As Fort Wayne’s reputation as a hotbed of arts organizations and events continues to grow, so do the unique and special opportunities for fans of music, theater, art, and dance to experience things once only available in much larger markets. The biggest arts event in 2019 — and very likely ever — brought the moving and remarkable Violins of Hope to Fort Wayne. With more than a dozen events spread over more than two weeks, Violins of Hope brought together an astounding number of the city’s arts organizations, universities, and businesses to share programming that had never been seen before. Similarly, theater fans were treated to a couple of brand new plays — Choir Boy and Frozen, Jr. — only recently made available outside the Broadway stage. While many in our community deserve praise for how much they bring to our city’s arts landscape, these eight have shared something truly special with all of us in 2019.
Director, Fort Wayne Civic Theatre production of Sweeney Todd
If Leslie Beauchamp’s only contribution to the community this year had been her direction of this fall’s Civic Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, that could have been enough. The critical and audience acclaim for the production easily marks it as one of the biggest theater hits of recent years, and even those who have seen professional productions around the country were singing the praises of the performances.
But of course that wasn’t her only claim to fame in 2019. Her road to Fort Wayne’s theater community began in Kansas, but thanks to the military, she found herself moving often. The daughter of an American service man and a British mother, Beauchamp spent many of her early years in the United Kingdom. It was only when her grandmother, who lived in Fort Wayne, became critically ill that the family moved to Indiana.
Although they came to Fort Wayne to tend to the dying relative, once they arrived, the matriarch was fine and lived a long life thereafter. So it’s entirely possible that Beauchamp inherited her keen sense of drama from her elders.
“I always loved storytelling, and I was always reading books,” Beauchamp said. “My grandmother was a teacher and always talked about books, and she encouraged that in me. I think that helped since we moved around so much. My grandmother was also a very modern woman by those standards because she went to college.”
Although drawn to theater and speech at New Haven High School, Beauchamp decided to pursue more serious matters in college.
“I wanted to be a business woman,” she said. “I always loved music and dance, and I wish I had continued with orchestra and choir. I’ve always loved orchestral music. But after high school I would go to see things in the theater, but I didn’t do anything at all.”
She made several attempts to leave Fort Wayne, with moves back to England and a planned move to Chicago, but each time her father would suffer a heart attack, and she finally saw her destiny must be here. She met and married fellow theatre talent Brad Beauchamp, and over the years, Beauchamp was drawn increasingly back into the fold. She now serves as choreographer and education director for the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre, served as assistant director and choreographer for Seussical the Musical, directed by husband Brad and staged by University of Saint Francis last spring, and of course directed Sweeney Todd in the fall.
“I love the anti-hero aspect of Sweeney Todd,” she said. “It’s fun delving into the hypocrisy of human nature. And I love the score – it’s so dense and complicated. But it’s the story of Sweeney and how awful the judge is, and how easily he justifies killing people that’s what’s interesting. We all do that. What I love is that there’s all of this going on, but it doesn’t tell you what to think. It just tells you to think.”
Executive Director, Genesis Outreach
Active in the arts since he was a child, Albert Brownlee first began singing in his church before eventually moving on to perform with the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir and Fort Wayne Youtheatre. He worked with Fort Wayne theater icon Harvey Cocks and got experience on the large Arts United Center stage when still a young boy. He also played saxophone and performed with his marching band at Paul Harding High School.
But when it came time to attend college at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, Brownlee was focusing his plans on becoming a lawyer rather than a performer. As he immersed himself in political science courses, he attended a performance of Once On This Island, and he fell in love with theater all over again.
Now, Brownlee has found a way to balance two very different pursuits. As executive director of Genesis Outreach, he helps mothers who are struggling with addictions to overcome their problems and reunite with their children. He helps area homeless find safe haven and renewed purpose. He helps to serve hundreds of Fort Wayne residents in need of help. For several years, he found outlet for his talents on community theater stages, far away from his daytime endeavors. But eventually he realized he could use both of his passions in tandem.
“I had been CEO for four years, and we really didn’t have a fundraising event,” Brownlee said. “Usually non-profits have prayer breakfasts or luncheons or silent auctions or an annual gala. I was trying to decide what I could do to be different and realized, ‘Albert, you love the theater.’ I contacted Thom Hofrichter at First Presbyterian Theater because I had worked with him in the past, and we did a joint production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and combined it into a dinner and theater experience.”
Since then, Brownlee has continued that pattern on his own, staging productions of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and The Vagina Monologues. The latter production raised some eyebrows and threatened some of the goodwill he had built up over the years, but his artistic integrity and social conscience demanded that he follow through.
