Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Meet the Great Eight of 2020

Michele DeVinney

Whatzup Features Writer

Published December 16, 2020

This third annual installment of the Whatzup Great Eight could very well be called “the very special COVID edition.”

This selection of people contributed greatly to our community during the last 12 months. 

In truth, all of these individuals have been contributing their unique talents and insights for years. But with the added challenges of the lockdown and the ways that it individually undermined programming and business plans, these individuals used some creativity to keep the arts in our community alive since March. 

While these challenges continue to loom — with no one quite sure what the next few months will hold — we have many reasons to thank these eight special individuals for giving us plenty to celebrate in 2020.

Ben Jackson and Paris McFarthing

Co-Founders, Hop River Brewing Company

Often, people either opt to spend their entire lives in Fort Wayne or leave only to return. 

That can definitely be said of Hop River Brewing Co. co-owners Ben Jackson and Paris McFarthing. 

While McFarthing is a native and lifelong resident of Fort Wayne, Jackson was born in upstate New York, eventually settling (for the most part) in Washington, D.C., for law school and beyond. However, his wife was from Fort Wayne which brought him to the area regularly. 

It was during those visits that he was encouraged to meet with McFarthing. McFarthing, owner of Phil’s Hobby Shop, had become a fan of home brewing, something which Jackson was also doing at his home in D.C. 

Together, they formed a friendship that eventually became a business model.

“We were independently thinking about this idea of opening a brewery,” Jackson said. “He had a group of folks he was talking to, and we were talking about what might work and how it might work. Finally we decided to combine forces. We were talking long distance daily before we decided to pull the trigger.”

Jackson and his family moved to Fort Wayne, and soon he and McFarthing had a clear concept of what they wanted their business to accomplish beyond the mere selling of beer.

“We knew we wanted to build and create a community, and that was reflected in every decision we made,” said McFarthing. “A lot happened here through community, and we wanted to be part of that and create a very communal space. We had a lot of ideas because anyone can show up and drink a beer, but we wanted there to be a sense of community for everyone who came here.”

To that end, Hop River offered large tables and benches, board games, and counter service. They also made the unusual decision to have no televisions for people to watch, hoping that people, forced to sit together at communal tables, would talk to each other and share a sense of engagement with others who came to enjoy some food and brew. 

That of course came to a quick end after the shutdown when reopening required distancing that flew in the face of their other plans. 

But as social media reports began to spread, Fort Wayne was delighted by the changes made to Hop River, including smaller tables, table service, and mask requirements. 

The adjustment wasn’t easy but was necessary.

“It was a tough one because our original plan was to have only counter service,” McFarthing said. “We had to decide how to interact differently because of the protocols while still providing a good experience.”

“We had worked at building a community with open space, communal seating, board games,” Jackson said. “Suddenly none of those things were allowed anymore, and we had to think about how to keep that sense of community while keeping everyone apart.”

Their sense of community was apparent long before COVID restrictions challenged them and went beyond the use of communal seating. 

Hop River routinely hosted public meetings about various public art projects, and they served as a distributor for fellow brewers Junk Ditch when the latter offered a fundraising ale for Hyper Local Impact. 

Jackson and McFarthing credit marketing director M.C. Lowenstein with the help they’ve needed to connect them to Fort Wayne’s community. 

As they continue to navigate the challenges of COVID restrictions, they hope they will eventually be able to return to a less restrictive format in their brewery.

“No one wants to be a hot spot,” Jackson said. “I don’t want our staff to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Obviously we want to make money but not at the expense of someone getting sick. We hope we can get back on track and use the patio more this spring. Our goal right now is to stay safe, keep our staff and customers safe, and keep our business alive.”

Susan Domer

Marketing and Public Relations Specialist, College of Visual and Performing Arts, Purdue Fort Wayne

Susan Domer juggles two very different roles in the Fort Wayne arts community. On the one hand, she’s sometimes visible, flexing her acting chops in a variety of performances over the years. On the other hand, she mostly works behind the scenes, promoting, propelling, and advocating for the artistic endeavors of the Purdue Fort Wayne College of Visual and Performing Arts.

In 2020 she excelled at both. She tackled one of theater’s most challenging roles while keeping PFW programs at the fore during a pandemic that threatened the mission of the college. 

