Connecting with people is something that those on the autism spectrum often find difficult. Allen’s art has given him a source of connection that helps him reach out to others and to make new friendships. His art is a conversation starter; it makes people ask questions. “I am comfortable talking to people one on one, but in a group I am quickly overwhelmed,” he says. During his last gallery opening there were “lots of people sitting around my drawing table, drawing together,” he said. Allen, feeling overwhelmed, said he couldn’t find his flow and commented, “Everyone else was doing what I always do. They were all relaxed, but I couldn’t do it.” Struggle is nothing new to Allen but when he hears talk about finding a cure for autism, he feels hurt by the common line of thinking. “It’s like saying I’m invalid. It’s like saying my life isn’t a good one, which is crazy. I think people think they see their children having a hard time and they wish their children could have been born without autism. It’s more about the world accepting people.” Allen’s work is a vehicle that helps others understand and accept that every person on the spectrum has value. It opens doors to connect people who may have never had the chance to speak to one another. Through curiosity and awe, Allen’s unique pieces hold strangers together, standing side by side as they contemplate meaning of his work and discover lines and shapes that cross the page. Allen is a man who happened to unveil a hidden talent within him and with that has unleashed the power of art.

Heather Miller

Stephanie Longbrake

Big Voice in Supporting Roles

Stephanie Longbrake learned from early childhood that all the world’s a stage. Even the living room fireplace. “I turned every floor I could find into a stage,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in my own skin, so escaping and pretending to be someone else was natural for me.”   Fortunately, her parents understood. “They cultivated that creativity,” she says. “I think they could tell fairly early that volleyball wasn’t going to rev my jets like Rodgers and Hammerstein.” Not only did her family cultivate her love of theater, they shared in it. “My dad is a Renaissance man with musical instruments. He has a beautiful singing voice, and he whistles with the sweetest vibrato. My brother is deeply gifted at both music and photography. My sister-in-law is a professional actor in Chicago. My aunt has written and directed for over 40 years.” Her biggest artistic influence, however, was her mother who was a performer, writer, director, and teacher. “We have home movies of my mom and me role playing in our kitchen,” Longbrake says. “She passed away while I was in high school, so she hasn’t seen me perform as an adult. I like to think her influence colors the characters I play.” Her mom taught her early on to make the most of any role, no matter how small or potentially embarrassing. “My first role at Blackhawk Christian School was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland when I was in elementary school,” she recalls. “I was hurt that I’d been cast in what I thought should be a boy’s role. My mom helped me embrace the quirkiness and oddities of the Mad Hatter, and I ended up having fun.”   She had lots of exposure to theater from an audience perspective as well. “One of the great things about attending Blackhawk is that as elementary students, we attended matinees of the high school plays and musicals,” she says. “Watching my mom prepare and rehearse the shows she directed there taught me a ton about theater. I went to rehearsals with her, and I loved observing the process.” After graduating from Blackhawk, she earned a B.S. in Vocal Music Education at Indiana Wesleyan University. “I was cast in a couple of musicals in college,” she says, “but they didn’t compare to what I’d been able to participate in during high school.”   Her first community theater production was Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in 2008. She has been in a total of 14 musicals in Indiana and Ohio and hopes to try her luck with a straight play in the future. But for now, she’s content to hone her musical audition skills. Unlike many actors who have a set list of go-to songs they will sing audition after audition, Longbrake takes a different approach. If she lands a role, she removes that audition song from her book. “I’m a tad superstitious about it,” she says. “A good number of songs have been ‘retired,’ but my audition book is still full of songs that need a second – or third – attempt.” Also unlike many actors, she actually enjoys the audition process. “That doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous,” she says. “The worst part for me is always the wait between auditions and getting the ‘congratulations’ or ‘we’re sorry’ phone call. Whether it’s a day or a week, it feels like you’re waiting forever, and you’re constantly checking your phone.”   She says it took her a while to figure out where she fit in to the theater scene. “In high school I tried to make my vibrato sound like Audra McDonald,” she says, “until a director asked me to ‘calm the vibrato down.’” She says she now has a better understanding of her strengths. “I don’t fit the ingénue type,” she says. “I’m a soprano who can belt, so I tend to audition for roles that have a brassy solo number.” She prefers playing supporting characters to leads anyway. “A lot of the comedy in a musical is written for supporting characters,” she says. “There are also shows that are more fun to be in the ensemble.” Whatever role she plays, Longbrake says she continues to learn from and be inspired by other Fort Wayne actors. “Nothing makes you step it up faster than a great scene partner,” she says. “Great actors – and we have tons in Fort Wayne – know when to take focus and when to let a scene partner shine. Give and take is part of what makes theater magical. When it doesn’t work, it’s like a row of people giving monologues. Observing and learning from each other makes us better performers.” Her fellow actors have become her best friends in life as well. “We have a strong community of actors in Fort Wayne,” she says. “They encourage and help me be the best version of myself.” She doesn’t take for granted the importance of a supportive and insightful director either. “I learn so much from directors who encourage me to explore, play, and risk failure,” she says, citing such directors as Craig Humphrey and Doug King. King is directing her current show, A Christmas Story: The Musical, at the Civic. She plays Miss Shields, the school teacher. “Hers is a no nonsense classroom,” says Longbrake, herself a music teacher at Perry Hill Elementary School.   “I have to fight my instincts often, as my real teaching style is much more playful,” she says. “You do see a tiny glimmer of her compassion as she’s trying to save Flick from being forever frozen to a flagpole, but it’s evident that she cares far more about grammar and punctuation than she does people.” She has enjoyed rehearsing the classroom scenes with the young actors in the show. “Early in the rehearsal process, the kids were sneakily passing a book back and forth during a scene,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’re already making fun acting choices on their own!’ I walked over and took the book away, as Miss Shields definitely would not tolerate passing notes and other items in class. “After the scene, one of the kids asked if she could have her script back. It turns out, they’d been sharing a script, not passing notes. She was worried I was going to keep it. We’ve kept that in the scene since then.” Longbrake says that King and the rest of the production staff and cast are very aware of the risks they are taking, staging a beloved and extremely recognizable story as a live musical. They walk a fine line between being offputtingly original and providing the audience with a carbon copy of the movie they could just watch at home. “We’ve kept those non-negotiable moments and catch phrases from the film while allowing the actors freedom to explore and play with these characters,” she says. “Because this is a musicalized version, we often break into song and dance. Our production has dancing lamps; you’re not going to get that in the film.” Not many stages in town can accommodate a chorus of dancing leg lamps. “An exciting part of being in the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre is that everything can be big,” says Longbrake. “The stage itself, the orchestra, the set pieces – many musicals require a larger-than-life feel, and the Civic has the space to produce those kinds of shows.” When she’s not portraying a teacher on the big stage, she goes back to teaching in the classroom. But she doesn’t feel like she strays too far from the stage even then. “Being a teacher is like being an actor all day long,” she says. “Plus, you have a captive audience!” Her job as a music teacher is another inspiration to her art. “I actually get paid to cultivate creativity and musicianship,” she says. “In my mind, that makes my job one of the best out there.”

Jen Poiry-Prough


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