Having featured women in those two productions, this year he decided to stage Choir Boy, a show so new that it was a Tony Award nominee in 2019. The show tackles issues of race, homosexuality, and masculinity as it pertains to the lives of young men in prep school.
“I had seen the show on Broadway, and it was important to me that we bring this story to Fort Wayne,” Brownlee said. “As a black male, I have seen expressions of homophobia even though it’s not my lifestyle. I’ve seen it play out in the lives of my family and friends, and I’ve had people make assumptions about me. We must do better in how we treat each other and see how we affect other people’s lives. We must lead with love.”
Brownlee will be departing Fort Wayne for a new career opportunity in Indianapolis, but he plans to return and will be involved in next year’s theatrical performance to benefit Genesis Outreach.
“I will continue to be a consultant because it’s important that we do shows that challenge our consciousness and leave us more enlightened. We have to do better. We need to change the narrative.”
Director, Arts Leadership Center
Involved in the arts as he was growing up in Fort Wayne, Adrian Curry attended Ward Elementary, the arts magnet school in Fort Wayne Community Schools. He danced with his brothers as he grew up and attended Morehouse College where he said he spent his time pledging and step dancing. Upon his return to Fort Wayne, he began teaching at the Weisser Park Youth Center. In early 2018, he founded the Arts Leadership Center, which he saw as a means of sharing his passion for the arts with a young generation.
“It really just continues what I’ve been doing since I was 14,” Curry said. “The concept really began when I was teaching at Weisser Park Youth Center. I’ve known since I was 15 that I wanted to be an instructor, and I wanted a place for original theater, dance, and spoken word performances. I wanted to work with youth and the community because I knew the arts were a powerful tool.”
Curry received an Arts United Award early in 2019, named as the community’s Emerging Leader for his role with the center which he defined as a place “to systematically develop renaissance leaders through education and science with a global conscience that embraces the Five ‘Wells’ of Leadership — well read, well spoken, well dressed, well traveled, and well balanced. That’s really the crux of what we do.”
Curry works hard to make connections throughout the community, providing a higher profile for the Arts Leadership Center and the work they do.
One project he accepted was as choreographer for Choir Boy, a show which prominently features stepping. He accepted the assignment and its challenges, finding a way to make young actors with little to no dance experience, much less experience with stepping, look proficient in only a few short weeks. He is also philosophical about his Arts United Award and sees it as another means of connection.
“I’ve been building to this little by little,” Curry said of the recognition. “I haven’t changed, but over 90 individuals and organizations voted for me, so it’s not so much that I feel validated as I’ve built bridges and new relationships with organizations and business in the community. This is fun for me because I’m passionate about it. And building these kinds of bridges makes the world a better place.”
Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne
A native of Michigan, Jaki Schreier came to Fort Wayne in 1996 when her husband accepted a position with the Fort Wayne Neurological Center. She quickly came to find her own way to contribute to her new hometown and began volunteering for the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne and with Congregation Achduth Vesholom.
Now the Federation’s executive director, Schreier has spent her years reaching into the community, particularly as it pertains to Holocaust studies in our area schools.
“There is a law in Indiana that the Holocaust must be taught,” Schreier said. “But the laws are rather loose, and the emphasis is so much on teaching the CORE that it wasn’t being addressed. And there’s a tremendous amount to be learned from teaching the Holocaust. When hate is allowed to take root, it never goes well. That’s what happened in Germany where hate was allowed to flourish. What you hope to accomplish in studying the Holocaust is how that was able to happen. Genocide doesn’t end with the Holocaust.”
It was important to Schreier that there be a solid teaching plan ready for the schools, and her desire to focus on education and an understanding and perspective about the Holocaust prepared her for the project that has dominated the last two years for her.
When Jim Palermo, managing director of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, approached her about bringing Violins of Hope to Fort Wayne, a natural partnership — and friendship — was born. They understood that bringing the collection of violins, which survived the Holocaust and World War II and were restored to travel the country, required more than two local organizations.
“As Jim and I would go to sponsors and ask for support community wide, everybody was immediately on board,” she said. “It was such a wonderful experience. Then we started talking to our arts community, asking them to be partners. And all of them, Fort Wayne Children’s Choir, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Heartland, Fort Wayne Ballet, everyone we approached all said they wanted to be a part of it. It was so exciting to bring together all of these creative energies and see them come up with ideas for how they could tell the story of these violins and the Holocaust through their art form.”
The undertaking lasted for two weeks and included many special events and performances, many of which were free to the public, and it has been declared the largest community endeavor in Fort Wayne history, joining the forces of area arts organizations, schools and universities, and local businesses. As it all came to fruition, Schreier was grateful for her work with Palermo, who helped her bring it all to life.