As Big Mama in the First Presbyterian Theater production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Domer was in one of the last productions to fulfill its performance dates to the end, wrapping in early March. It was a role she had played before but was anxious to fill again.

“I had played Big Mama when I was 26 years old,” Domer said. “I was not seasoned enough as a human being to understand that role, and I was not happy with my performance, so I really wanted to try again. I also wanted to play against a great Big Daddy who would really make it shine.”

Domer found that partner in Thom Hofrichter, known for bringing some pretty big roles to life on a variety of the city’s stages. The chance to fulfill that long held goal of taking on Big Mama again motivated Domer to add the busy rehearsal and performance schedule to an already busy life.

Once that production closed, events at her day job became somewhat complicated. Domer became a solo act as classes moved to online and productions were canceled or modified in the theater, music, and fine arts programs.

“I certainly appreciate now every student worker I’ve ever had,” she said. “I suddenly became a one-woman ad agency and had all of these customers and no student workers to do all of the jobs I give them like updating the calendar and getting things out. I kept my door closed more, and my office became a little workshop. One thing we’ve had open all along is our gallery in the Visual Arts building. Masks are required, but we’re open and have some really exceptional work to show.”

For faculty and staff of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and their satellite campus at Sweetwater, the first priority is to move the students toward their requirements for graduation. 

But there is also a need to provide opportunities for those students to share their talents. As the professors found ways to share those works — through livestreaming or radio-style productions — Domer continues to get the word out so the community can enjoy.

“I really just see myself as a facilitator for all of the great work the faculty and students are doing. I’m always happy and excited to do what I can to help them.”

Todd Espeland

Executive Director, Fort Wayne Youtheatre

When Todd Espeland came to Fort Wayne Youtheatre more than two years ago, assuming the role of executive director from the retiring Leslie Hormann, he left a busy gig as executive director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, where more than 20 plays were staged annually. 

He left a staff of about 40 to helm a staff of three at Youtheatre. But Espeland brought a unique set of skills to the role, including knowing how to use masks because of his studies with Commedia Dell’Arte and his own troupe Commedia Zuppa. 

He and assistant director Christopher Murphy positioned Youtheatre quickly to prepare for COVID.

“We started thinking about COVID in early February,” Espeland said. “We took the approach early that we needed to decide what we were going to do if an order to shelter in place became a reality. We met with the executive committee at the end of February, and by the time the shelter order happened, we already had a plan in place.”

Unlike many organizations which had already announced and printed brochures for the 2020-21 season, Fort Wayne Youtheatre held back, leaving themselves the flexibility to pivot if needed. 

And it has definitely been needed. Youtheatre had performances to consider as well as classes which provide a significant portion of their mission. 

In March they canceled everything through August, but then began offering programing through their social media outlets, such as  Facebook classes every Thursday. With a variety of educational content, Youtheatre began to consider how to safely offer classes in the fall.

“We started to approach the idea of having live classes again and began testing with our summer camps,” Espeland said of Youtheatre’s plans for masks, social distancing, and best practices for offering a safe environment for everyone. “I feel like we got the instruction protocols figured out pretty quickly. Then the students figured out what we were doing, and I was happy we had as many students as we did this fall.”

With the spring semester set for March through May instead of January through March, Youtheatre is again giving itself the best shot at maintaining a full class schedule for the year. 

They have also adapted their performances according to restrictions, even when that meant postponing their planned holiday production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at the Embassy Theatre to the spring.

“We were able to do our fall show by staging it outdoors, both on the plaza of Arts United Center and at the James Family Plaza in Auburn. We’re planning for small audiences at the ArtsLab for our Young Heroes of Conscience performance, and we can do our spring production in May outdoors. I’m glad we planned as early as we did and feel like we predicted correctly so that we were able to accommodate the changes along the way.”

Susan Mendenhall

President, Arts United

For the umbrella organization which oversees many of the area’s arts organizations, the shutdown meant looking to see what protections and support it could offer to companies and theaters which rely on ticket sales and performances. 

In communications with others around the country, Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United, had a keen insight into what was ahead.

