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When Sharon Henderson retired from her position as executive director of all for One productions, she closed the chapter of a project which began more than 40 years ago. As she steps away she leaves behind a remarkable legacy for the community she has now adopted as her hometown. She wasn’t sure at first if Fort Wayne was really destined to be that, however. Growing up a military kid, she was never able to put down roots in any one place, and when a job brought her to Fort Wayne in 1974, she wasn’t sure how well she would fit in. Having moved along with a friend who had also secured employment in the area, Henderson, a single mother with two young boys, began finding her niche. She worked at IBM for a short time before accepting a position at First Missionary Church, where she worked for 27 years. It was during those early years that the seed of a future project began taking form in her mind.
“I was attending a woman’s retreat, and I met a woman there who absolutely engaged me,” says Henderson. “I just thought she was hilarious, but she was also a very spiritual woman. I was having fun listening to her and not necessarily the other women. She made me see that you could be a theatre person and a Christian at a time when theater didn’t have much acceptance in the church yet. I was a single mother, divorced, and new to my faith. I didn’t sing or play the piano, but I just felt there was room for a faith-based theater company here in Fort Wayne.”
The dream took hold, and there were times Henderson thought it might come true. Each time she hit a wall, but she continued to persevere. It was years later, when she attended a national conference in Chicago, that she encountered some like-minded people, fellow believers with theatrical experience who were interested in pursuing the same goals as Henderson.
Among those was Lauren Nichols, now artistic director of all for One, and her husband Dennis, both of whom had the academic credentials in communication and theater to help expand on the plan for a faith-based theater company. Both writers and performers, they were able to join Henderson on her mission to write and produce plays which were based in faith while not necessarily being religious in content. It was a plan which would eventually bring the fledgling company some work, albeit as a touring company performing in other people’s venues. Eventually they knew they wanted to stay closer to home, and one of the plays they had written collectively, Sentimental Journey, was their vehicle for making that possible.
“We had been a traveling repertory company, performing in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, cutting our teeth and learning some lessons along the way while someone else was footing the bill. By 2000 we were older and weary of the road and ready to put our foot in Fort Wayne. We had no theater, no rehearsal space, no storage – but we did have this script, Sentimental Journey, which we had written collectively. We had talked to veterans of World War II and found out what their stories were, what songs they liked and what their commitment to the cause was. We put together a tapestry of that era, and we wrote a play around that.”
Securing a place to perform at the Grand Wayne Center, the company they had dubbed all for One originally scheduled two performances. But response and demand required that they add a Sunday matinee. Feedback immediately confirmed that they were on the right track, that audiences were craving more of the kinds of plays they longed to produce. While they continued to find some random places to ply their trade, including a stint at Canterbury School where they were limited to when and how many times they could perform, Henderson and her staff knew that they needed to find a more permanent home if they were to ever be able to maintain a full season of productions. Then she received a game-changing call from Harvey Cocks.
“Harvey called me one day, and he said ‘Sharon, they’re putting an auditorium in the new library, and it could be a nice space for you.’ So I went down and put on a hard hat and stood in the middle of the construction and tried to imagine us making that our home. That was in 2007, and moving into that space for the next several years helped us grow to the point that we could host full seasons.”
Although the writing of the all for One team was strong, they knew they’d be unable to provide enough material to produce full seasons year in and year out. It was then that all for One really began changing the face of local theater, finding plays that were thought provoking and very different from what other theaters were offering. They have also served as a place where other area playwrights have been able to see their own material produced, something unusual for many cities which tend to focus on the splashy Broadway musicals or well-known plays to sell tickets.
“We want to focus on plays which are value-rich and family-friendly,” says Henderson. “We’re not preaching anything, but we’re always honoring God and his guidance.”
Having recently moved into the ArtsLab at the Auer Center, all for One may have finally found its permanent home, a space where they can fully take root. And having seen her early vision become a successful reality, Henderson began thinking a few years ago that it was time for her to step aside.
“I’ve known this time was coming for a couple of years now because I’m a firm believer in the dangers of a founder staying with an organization too long. Once you’ve taken an organization to a certain point, you need to go with fresh horses and get out of the way. Now some new blood can come, and we have a great transitional team that will pick up my duties and will work together to find someone who can take the organization into the future.”
Henderson credits not only the staff at all for One but also the board, which she says “don’t just sit on the board – they roll up their sleeves and get to work.” She’s proud of how the theater company she long dreamed would develop now serves as an educational tool for those who participate and attend their productions and how it has helped nurture talent in and around the community. She says that, while she plans to stay away for a year lest she or anyone else feel she’s intruding on the company’s new path, she hopes to spend her time volunteering and enjoying her grandchildren while continuing to spread the word about all for One.
“I will definitely be an ambassador for the company during this year,” she says. “Just the other day I was talking to a mother whose child was in a dance class, and she was looking for other ways to engage her in the arts. I said ‘Have you tried theater?’ and this woman felt most of the plays weren’t age-appropriate. I said ‘Well, let me tell you about our upcoming season which includes A Wrinkle in Time!’ So I will definitely be spreading the word even as I spend some time away from the day to day functions of all for One.”