“I work 60 hours a week at a part-time job, but Jim works me under the table,” Schreier said. “He’s fabulous and has a great attitude. He gets more done than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Managing Director, Fort Wayne Philharmonic
Growing up in Cleveland, Jim Palermo’s road to music began fairly simply.
“One day when I was eight or nine, my dad brought home five trumpets and told me to pick one,” Palermo said. “I took to it like a fish in water. I’ve been interested in music my whole life. I’d listen to the Cleveland Orchestra over and over and over, and all though school I was in band and orchestra.”
When he decided to pursue music into adulthood, his studies brought him to Indiana University’s renowned program where he majored in trumpet performance.
By the time he came to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, he was already bridging the worlds of music and administration. Serving as a consultant when the Philharmonic was searching for a new managing director, Palermo was named interim manager in January 2015.
By September of that year, the position was made permanent. The transition has been a seamless one, and Palermo enjoys what the job allows him to do.
“I like the music world, but with my musical background, I really enjoy bringing programs to fruition.”
Among the programs that Palermo helped bring to fruition is the Bach in the Barn series which takes place at the Joseph Decuis Farm and features an elegant blend of music and food in a rustic and intimate venue.
But by far his most ambitious undertaking has been this year’s Violins of Hope, a program he first experienced when it was in his hometown of Cleveland.
He decided then that he wanted to bring it to Fort Wayne.
“Violins of Hope is at the top of the list of things I’ve ever done,” Palermo said. “The opportunity to bring 28 organizations together and be able to juggle all of that. Even before it all happened, we had a wonderful steering committee, eight people who were all on the same page about what we wanted to do.”
Although the Violins of Hope themselves serve as a centerpiece, the programming that takes place is individual to each host city, and Palermo enjoyed bringing in events and venues unique to Fort Wayne, including the Allen County Library’s genealogy collection.
With his top collaborator, Jaki Schreier from the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, determined that education was also a top priority.
Trained docents visited Rotary Clubs, church groups, and schools throughout the area, and along the way Palermo and Scheier became a formidable team.
“Jaki has been a dream collaborator,” Palermo said. “The best outgrowth of this has been the professional and personal friendship that has come from this project. From the time I first talked to her about it in January 2018, we hit the ground running, It has been such an amazing project.”
COO, Vice President of Arts Campus Administration, Arts United
The downtown Arts Campus is still in its infancy, feeling like a new and exciting part of the growth of the arts community and the support from people around the region.
But, in fact, the campus had been in the plans all along, part of the vision when renowned architect Louis Kahn was brought in to design what is now the Arts United Center. It just took Fort Wayne a few decades to get with Kahn’s program.
One person who is helping to fulfill that vision is Miriam Morgan of Arts United who comes to her love of the arts through a childhood spent in Wabash. The growth of the Honeywell Foundation and building of the Honeywell Center came at a perfect time for Morgan to learn about theatrical venues and performance.
But even before that, her father found ways to introduce her to the backstage excitement.
“I think my Dad always wanted to be a theater performer,” Morgan said. “He took us to a lot of events, and we’d stay well after the performances and find a way to sneak on stage. He’d push road cases, buddy up to the musicians.”
Morgan herself fulfilled the dream of millions when, for a time, she even ran away with the circus. Her varied resume eventually led her to Fort Wayne, and she freelanced for years doing lighting design for a variety of projects and performances.
Although her focus now is on the development of the arts campus, she continues to work behind the scenes occasionally, most notably with the recent Fort Wayne Ballet production of The Nutcracker. She’s also working with Manchester University on the collegiate debut in 2020 of The Invention of Morel, an opera composed by former Police drummer Stewart Copeland. But one passion that took the fore in 2019 was shining the spotlight on Fort Wayne’s architectural gem, the Arts United Center. She often gives tours of the structure to people from around the world, and this year presented a lecture on the topic for Allen County Public Library’s downtown location.
“People would come from all over, stopping by because they were in Chicago and wanted to see Kahn’s building,” Morgan said. “I have no background in architecture, but I think the reason that I can lead tours around the building is that I’m speaking the language of everyone else who comes to see the building. I appreciate the building as a work of art, and I’m just saying the things I’ve figured out about the building as I’ve done reading and research about it. The building has a voice we need to talk about more. The people who brought Kahn here didn’t really know what they were doing here yet, that Kahn had this idea of a Lincoln Center for Fort Wayne. It’s taken us awhile, but we’re starting to fulfill that original vision.”
