The play is “Death of a Salesman,” and it’s proof that Theatre Northwest at Indiana University Northwest is still very much alive.
Of course, IU Northwest’s venerable Tamarack Hall, which houses Theatre Northwest’s performance venue, is closed, the casualty of last September’s campus flood. But the Department of Performing Arts and its committed students, faculty, stage talent, and behind-the-scenes personnel are determined that the show will go on, and so Theatre Northwest shall resume its production schedule later this month with the classic Arthur Miller drama.
The Department of Performing Arts will open the Miller play, which was originally scheduled for Fall 2008, on Friday, Feb. 20, at Hammond’s Towle Theater, located at 5205 Hohman Ave. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and a matinee performance on Sunday, Feb. 22, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Contact the department at (219) 980-6808 for reservations.
Subsequent Theatre Northwest shows will include public matinee performances of the children’s classic “The Velveteen Rabbit” in the Savannah Center on April 4 and 5, and a summer musical revue, “And the World Goes ‘Round,” with dates and location to be determined. Clearly, Theatre Northwest’s loss of its 50-year-old venue in Tamarack Hall has not slowed the program’s ambitions or student interest in theater.
“We’re increasing enrollments even with this (Tamarack situation),” said Performing Arts Chair and Associate Professor of Communication Lori Montalbano, Ph.D. “We’ve had a small increase, and we’re hoping for more. And there is the anticipation of a new home, so that’s what we’re trying to emphasize for the students.”
The university closed Tamarack for good in September 2008 following a campus flood that forced a two-week suspension of classes and left Theatre Northwest’s auditorium with standing water six rows up from the stage. The extensive water damage, along with other long-term concerns about moisture and mold in the campus’s original building, led IU officials in Gary and Bloomington to decide closure was the best option. IU is seeking funding from the Indiana General Assembly for a replacement building that would include a new venue for Theatre Northwest.
“Ironically, the first show I did here was titled ‘Rain,’” recalled Associate Professor of Performing Arts Jerry Taylor, Ph.D., who is directing both “Death of a Salesman” and “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Taylor has taught at IU Northwest since 1981.
“The way (the closure) happened was difficult to deal with,” Taylor said. “If we’d been getting a big new building, and we’d had an opportunity to say, ‘This is our last show in Tamarack,’ and sort of have a little celebration of Tamarack before closing it to go into a new space, that would have been one thing. But all of a sudden, it was just gone, and we can’t get back in there.
“There was a feeling of emptiness. I’ve been here almost 30 years, and that was like my second home. I lived over there,” he said.
“So many students, I could tell, felt so personally affected by this,” Montalbano agreed. “We felt homeless.”
The Tamarack space was widely considered to be one of the finest theater venues in northern Indiana. And, to the theatre students and actors who practiced and performed there, it was a place to call their own and the symbol of an acclaimed IU Northwest program.
“I’m really going to miss Tamarack,” said senior Trisha Eizenga, of St. John, who is a double major in theater and dental education. “We had some great shows here. I really fell in love with the theatre here.”
“Death of a Salesman” will be Eizenga’s final performance for Theatre Northwest. After last September’s flood robbed the program of its venue, she was grateful just for the opportunity to enjoy her last production here.
“I thought this show (“Death of a Salesman”) would be canceled,” Eizenga said. “I felt like this was it, the end of my theater career at IU Northwest. I was devastated. But this is going to be an awesome show.”
At least one cast member of “Death of a Salesman” is excited about the change of venue to Hammond’s Towle Theater. Freshman theater major Steven Pedrosa, of Hammond, will have the chance to perform his first college play in his hometown, and he said that friends and family are eager to see the show.
“People have been asking me about it,” Pedrosa said. “They’re excited, and they want to know how to get tickets. I told them that they have to make reservations.”
Pedrosa also won a role in “The Velveteen Rabbit.” As a committed theater student, the Gavit High School grad admitted that Tamarack’s closure initially caused him to wonder about the program’s future. But the revival of Theatre Northwest’s spring season, and talk of a new facility to replace Tamarack, has Pedrosa excited about his future prospects on the Theatre Northwest stage.
“I hope I’m here for (the new building),” he said. “I’ve got to get a lot of shows under my belt so I can build up my résumé.”
Despite the loss of Tamarack, the future of performing arts at IU Northwest remains secure, Montalbano said. Not only has the program continued to draw majors, she noted, but Theatre Northwest auditions also continue to draw a sizable number of non-majors who are interested in acting.
For now, rehearsals take place on the second floor of the Savannah Center or in Savannah Auditorium, although the “Death of a Salesman” cast was scheduled to begin rehearsals at the Towle on Feb. 8. Taylor said the transition to a different space has presented a few complications, though he expressed gratitude to the university and to Towle officials for working out an agreement for the use of that venue.
“The Towle is great, but it has very small access to the stage,” Taylor said. “So everything (for the scenery) has to be built in small parts and then put together once we actually get it up the stairs to the second floor of the building. It’s really taxing.”
Still, for students, going “on the road,” as it were, will introduce them to an essential element of professional theater, he said.
“It is a good learning experience for the students, because when they get out in the real world they are going to have to work with touring companies and adapt to a new space,” Taylor said.
“They definitely are getting a different experience, but we’re giving up a lot,” Montalbano explained. “We are not a touring company.”
IU Northwest freshman Melissa Hale, of Portage, a student in Taylor’s children’s theater class who auditioned for “The Velveteen Rabbit,” said she was saddened by the loss of Tamarack although she’s never performed there. Hale’s mother, who was herself a student, introduced Hale to Theatre Northwest by bringing her to several performances, including the children’s production “Hansel and Gretel,” which Hale called “the cutest thing I had ever seen.”
“It’s really depressing (about Tamarack),” Hale said. “I’m in Portage Community Theater, and we’ve never had our own building, so I know what it’s like to have no theatre there. And especially to have it for so long and then have it just taken away from you … that’s awful.”
Still, Hale said the loss of Tamarack would not be a reason for her to leave IU Northwest’s theater program, which she cited as the attraction that drew her to the university.
“I’ve dealt with the no-theatre thing before, and you can work around it,” she said. “It’s tough, and it’s not a lot of fun at times, but you can still put on a quality production.”
IU Northwest senior theater major Charlie Scanlon, a Lake Station Edison grad, said the new theatre, when it’s built, likely won’t be a match for the beloved Tamarack venue, which seated 600.
“I am sure it will be a lot more up-to-date, in terms of technology, but I don’t think it will be the same size,” said Scanlon, whose appearance in “Death of a Salesman” will mark his curtain call with Theatre Northwest. “There’s just so much that we had on that stage, that I don’t think they’ll be able to do the new one in the same way.
“I’ve done tons of shows over there,” Scanlon said. “I have a lot of fond memories from over there.”