Celebrating local people who made this year special
The Great Eight of 2018
December 20, 2018
Program & Events Director, Riverfront Fort Wayne
When Megan Butler graduated from Northrop High School and left for college in Boston, it was not with the intention to gain some new perspective and return home. She thought she’d left for good.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t know anyone who hated Fort Wayne as much as I did,” Butler said.
“But when I was living in Boston, I started to think that maybe I wasn’t taking advantage of all that Fort Wayne had to offer. I couldn’t just stay holed up in my house. I had to get out and do things.”
Now Butler helps others see the beauty and opportunities in Fort Wayne through her work as Program & Events Manager for Riverfront Fort Wayne.
A nature lover, she was attracted to the city’s untapped potential which is finally being realized.
“The natural aspect of the rivers really attracted me, and I’m really into history so I loved that aspect, too,” she said. “I was a political science major, and my research centered on how people are less and less connected to their communities, and that has an adverse effect on their personal ties to the community and a declining knowledge of public policy issues.
“That has played a big part in the declining voter turnout. If you can connect people to the community again, that can make a big difference in their lives and in our community.”
Programming at the rivers has grown steadily as Butler expands many of the Riverfront opportunities, from bird watching to riverboat tours and dragon boat racing. There’s more kayaking and canoeing along with movies hosted along the Riverfront.
The opening in 2019 of Promenade Park will mark a major step forward in Riverfront programs, but there are already other ways for Fort Wayne and area residents to connect.
“We’ve been rolling out Citizen Science which is another way for people to experience nature,” Butler said. “We have a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, and this provides a way for people to experience it hands on, in an active way. It allows regular people to be included in the collection of scientific data.
“We’ve already done Frog Watch with the zoo, and we’ll be partnering with Cornell University ornithology lab for some bird watching.”
Executive Director, Fort Wayne Trails
With a resume in non-profit management, Kent Castleman joined Fort Wayne Trails as its executive director early in 2016. Bringing a business background along with a love of nature to his new position, Castleman hit the trails running and has worked with both the city of Fort Wayne and the Allen County Commissioners to help grow the trails, which have become extremely popular as area runners, hikers, and bicyclists have increased the demand for both functional and aesthetically pleasing places to travel.
With a strong background in fundraising, Castleman has not only secured funds but has established relationships which have helped the Fort Wayne Trails system grow.
“This has been a great year for the trails,” he said. “We now have a little over 113 miles of trails. We partnered with the city on the Pufferbelly expansion, and the Allen County Commissioners and county highway department are providing a million dollars to trail expansion.”
With Fort Wayne already working to develop the Rivergreenway, it became apparent that the real work for Fort Wayne Trails was involving outlying areas of Allen County. For example, the Pufferbelly expansion moves from the heart of the city into areas like Leo-Cedarville while an upcoming expansion will add trails on the north end of Metea County Park.
The commissioners have also agreed to a plan that would add more than three miles of trails from the Life Bridge Church to Fitch Road.
Castleman says that for many years Indiana was lagging behind in the development of trails, but that’s beginning to change primarily because of the work being done in this northeast corner of the state.
“Other states began their ‘rail to trail’ efforts long ago, taking the abandoned railways and turning them into trail systems,” he said. “The Rivergreenway was first planned in 1976, and now 42 years later, we are seeing all of this growth in trails in our area. Indiana has lagged behind in the development of trails, but here in Fort Wayne and Allen County, we’re leading the way. And you’ll see even more growth in the next few years.”
Assistant Conductor, Fort Wayne Philharmonic
When North Carolina native Caleb Young came to town just over two years ago, he’d been educated at Alabama and Indiana universities and had worked in Dallas and
But when he landed in Fort Wayne as assistant conductor just ahead of the 2016-17 Fort Wayne Philharmonic season, he made an investment in his new town and has made his own mark. His role as conductor of the Holiday Pops — not only at the Embassy Theatre but also in trips outside of the region — have made him the face of our city for many who might not otherwise see the orchestra.
“The Embassy show has become an embedded tradition in Fort Wayne,” Young said. “It’s a great responsibility and privilege to offer this to the community and keep adding to the fabric of the Fort Wayne Holiday Pops.
“But the rollout concerts are as big a tradition for people outside of Fort Wayne. When you’re in a city with an orchestra, it can sometimes be taken for granted. But for many in these communities we visit, it may be their only opportunity to hear orchestral music, and in that way I feel like an ambassador when we visit places like Logansport, Rochester, Angola, Berne, or Columbia City.”
He also tours many nearby communities in the days leading up to Independence Day when the Philharmonic’s annual Patriotic Pops concerts makes multiple stops.
Young likes that the music of America can bring people together from different ideologies. He also likes encouraging new audiences to open their world to include orchestral music which has sometimes fallen on
A Philharmonic program, Music + Mixology, has allowed Young to reach out to those who might not otherwise see one of their performances.