Christopher J. Murphy
Assistant Director and Outreach Director, Fort Wayne Youtheatre
Having moved to Fort Wayne from Indianapolis when he was still a toddler, Christopher J. Murphy was performing from the time he could talk. And thanks to a set of circumstance in his youth, he found two happily willing audience members.
“My parents divorced when I was 18 months old so my mother had to go to work,” Murphy said. “Of course my grandmother wouldn’t hear of me going to a babysitter, so I stayed with my grandparents. I was an only child, and I amused myself by putting on little plays in their living room. That was my first exposure to acting, and it was the first time I heard the sweet musical sound of laughter. It’s an addiction, and my taste for it never went away.”
It was a few years later, when taken to see a traveling production of My Fair Lady starring Noel Harrison, son of Rex who famously played the role of Henry Higgins on Broadway and in film, that Murphy decided that theater was something he wanted to do professionally.
“I thought then that if I can’t do that with my life, I won’t be happy,” he said. “I never thought in realistic terms that it could happen until I became the director of the theatrical troupe in high school, and something about that seemed more realistic than being an actor. The thought of being an actor seemed so daunting, but the idea of directing seemed more plausible. Plus I liked the idea of telling people what to do.”
Having taught at Fort Wayne Youtheatre and then taking on the role of assistant director and outreach director four years ago, many of Murphy’s directorial duties have revolved around Youtheatre’s schedule.
This year alone he directed the May production of The Commedia Rapunzel, a more ambitious and hilarious version of the well-known fairy tale, and this month’s Frozen, Jr.
But he also served as assistant director for the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre production of Sweeney Todd, director for Arena Dinner Theatre’s Comedy of Tenors, and will direct the upcoming Civic production of Matilda in collaboration with Youtheatre.
He finds the switch from directing children to adults a non-issue.
“It’s pretty much the same,” Murphy said. “I treat them both with the same respect and have the same expectations. Sometimes you have to approach it a little differently with kids, break the scenes down into more digestible pieces and have shorter rehearsals. But I treat a nine-year-old the same as I do a 50-year-old, and I find the nine-year-old will rise to that occasion.”
He also approaches Frozen with the same enthusiasm that he has the many Sondheim musicals he has directed over the years. In fact, he found some very common ground in the popular characters of Elsa and Anna.
“I do have siblings now,” he said. “I love my siblings, and I like my siblings. But they’re all 10 years or more younger than I am, and they all grew up together so they’re closer to each other than they are to me. I see that in this show, how they were separated and the longing they had for each other is a longing that I’ve had myself. I can relate to that.”
Executive Director, Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
Andrew Sherman found what was to be his passion in life by the time he was a student at Price Elementary School when he began appearing in school plays. That interest, supported and encouraged by his parents, led to Fort Wayne Youtheatre. His mother nurtured his love for the stage by exposing him to plays, but it was when he was on the stage himself that he really began to shine. By the time he went to North Side High School, however, others were trying to steal him from the theater.
“Basketball coaches were looking at me and emailing me,” said Sherman, who stands 6 foot 7 inches. “Actually, they were sending me letters in the days before email, trying to get me to come to tryouts. I had played soccer for a while when I was a kid, but when I went to middle school I had Betty McKee as a teacher who, like my mother, provided additional support and got me involved in show choir.”
Sherman continued to perform in school plays and community theater. It was in high school that he met his mentor Kirby Volz, a man Sherman regards as a second father. The teacher helped his student grow artistically, and it was during this time that Sherman began working, both on the stage and behind the scenes, with the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre, a project cofounded and directed by Volz. So last year when Volz decided to step down as director and focus on producing, Sherman was the choice to take over the program’s leadership. Sherman’s choice for his first production this past summer was an ambitious one — West Side Story.
“It was an awesome experience, one I’ll never forget,” Sherman said. “It was a perfect combination of talent, staff, kids. It was everything I could have asked for. We had 56 kids in the show and 10 people on the crew.”
The show was enthusiastically received by audiences, and the resulting momentum has led to new and exciting plans for the future. Sherman helped create an umbrella organization — Indiana Music Theatre Foundation — which will be opening a facility next year. And the combination of FWSMT and IMTF allows for the production of two shows next year: Les Miserables in June and American Idiot in August, a perfect blend of classic and new musical energy.
Sherman, who also teaches and directs show choir at Homestead High School, is happy to offer young talent opportunities beyond what they get at school.
“We can do bigger shows than what high schools can produce,” Sherman said. “I’m not dogging high school because I teach in a high school. But they can be limited financially or by content or by the talent they have in their school. We’re bringing together students from all of the schools and can put together much larger productions and give these kids that many more opportunities.”