“We were all being told at the beginning that we were looking at 18 to 24 months before things would get back to normal, and I think we’re seeing that it’s going to be 18 months,” Mendenhall said. “As we started to see the plan — and the initial plan was Hunker Down Hoosiers before we had the Back on Track plan — we met with the Allen County Board of Health and talked with our board members about the disruption from the pandemic. There are a lot of entities that are interdependent — the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre and the Arts United Center, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and the Embassy Theatre, for example — and we had created an ecosystem planning for those connections and bringing together all of the cohorts.”

Some of those organizations and interdependencies have worked better than others. The Civic Theatre moved their early performances to the Foellinger Theatre and their recent production of Annie to the Embassy. 

The Philharmonic has furloughed their musicians and has canceled their season, and Fort Wayne Ballet had to cancel its live performances of The Nutcracker for the first time. But Arts United has continued to find ways to help their organizations to stay afloat and do what is possible under constantly changing guidelines.

“We have 32 venues and organizations to look at,” Mendenhall said. “We have to ask, ‘How do we follow health and safety protocols and still offer youth programming, keep our box office open, make it safe backstage?’ 

“We’re working with the Arts and Culture Reopening Guide, which is very labor intensive. We’re very lucky to have people like Miriam Morgan, Luke Holliger, and Brian Ernsberger who have done a great job making sure we know what’s required with regard to masks, janitorial procedure, and everything else we need to know to open the venues safely.”

Before the recent spate of added restrictions, Fort Wayne was ahead of many cities in reopening. Fort Wayne Museum of Art is one of the few major museums in the country to have reopened, and several performances were held at local venues in the late summer and early fall. Arts United also received grants which allowed them to assist organizations who needed monies to stay on track with their own programming, in whatever form that took this year. As they look ahead into 2021, there are still many unknowns, but Arts United is working to assure that our vibrant arts community survives this crisis.

Tod Minnich

President/CEO, Honeywell Foundation

When the world stopped and shelter in place orders took hold, life as we knew it changed dramatically. 

This was certainly the case for venues with a year’s worth of programming thrown into chaos and venue staffs scrambling for alternatives that would adhere to strict guidelines. 

The Honeywell Foundation, which manages multiple venues in Wabash, set about to find ways to rescue the year.

“After all of the renovations we had done to the Eagles Theatre, we were two and a half weeks into our reopening celebration,” said Tod Minnich, CEO and President of the Honeywell Foundation. “We had a lot of programming planned, and the Indiana Arts Commission was in town for a meeting when we were watching the news and saw that things were going to shutdown.”

Minnich admitted that the staff was already stretched thin and exhausted from all of the activities, both typical and tied to the grand reopening, when they were asked to begin making plans for alternative programming through the summer and beyond.

“How could we plan for reopening when there was no plan for when that would happen?” Minnich said. “There was disappointment coupled with the unknown, but our team did a great job of navigating. The reopening had already been a huge success, and we were just starting to enjoy that. But we saw the downtime as a chance to recover and plan.”

One venue which saw renewed vitality was the 13-24 Drive-In, a spot that is routinely used each summer for a popular movie series. But the folks at the Honeywell also saw that a drive-in allowed for built-in distancing and began scheduling concerts there as well.

“We moved the plaza music shows to the drive-in and brought in some national acts, too,” Minnich said. “The team did a great job adapting our other summer programming. We provided virtual art classes from the studio at the Eagles Theatre. We offered a Zoom environment for our theater camp, and they were able to perform on Zoom individually on the stage. Our Wabass camp also became virtual. 

“There were a lot of ways that we were able to creatively address the problem, and we’re already looking at how we can apply those to future programming to allow us to be engaged with all of the schools during the year. Even our restaurant operation switched to Take and Bake dinners.”

Like others which have successfully navigated the oddities of 2020, the Honeywell Foundation took the inherent talents of its staff to bring the arts to life in some very trying conditions.

“We didn’t plan on any sense of normalcy at all,” Minnich said. “We’re continuing to look at ways to adapt until spring or even summer, leaving ourselves every chance to pivot and switch to virtual programming when we need it.”

Alicia Pyle

Performer/music educator

For Alicia Pyle, performance isn’t her main occupation. But as an educator and busy member of Fort Wayne’s music community, she understands that to succeed as a teacher she must remain sharp as a performer. 

At the same time, she also enjoys helping others in the community find opportunities to perform. When COVID-19 caused the jobs for local musicians to suddenly evaporate, Pyle saw an opportunity to step up and help her friends in a time of need. 

