On the surface, a musical embodying the values of the late 1960s counter-culture movement, and Fort Wayne's riverfront development have little in common. That is, of course, until the story of Three Rivers Music Theatre and its production of Hair is revealed.
Hair will be performed at Williams Theatre on the Indiana University-Purdue University campus, on July 8-17.
Three Rivers Music Theatre's inaugural performance was this past April's production of The Last Five Years. In just a few months, Three Rivers Music Theatre has managed to win over audiences, take on meaningful material and play a role in Fort Wayne's riverfront development.
The theater is the brainchild of Andy Planck, a Fort Wayne native who graduated from Northrop High School, and subsequently Ball State University with a degree in musical theater. Planck determined that Fort Wayne was due for a professional theater.
"Three Rivers Music Theatre started as a germ of an idea when I moved back to Fort Wayne from New York City in 2009," he explained.
It was Planck's mother's battle with breast cancer that called him back to Fort Wayne. He came back to help her and his family. But the fact that Fort Wayne is not New York City did not mean Planck's theater work would go dormant. The evolution of arts in Fort Wayne served as an inspiration.
"I was inspired by how much the Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana arts communities had grown, and I felt that Fort Wayne was ready to support a professional theatre company," Planck stated.
Citing Fort Wayne's performing and visual arts staples such as the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Planck wondered, 'Why not a professional theater?' He considered, too, the success of touring Broadway productions at the Embassy Theatre. All of these elements added up to a city's performing arts scene that was ready for more. As developed as Fort Wayne's art scene was, Planck saw room for improvement.
"Northeast Indiana is home to so many performing artists who are industry professionals, artists with degrees in musical theater and other areas of performance. [But] there was no professional theater company to employ these area professionals, no venue for area artists to be compensated for their skills," he said.
Planck put in the necessary research to create a viable business plan, a process that took considerable time and effort.
"I met for two years with the Small Business Development Center, and I assembled my business plan. I spent several years gathering market data and analyzing and researching the industry. I looked at real estate for the new company, and opportunities kept failing through. Doors kept closing. The timing was not right," Planck stated.
Tragedy struck in 2011, when Planck's mom passed away. Planck moved to Chicago to continue working. Part of his mother's legacy included Planck's work in theater.
"She was so upset that I left my career in New York when she was diagnosed in 2009. She was my biggest cheerleader. She never missed a show. I knew she would want me to get back to it.
"I spent the following years working in some of the biggest theaters in the country. I was able to continue my observations and research on how successful theater companies operate. I continued to sharpen my business plan and the structure for Three Rivers Music Theatre," he said.
Timing improved in 2015. Planck was reading about Fort Wayne's downtown revitalization and riverfront development. The city's changes served as a catalyst for the theatrical entrepreneur.
"I thought, 'now's the time,'" Planck said. "Fort Wayne is growing, rebranding and supporting arts and culture with unprecedented enthusiasm. So I finalized my business plan, sourced our studios on Pearl Street and moved aggressively forward with our first season.
"We opened to rave reviews in April with our inaugural production of The Last Five Years. It is so thrilling to watch this long-time dream come true. We are so excited to contribute to Fort Wayne's rapidly growing arts community."
The property at 212 Pearl Street became Three Rivers Music Theatre and also houses the theater's offices, rehearsal studios and educational studios for Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy. The theatrical performances are all performed off-site.
When asked about his decision to include Hair in this production season, Planck's answer was heartfelt.
"First and foremost, Hair serves as a dedication to my mom. It was her favorite show. I took her to see the most recent Broadway revival in New York shortly after her diagnosis in 2009. That is one of my most cherished memories with her. She would be so thrilled that we're presenting it," he stated.
The musical's age, and original context could prove challenging for some groups wanting to perform it. Planck takes a unique approach to what the show has to offer.
"Hair is a show about equality, love and acceptance. It is in many ways as socially relevant today as it was in 1968. It is exciting when art can start a dialogue, and I hope we do just that," Planck said.
The show's relevance is not lost on the actors who comprise the musical's tribe, either.
Paige C. Matteson plays Crissy. A Fort Wayne native, Matteson is working on a BFA in Musical Theatre at Ball State and has performed in plays at IPFW. Despite nearly five decades between their time periods, Matteson sees similarities between herself and the character she portrays.
"I think this role really captures what it is to be a 20-something-year-old in America. Crissy and I are both young and getting a full dose of reality. The world of the play and [the] present day share the same anger, confusion and fear towards the political system and injustice in the world," she explained.
"I think it is important that audiences spend two hours opening their eyes to the problems in [America] that have existed for the past 50 years."
Kayley Hinen, who plays tribe member Leata, shares Matteson's perspective.
"What has shocked me the most about the era is that everything they were fighting for then, we are fighting the exact same fight today. They were fighting for equal rights for all races; we're fighting for equal rights for all humans. This is a show that will be timeless until we have equality for all," she stated.
And that, perhaps is what makes Hair timeless. Yes, it is a rock musical, so the sensibilities of the music genre are present. There are nudity, drugs and free love, but, more importantly, there is the fight for peace and equality that seems to resonate with American audiences of every era.
Hinen stated that she is motivated by recent tragedies and injustices and uses them to see the motivation for a certain kind of activism.
"There is a huge, long list of reasons why I'm motivated to do this show. Most recently, the Orlando shootings have been added to that list. I do this show for all [who] lost their lives that night. I do this show for all women and men who feel like they are not equal. I do this for all the people who have lost loved ones to any wars," she said.
Like every effective work of art, Hair challenges audiences and performers alike. When asked what audiences should expect, Hinen explained, "Audiences should be prepared to laugh, cry and think. This show is funny and goofy. It's daring and bold. It's emotional. This is a show that will open up a dialogue in people's households."
According to Hinen, Planck helped the performers to see the importance of the musical. "As our incredible director Andy Planck told us, 'You can't change hearts and minds with a Facebook status. But you can change hearts and minds with a piece of art. This is your piece. This is your art.'"