In 2014, when Ron Spencer, artistic director of Theatre on the Square, retired as head of the organization he founded, to relocate to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, he hand-picked Lori Raffel to succeed him.
Previously, Raffel who is also a director and actor, served as the marketing and media relations director at Phoenix Theatre for eight years. Now is her second season, Raffel is putting her own stamp on TOTS and building on the legacy that Spencer created with the theater he founded in 1988.
When asked by this writer to assess Raffel’s effectiveness in her role at TOTS, board president Bethany Line-Lawson says “Lori has been a real asset to the theater in terms of providing continuity through a transition that could have been very chaotic. She is incredibly passionate about theater, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She is also a very hard worker and is very giving of her time— not just for our shows, but with other people in their artistic endeavors. If there is a problem, Lori figures out a creative way to solve it, even if it happens at the last minute. She also navigates unexpected challenges well.”
Recently byteclay.com sat down with Raffel in the theater’s main stage house to talk about her progress thus far, as well as her hopes for TOTS’ future.
It appears that you are now realizing your own vision and it’s your people who are making the decisions.
Yes. I feel really good. It is really scary. There have been winners and losers but I have learned something every single time.
Is it safe to say that you are literally transforming the TOTS brand?
Yes. Not only if are we choosing different subject matter, we are also producing and presenting the work better.
How is the physical building?
A lot of things were ready to fall apart with the building but we faced and overcome each one. With help from the Mass Avenue Community Development Corporation we were able to fix the roof. And Bryan Payne and the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) helped us refurbish the lobby and take care of water damage repairs. CICF also helped us pay off our building so we now own it free and clear. Funders want to know that you are going to be good stewards and I think we have done a really good job of showing good results and following up.
I noticed your board is fairly small. Why is that?
Nearly everyone from the Spencer years is now gone. Some didn’t agree with what I wanted to do and others said “I have been on the board for about ten year and it’s time for me to go.” It’s difficult to find people who are willing to give of their time and money. It seems everyone is spread so thin but we are working on increasing and developing the board.
How many board members and what skills are you looking for?
I would love for us to have at least 12. We are not necessarily looking for theater people. We need a banker. We need a CPA. We would love to have somebody in PR—that’s always helpful. Maybe someone who can get our name known like at Lilly or through another large employer. It would also be nice to have someone from a law firm.
TOTS has inaugurated an Artist Driven Fund. Tell me about it?
That was my goal when I came here. I wanted to be able to pay the actors because we already pay designers and directors and crew—not much— but something. Cindy Phillips, the wife of board member, Roger Schmeltzer, came up with the name Artist Driven Fund. I want the artists to be involved with their own destinies and if they come to us and say “Listen, I know a sponsor you might be interested in.,” we’ll follow up. We have community theaters and Equity houses but I feel we have so many people in the middle ground that are very talented and creative. When you ask someone to sacrifice three hours a night for three and a half weeks to rehearse and perform every night during a ruin, you are asking a lot from a person.
What kind of response have you received?
Fairly good. We are hoping to have more gatherings and some type of annual fundraiser for that once a year. Roger and Cindy are driving the effort.
If you were to grade yourself what would it be?
Some days I feel like I deserve an A and some days I don’t even want to think about it. I think a strong B.
Is the theater in the black?
Yes, we are.
How long do to you think it will take for the rebranding to show good results?
I want to make sure if it is a TOTS show that it fits our mission. We have changed our mission statement. (“Theatre on the Square seeks to foster an environment of collaborative, empowering, and joyful experience for both audience and artist through the universal language of theater. Serving as a hub for original and established works, as well as a variety of non-traditional productions, Theatre on the Square is a place of artistic and community growth, striving to expand all aspects of the theater arts.”) We want to be a collaborative place where all kinds of artists, whether they have a home around here or whether they just are looking for spaces, can come here and find a home—such as Indy Magic Monthly and Indyprov. From time to time Three Dollar Bill is here. Also, Q Artistry is now doing “Cabaret Poe” here.
TOTS is now situated on one of the hottest streets in town now, would you agree?
When I first came here—honestly, every day I noticed all these people in the street that may have walked by every day and wanted TOTS to succeed but stayed away. I hope those people representing various communities will patronize us one day once we give them theater that is relevant to their interests.
What did you learn at the Phoenix that has helped you at TOTS?
Bryan taught me so much. I read plays constantly and it was something that I was taught by Bryan— to always have a couple of plays with me. Always know what is new out there. I always ask board members and volunteers to read plays too.
What is your vision for TOTS?
I am not looking to direct more than one or two each season. I really want to draw talented directors from other theaters, including community theaters that bring with them talented people and have their own vision of what they want. Obviously when they submit things we look to see if they follow our mission, if we can afford to produce them, if we have the space to present them. For instance—we are doing “Passion” this season. I don’t think I would have ever considered it previously. The director, Tim Spradlin, who submitted it is incredibly passionate about the show and has had it on his bucket list forever. He came with amazing vision and a team—that way it is not all on us. Stephen Hollenbeck is doing costuming for “Passion.” I could never afford for him to do costumes for us regularly but I am thrilled to have him work on this one and maybe another one is the future.
What do you want TOTS to be known for?
I would just like us to present quality theater—some contemporaries, musicals, comedy, drama and also some of the classics but we hope to render them in a modern way
For tickets and information about Theatre on the Square’s current production, “Killer Joe,” playing now through March 5, call the TOTS box office at (317) 685-8687 or visit tots.org.