For Pyle, it’s just part of her own approach to a career in music.

“I was the first musician in my family though we did own Pyle Industries in Huntington which sold car stereos and sound systems,” Pyle said. “I came from a background of sound, but nobody played anything. But my mom wanted me to play because she loved Liberace, and I was always a good ear player.”

Trained in classical music, Pyle began to tire of the structure and soon became attracted to jazz and improv, giving credit to local musicians like Eric Clancy and Michael Patterson for helping her find her own voice in the genre. 

Yet Pyle said she sees herself as more business-minded, not surprising considering her family background. When a chance to give back to the musicians in the community presented itself, she took it.

“I saw a chance to hold a birthday fundraiser on Facebook just a few days before the shutdown,” Pyle said. “We have a lot of local freelance musicians in this city, and they had just lost all of their gigs. It was a happy accident really. As much as social media can divide us, it can also bring us together. We had a lot of musicians collaborating so that people could contribute to the fundraiser. And it wasn’t Alicia’s fundraiser. It was for everybody.”

Pyle continues to teach virtually and has otherwise avoided any outing except for her night at the Club Room at the Clyde, where she hosts  Wednesday Jazz Sessions every week. The Club Room had recently made some changes, planned pre-pandemic, which allowed for more room and a greater feeling of safety. 

Things seemed on the verge of improving before more COVID cases led to another wave of restrictions. Seeing the need, Pyle decided to renew her efforts with a Fort Wayne Freelance Musician Fundraiser Reboot, an effort which has already seen live streaming performances to raise money for area musicians once again sidelined by the virus. Pyle is happy to help her fellow performers get through this rough patch.

“I’m an educator, and I can do everything online,” Pyle said. “But the musicians in this city want to play, and a lot of people in my life depend on that for a living. I’ll be happy if we can get something going again to help people who need this money to pay their bills.”

Tracy Tritz

Ballet Mistress/Director of Outreach/Choreographer, Fort Wayne Ballet

In her years as faculty, dancer, and choreographer, Tracy Tritz has shared with our community her love of dance, her talent and vision as an artist, and her dedication to Fort Wayne’s premiere ballet company. 

In recent years, with a dedicated approach to choreography as ballet mistress and director of outreach for Fort Wayne Ballet, she has brought dynamic performances such as Bolero to the Arts United Center stage. She also contributed one of the most moving performances of last year’s Violins of Hope, making the Allen County Courthouse rotunda a space of reverence and beauty. 

But it was with this year’s production of Dracula, a Fort Wayne Ballet original and world premiere, that she truly established herself as one of the city’s greatest talents. 

With last fall’s debut of three scenes from Dracula, not to mention that Violins of Hope performance, Tritz was foreshadowing what she had in store for 2020.

“It was such an honor to be asked to do Violins of Hope,” Tritz said. “I knew right off the bat that I wanted to honor the Jewish faith and Jewish symbols, and I had a picture in my mind of the six women kneeling to form the Star of David. I really concentrated on what it would be like to be in that position, to not know what was going to happen but to know it was when not if. I wanted to honor the number of people lost and juxtaposition that with angelic images.”

By the beginning of the year Tritz had done a deep dive into the original Bram Stoker vision of Dracula, avoiding the cliched Hollywood portrayals. 

Her choreography was moving along and set for rehearsals with dancers when COVID shut down the ballet and almost everything else in the city, providing her with more time to focus on the choreography at hand. The project not only represented her first full-length production but allowed her to apply what she’d been doing with Bolero and Violins of Hope — making music selections and costume, set, and lighting design a big part of her artistic process. 

Almost two years after being asked by Fort Wayne Ballet artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown to choreograph Dracula, it was the final performance of the weekend which allowed her to actually enjoy what she’d accomplished.

“Our first three days in the theater, it was hard to really appreciate what was happening,” she said. “It was a very tech-heavy production with a lot of audio-video aspects and the restrictions due to COVID. I was on a headset for those earlier performances, but it was at midnight at the Saturday show that I was able to sit back and say, ‘Holy crap, I did this.’ I was in my car at 1:30 in the morning when it really became overwhelming for me. It was a proud moment for me, and I feel like I really took a big step.”

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