“There’s always a conversation about classical music dying, that it’s just for the ‘blue hairs,’” he said. “And that’s a legitimate concern but also a question that’s been asked for many years. People aren’t necessarily exposed to classical music when they’re three like I was, so maybe they don’t hear it until their 18 or 20 or maybe even 30.
“Programs like these bring people to the performances by partnering them with a social event so tickets will include a drink voucher, and we all go to the Copper Spoon afterward. It makes it very accessible for people, and it’s been a highlight of my two years here.”
Top Ten Finalist, NBC’s The Voice Season 14
What were the odds that sleepy Fort Wayne in Midwestern Indiana could provide two musical competitors in the NBC series The Voice in back-to-back seasons? As it turns out — and perhaps less surprising to those who know the musical community of the city — pretty good.
After Addison Agen drew much interest in the fall season of 2017, a Snider and Huntington University grad, Christiana Danielle, was about to put our community on the map yet again.
“I always loved music growing up,” Danielle said. “I was not as outgoing, more private, and I did most of my singing in church. In college, I was determined to be more outgoing and got involved with the gospel choir and worship team.”
Although she’d made a profile on the webpage for The Voice, it wasn’t until she got an email saying that the final auditions were to be held in St. Louis that Danielle decided to ask her father to take her on that long ride for her big shot. She had already planned on a gap year before continuing her education, and that time was quickly filled when she passed her auditions and found herself progressing through the process, making important contacts along the way.
“There were so many great things that came out of it,” she said. “The friendships I made, the meetings with the coaches, the encouragement from the community were all huge. I was unsure what I wanted to do before that experience, but I left with so much more confidence.
“Before The Voice, I wouldn’t call myself
a singer, but since then I’ve been singing and performing and writing songs. I’m
working on an EP. It completely changed my trajectory.”
This year has been filled with exciting opportunities for Danielle, including a big show at the Clyde Theatre and the chance to open for music legend CeCe Winans earlier this month. As she has worked to put together a band and a record, she still finds it hard to believe how much her life has changed in one short year.
“I had my first performance on The Voice, I had my first soldout show at the Clyde, and I put out my first single,” Danielle said. “I still can’t believe people can go online and buy my music.”
Runner-Up Finalist, NBC’s The Voice Season 13
Performing with her family from a tender age, Addison Agen never aspired to making music. It was just something she’d always done. It wasn’t until someone heard her sing the national anthem at her high school, Concordia, that a more determined path in music was forged.
“My Spanish teacher looked up auditions for The Voice and saw that they’d be in Chicago that upcoming weekend,” Agen said. “She called my mom and asked about going that weekend and offered to drive me. We had to be there two days in a row so she drove 12 hours that weekend to get us there and back for both days.”
At that point in the audition process, there were still many rounds to go and Agen was supposed to keep the fact of her own audition secret, so it was a while before she could even fathom the magnitude of what was going on. Auditions with the coaches followed and the ride continued until the finals, where Agen was runner-up in the contest that ended last December.
After catching her breath, Agen realized her entire life had changed.
“I always knew music would be part of my life, but I thought it would be a hobby,” Agen said. “I thought for awhile about being a tattoo artist, of being an engineer, or being an art teacher. But after The Voice, I knew music was going to be my A plan.”
She began catching up on her studies by switching to online high school and went about launching her career. It started with a bang just weeks after her Voice success with two soldout performances at the Embassy Theatre.
“That was huge,” she said. “I went from singing in coffee houses to singing one song at a time on The Voice. But this was the first time I had ever done a whole show all at once.”
This year has also meant putting together a band and working on a new album recorded at Sweetwater. Her area popularity has also led to more singing of the anthem, including one Sunday at a Colts game. She says she’s learned a lot this year, about standing up for herself as well as developing her craft and looks forward to sharing her new album early in 2019.
“I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, and that’s my biggest goal, much more than my singing,” Agen said. “I’m not even close to where I want to be as a songwriter yet, but that’s all right. I’m learning about the kind of artist I want to be, and I’ll grow into that.”
Grant and Program Manager, Arts United
Weisser Park Elementary School is well known for its arts education, so it isn’t surprising that Heather Closson would take that early encouragement and run with it.
An early experience playing Baby Angel in Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s holiday production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever sealed the deal, and Closson pursued additional outlets for her talents at Northeast School of Dance and Snider High School. After attending Ball State University, Closson moved to New York, returning to Fort Wayne in 2017.
