Theater company challenges local mores with Fun Home
February 14, 2019
Andy Planck had been living in New York for five years, touring the country with musical productions and taking his shot at a career in theater. But his life in New York was interrupted when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Coming back to his native Fort Wayne to be with her, Planck began to look around the city in which he’d grown up and where he found his love of performing. He saw potential and change that inspired him.
“Fort Wayne wasn’t producing a great deal of important and contemporary musical theatre for a variety of reasons,” he said. “But it had grown and evolved and wasn’t as hyper-conservative as it was. I saw enough community support for progressive works that had never been seen in Fort Wayne.”
A place for important theater
That optimism wasn’t shared by many in the city. Planck heard some self-defeating attitudes that he decided needed to be addressed.
“I kept hearing, ‘Oh, you could never do that play in Fort Wayne,’ or, ‘You’d have a difficult time finding the artists to do a show like that.’ And I really believed that those artists were here. We just needed to find a different approach and try harder to engage the artists here who might have the skills to do that kind of programming.”
Planck conceived of a place where edgy, contemporary programming that would engage the community and challenge those more conservative attitudes. He began putting together a business plan, talking to leaders in the community, and making that dream a reality. Close to finding a space on Broadway, Planck thought he saw an opening only to have someone else snatch the property at the last minute. Somewhat defeated, Planck moved to Chicago to seek more work while still checking in on possible venues in Fort Wayne.
“We were taking a pretty ambitious and aggressive approach, so after we lost the space on Broadway, we took a hard look at how we wanted to market and brand ourselves,” he said. “Location is important. We knew we had to be in the right place, and we thought a downtown presence was important.”
Eventually, Planck learned of a space on Pearl Street, one ideally situated for the project he had in mind. Once the other potential tenants dropped out, he knew it was time to take advantage of what was happening in downtown Fort Wayne.
“It was 2015, and I decided we needed to ride this wave before it was too late and we were priced out of a great location like that,” he said. “It was near the Landing, it was an historic space, and in January 2016, I finally took the leap.”
What resulted was the Three Rivers Music Theatre, a new company dedicated to bringing contemporary and socially challenging pieces to Fort Wayne.
Bringing Progressive works to town
In the last three years, he’s directed plays like Cabaret, which is iconic but still controversial and electrifying, as well as lesser known plays like Dogfight, A New Brain, and Title of Show. This spring’s production, the 2015 Tony Award-winner Fun Home, is likely his greatest accomplishment in TRMT’s short history.
“They had just released Fun Home for national performance, and I knew I wanted to acquire the license and rights to perform it here,” Planck said. “That kind of thing is usually only granted to the largest, most established theaters in the country, so my application was denied. I asked our account rep if there was any way I could change their minds, and he said, ‘You can file an appeal, but they rarely change their minds.’
“I decided to appeal anyway and wrote in the letter that I was in a very conservative community, and the only way to change the minds and hearts of people was to expose them to works like this because it changes people like almost nothing else does. Art is the best way to change a community and change its narrative. People will open their hearts and listen to a message when they see it in this way. About a month later, the account rep called me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but they’ve approved your appeal. You’re going to get to do the show.’”
The production put Fort Wayne among the select few cities in the country to see this remarkable piece outside of New York. While the show is universal in its message of acceptance and openness, it is also very specific in addressing an underrepresented part of the community.
“It’s about family. It’s about our universal connection to family,” Planck said. “But it’s also about the trials of family dynamics, how we can grow up our entire lives with each other and still be mysteries to each other. It’s also important to tell a story about the LGBT community, and this is the first lesbian protagonist, so I wanted to bring that to our community.”
Planck is also riding the crest of a wave that will see Three Rivers Music Theatre and its sister organization, Triple Threat Performing Academy, move to Electric Works at the old GE campus in 2021. The academy offers classes in singing, dancing, and acting and has seen its student base grow from 30 to 150 in three short years.
By then, the still-young organization will have produced who knows how many other groundbreaking productions. But for now, Planck is just happy to have brought Fun Home to his home.
“I’m just so excited for people to see this show and feel its importance. It’s just very exciting.”