Nov 13, 2020
The cultural and theatrical life of the Hoosier capital suffered two huge losses during the third week of September 2020. Within the space of three days, Indianapolis learned of the death of two of its most creative, boundary-pushing directors: Ron Spencer, founder and artistic director of Theatre on the Square (TOTS), and Bryan Fonseca, who co-founded the Phoenix Theatre.
We hope to cover Fonseca and his work in theatre on a future show, but for now we turn our attention to the life of Ron Spencer, who grew up in McCordsville but attended high school in Indianapolis.
Ron Spencer's long life on the stage began as a child and extended all the way into his final years in Puerto Vallarta, where he moved after retiring from Theatre on the Square in 2014. And while he was well known as a director of shows at TOTS, he also made his mark as an actor, singer, and playwright.
Among Ron's writing credits: Dearest, a Mommy Musical, based on the tell-all book written by Christina Crawford about her tumultuous relationship with mother, actress Joan Crawford.
The camp, over-the-top production of Dearest - directed by Ron for the Indianapolis Fringe Festival and a follow-up TOTS production - was emblematic of his love for Hollywood stars of a certain age and their camp-classic films.
Under his leadership, TOTS held a "film noir" series which re-imagined revered (if sometimes ironically) cinematic gems like Mildred Pierce (1945) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) as tongue-in-cheek stage plays, with Ron reenacting the roles originated by Bette Davis and other iconic female stars of the era.
It would be a mistake, however, to consider only the amusing and camp aspects of Ron's theatrical work. As the artistic director of Theatre on the Square, he spearheaded the production of such important plays as Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally, which raised questions about spirituality and sexuality.
And it was no accident that many TOTS shows featured the perspective of members of marginalized communities. As a gay man who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ron knew what it meant to be treated as an outsider and understood the power of theatre to offer hope and change hearts.
In a memorable TOTS production of a musical featuring the work of composer George Winters, Ron sang the song "It Gets Better," a plea to LGBT youth being bullied by peers to look beyond the torment and see the rich, rewarding life that awaits them as adults.
The discussion of Ron Spencer's life will be led by Hoosier History Live associate producer Mick Armbruster, filling in for our regular host, Nelson Price. Mick will be joined by phone by two guests who knew and worked with Ron Spencer over the course of many years:
Mick, Jeannie and Michael will discuss Ron's early work in theatre, as well as his founding of Theatre on the Square in 1988 at its original location in Fountain Square. TOTS moved to Mass Avenue in 1993 to be part of the burgeoning arts district there. They'll explore the impact TOTS had on the cultural life of Indianapolis, as well as consider the factors that led to its demise in 2018.
Mick plans to open the WICR phone lines early in hope that some of Ron's many friends and theatrical associates will call in at (317) 788-3314 with their stories and memories.