The Man in the Arena
May 17, 2018
Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Brian Wagner was introduced to theater by his teachers at Paul Harding High School, and he continued his education at IPFW with Larry Life, among others. But his move from high school and college drama classes to executive director of the Arena Dinner Theatre has taken some twists and turns along the way, and those experiences made him uniquely qualified for the diverse job requirements at Arena.
Wagner credits not only his teachers but also his early theater days with giving him a pretty wide range of experience both on stage and behind the scenes. As many have learned from experience, however, community theater can be satisfying, but it doesn't pay the bills.
"I learned a lot about the technical aspects of theater and stage managed when I was at IPFW," says Wagner. "But it's difficult to do if you stay in Fort Wayne because you can't make any money."
Although he stayed active in the local theater community, Wagner worked in retail management before going to work for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art where he has worn a variety of hats over the years - working in outreach, giving tours of the museum, managing the museum gift shop. He didn't yet realize it, but his work experience was going to perfectly complement his favorite hobby.
"I kept doing a ton of theater, both as a performer and behind the scenes, learning the technical aspects. I got a chance to direct at the Arena in the early 90s, and I discovered that every job in theater is a very different animal, but directing was really fun for me. There's something about shaping something beginning to end like that."
When the job of executive director opened up five years ago, Wagner was encouraged to throw his hat in the ring. Having accrued a good business background to go along with a great deal of theater experience (much of it gained at the Arena Dinner Theatre) he felt it would be a natural fit. But there was still one added wrinkle that he had to deal with right out of the gate, something unique to Arena's regular schedule.
"The first thing I had to do was find a new caterer," says Wagner. "As much as you want people to come to the theater because they like your product, that aspect - the food - has to be as good as everything else you're doing."
What he did already know quite well was Fort Wayne's theater community, and he began putting together seasons of shows which could highlight local talent both on stage and off - putting together a slate of directors, including himself, who were able to bring fresh material to the stage each and every year.
"I like to have a different director for each show. We have a committee that meets and brings ideas so we can plan our seven shows a year. There are certain shows that we've done several times, some of the perennial favorites, but there is just so much good theater out there. We're all avid readers, and we try to see things in other towns so we know what some of the other shows are that we might do."
The expectations of dinner theater are somewhat different than in other places, but even there Wagner and his board of directors try to go outside the box when possible.
"It tends to be a joke in the theater community about dinner theater, that you have to keep it a little lighter. You aren't going to see anything too extreme. But we try to sneak a few different things in there too, things that are a little bit different. Last year we did Blood Brothers, Frost/Nixon, Assassins. We just did A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, and that doesn't get done very often. We're doing The Glass Menagerie in March, and that's not the kind of thing you see at a dinner theater very often. I think our audience appreciates that."
Another thing that the Arena audiences appreciate is the beautiful historic building the theater calls home. Having spent some of its early years in the Chamber of Commerce building, Arena Dinner Theatre has been in its home on Rockhill, just down the block from the Carole Lombard house, for about two decades. Although it's a beautiful facility, Wagner is hoping to give it a facelift.
"Part of our focus now is this old historic building. There are things that need to be done to keep the building maintained, and we'd like to do some updating. The stage is small, and there are a lot of shows I'd like to do but can't in the space we have. So I'd like to do some renovations."
Unlike other local theaters like the Civic or even IPFW, the Arena Dinner Theatre is pretty much a one-man operation. Although he has help from his board and there is someone to handle maintenance, Wagner is the one who handles the caterers, marketing, sponsorships and interacting with the public. He otherwise relies on a team of volunteers to keep the busy theater going season after season. He continues to work at the Museum of Art part-time as well and appreciates that he can work within the busy Fort Wayne arts community in all of his endeavors. While trying to keep Arena vibrant, he also has a wish list of shows he'd love to stage someday.
If money was no object and space was no object, there are a lot of shows I'd love to do. I'd like to do Noises Off, but there's no way to do that because the stage would have to revolve. And I'd love to do Ragtime. But there are a lot of shows that we are able to do, and I'm really happy with the theater we're bringing to Fort Wayne. Last fall we did Peter & the Starcatcher. I'm excited about The Glass Menagerie, and I'm directing Calendar Girls this spring, which I'm really excited about. It's such a great play, and it has great roles for nine women in a story that's funny and moving. Those are the kinds of things I tend to be drawn to."