Since her return, she has juggled multiple jobs and projects, all in support of the area’s thriving arts community. Having worked at Science Central for a year, she recently accepted a position as grant and program manager for Arts United. She also teaches for Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“My favorite thing about teaching is being able to give back to an organization that gave me my roots and gave me the confidence to do it,” Closson said. “I knew I liked performing, but I didn’t realize I could pursue it and didn’t know that until I worked with Youtheatre and my dance studio. I want to share that knowledge earlier with the kids I teach and share my love of theater and movement with the next generation.”
Closson has also been busy with a variety of diverse projects this past year.
As choreographer for the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s recent sellout production of Elf, she worked with her mentor Leslie Hormann to bring a dynamic energy to the popular show based on the successful film.
She also provided choreography for Youtheatre productions of Pinocchio and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and earlier in the year, she brought an entirely different energy to her work in Three Rivers Music Theatre’s production of Cabaret.
After talking to TRMT’s director Andy Planck about doing the choreography and securing that job, she decided to ask for one more opportunity.
“I never ask anyone to consider putting me in the cast of a show I’m choreographing because it can put too much of a strain on a production,” she said. “But it would be a two-for-one on my bucket list, and I’m really grateful Andy said yes.
“I was also very lucky that my dance friends were willing to learn to sing so they could audition for the show. Usually you get singers who can dance, but I had true and extraordinary dancers to work with in Cabaret.”
Founder, Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy and Three Rivers Music Theatre
Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Andy Planck was a busy student at Northrop High School and playing trumpet for the marching band. But it was when he joined the show choir that he began tapping into his musical talent — and receiving attention for it.
“I never had any inkling that I was any good at it,” he said. “I just did it because my friends did.”
But he was further encouraged and inspired by three of his teachers — Barry Ashton, Bill Hines, and Del Proctor — to develop and pursue his talents for performing. After going to Ball State, he moved to New York and was in several touring productions of Broadway musicals which took him all over the country. When he came back to Fort Wayne, he was more clearly able to see a void which he hoped to fill.
“We have a ridiculous concentration of performing arts talent which is obvious at all of the show choir competitions,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in the water here, but it’s extraordinary. I felt like there was nothing on a professional level for students interested in pursuing it.”
His solution was to open the Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy, where students can take classes in the performing arts with seasoned professionals in a supportive environment. Planck also opened Three Rivers Music Theatre, which this year tackled some pretty hefty material, from the well-known Cabaret to the lesser known Dogfight.
“I’m always looking for pieces that Fort Wayne hasn’t seen before,” Planck said. “I want pieces that push the envelope a little bit and challenge the narrative of our conservative community. There have always been so many pieces that people would say, ‘I love that show but you could never do that here.’ But if you do it, you put yourself in the position of leading a shift in the dialogue. In the case of Cabaret, it has been seen before but there have been some themes that were shied away from that I knew our company could present in an impactful way.”
Coming up this year is the recent Broadway hit Fun Home, a coup for the area since it’s very newly available. After having his first application rejected, Planck appealed and sent an impassioned plea to bring the show to the community. Three Rivers Music Theatre will be presenting Fun Home in February.
Founder, Wunderkammer Company
Born in Fort Wayne but raised in Leo, Dan Swartz learned to appreciate the opportunities of urban life from his mother who brought him to the city for museums and the libraries. But he also developed a healthy appreciation for rural life and the love of nature it provided. Those interests have served him well as he left Fort Wayne to see a different life in New York, one which exposed him to an artistic culture he came to enjoy.
After returning to the area, he worked for a time at the Downtown Improvement District before looking for a place where he could help foster the same artistic climate he’d seen out east. Wunderkammer was born.
“Wunderkammer is a German word that translates to ‘wonder chamber,’” Swartz said. “It’s a concept that pre-dates the art world because centuries ago you’d see paintings in churches or just have portraits of people.
“‘Wunderkammer’ was a place that you could see the new fashions, the new technology, dinosaur bones. It was a place where new ideas were shared. I really liked the idea of that. It provided something more encompassing than things in the art world because, oddly enough, the art world can be very conservative because there are rules that dictate certain things. But here we want to break the boundaries of art to see what’s really happening in arts and culture from every aspect of creative culture and visual art.”
In addition to providing artists a place for that first solo show, which is important in establishing new talent, the venue — which is the former Casa D’Angelo restaurant on Fairfield — hosts other creative endeavors, such as a recent writing event with local author Helen Frost as well as the recurring Creative Women’s Night Market.
Beginning this spring, Purdue Fort Wayne will host the student exhibit of its Visual Communication and Design department, having already hosted its fall exhibit for the last few years.
Wunderkammer has hosted musical events and has recently begun partnering with Three Rivers Music Theatre for their productions, with the fall performances of Dogfight and the upcoming Fun Home.
Another area of art has also benefited.
“We’ve had a lot of dance groups coming in to perform here because dance is something that really needs a lot of different venues. We have such a vibrant dance scene here, but until now haven’t always had the capacity to provide a good performance space.”