It took some convincing before Ben Asaykwee, artistic director of Q Artistry, agreed to talk about himself. Included on Examiner.com’s "Ten Most Compelling Performing Arts People of 2013" list, we wanted to know more about this versatile artist who has been the driving force behind this freshly dynamic theater and arts organization, dedicated solely to the production and development of original works by Indiana artists.
Asaykwee, who is an Indianapolis native, moved to Nashville where he lived for six years doing background vocals and commercials for studios. As a performer he sang blues. Later a dust allergy brought him back to Indy for a brief time until he moved to Chicago. It’s there that he, along with Will McCarty, another Indy native, and Renae Stone, co-founded Q Artistry, after which they presented “Cabaret Poe”, which was met with critical and commercial success. Eventually, however, due to a declining economy and jobs that were offered them, Asaykwee and McCarty returned to Indy. Once back here, they restaged “Cabaret Poe”, which was again successful and which became the impetus for them to establish Q Artistry here in 2009.
As Q Artistry artistic director, Asaykwee has produced and directed over 25 productions featuring over 100 different actors. As a performer he has appeared locally in “Cabaret Poe” (Q Artistry), “Spamalot” (BobDirex), “The History of Cardenio” (Hoosier Bard) and “The Magic Snowman” (Indianapolis Children’s Museum). In Chicago he performed in “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” (Bailiwick), “God on Broadway” (Chicago Theatre Building) and “South Pacific” (Light Opera Works). Asaykwee is also a playwright with works having been produced in Indianapolis and Chicago. He often composes, writes and appears in his own material including the following: “SatanLIVE” (IndyFringe), “Cabaret Poe” (Q Artistry), “ZirkusGrimm” (Q Artistry), “BOT” (IndyFringe Fest 2012), “de Sade” (IndyFringe Fest 2012) and “STRIKE: The New Bowling Pin Musical” (IndyFringe 2011).
Recently Asaykwee sat down with Examiner.com at the theater’s home in the historic Irvington Lodge near E.Washington Street and Ritter Ave. on Indy’s eastside.
How is that you are so versatile?
Any versatility I’ve achieved has been out of necessity. Due to budget requirements at Q Artistry, for example, if we can’t afford a scenic designer, I or someone else has to step up and so that makes us all more versatile than we would be if we had unlimited resources.
It sounds like you have often left your comfort zone.
I don’t know if I even have a comfort zone anymore (laughs). I really like to try new things. I have never been somebody who has been scared of branching out and faking it till you make it. When I first moved to Nashville, I was a temp for a little while and I learned how to do a lot of things I had no experience in.
Why are you so reticent about publicity?
I love publicity for Q Artistry. I do my best to try to get press releases out and do all that needs to be in order to obtain press for Q. If I am reticent, it’s about publicity geared towards me as a performer, director, entertainer, or writer. I would say the main reason for that is not to usurp any attention that might be pointed at Q. I would much rather the attention flow in that direction as opposed to getting sidetracked. I think as a society we generally like the personal story rather than the story of an organization and that can be a very beneficial thing. I have to just work hard on keeping that balance and making sure that others who put so much time and work into building Q have a light shined on them and the organization.
So you don’t like to blow your own horn?
I am not a giant fan of attention in that way. I can get really awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t want to reflect poorly on Q.
Are you comfortable now?
O.K. so let’s talk about Q Artistry. Was it a calculated decision for you to base yourself in Irvington?
Well no. We came to the area to look at the Irving theater as a space to mount “Cabaret Poe.” As we were waiting for an appointment to look at it we happened to glance across the street at this majestic beautiful building [Irvington Lodge] and we were able to get inside and have a look and it was perfect for what we wanted to do. We were not looking for a place to rent month to month. On top of it being a perfect space and located in a neighborhood that has a Halloween Festival, it couldn’t have been more perfect for a piece like “Cabaret Poe.”
Did you do research on the demographics in Irvington?
I tried desperately to move here when I came back.
So it was all a happy coincidence?
Well, yes and no. I was sold on the building and the quaintness of the neighborhood. I also became aware of the local restaurants and locally owned businesses but it wasn’t until we got in here with “Cabaret Poe” that I fell in love with Irvington. Between meeting neighborhood people and realizing that live theater brought people from all over the city to patronize the shops and restaurants—that gave us an indication that we should look into locating in Irvington permanently. It’s nice to bring people to the area. One of our largest demographic groups is the one consisting of individuals from the northside.
Tell me about your new season.
It’s the first time that we have released our full year for public consumption. Now people can plan ahead and they can keep in mind that "Cabaret Poe" is coming back in October and plan accordingly, and "ZirkusGrimm” is coming back in July. We are also excited about the brand new pieces that are coming out this year.
It sounds like you have been consciously deliberate about your growth.
I would like to say yes to that but with a new organization operating with our own rules, the board has been our counterbalance. They not only keep us in business but make sure that we are able to operate responsibly. However we also want to maintain our integrity from the standpoint of our arts perspective. We’ve all individually worked for arts organizations that have lost their artistic mindset and it becomes much more of a business than an artistic venture. Maybe that is in the future for Q Artistry and if it is to sustain itself for the next 30 years then maybe that’s the next step.
Do you keep an eye on the marketability of your shows?
Someone could probably question why “Cabaret Poe” and “ZirkusGrimm” are back this year. They would say, ‘So if you are so interested in the artistic integrity of your organization why are you repeating pieces you have already done. Are doing that for ticket sales?’ From my perspective it’s because people want to see them. “ZirkusGrimm” sold out. We turned away over 100 people. The reason I do this as an artist is I look at that as a lost opportunity to share that story with those people. The more opportunity we get for people to step into our walls and take a look at our storytelling, the happier I am as an individual and as an artist.
Don’t you feel proud that the original material you’ve done has been so well received?
Once you’ve done an original piece that resonates with people and that touches people in a brand new way and they realize it and come to see it and that’s never been seen before—it spoils you a little bit in that you are creating this role from scratch or that you are creating this experience from scratch.
Tell me about your new season.
The first thing coming up is pretty exciting. We are doing an emerging playwright series. In the past we’ve had playwright festivals where we have opened up the submission to anybody that is a resident of Indiana to send in a play. They then were pared down by independent agents to a certain number who were then given professional readings here as part of the festival. And then the audiences got to vote on what they wanted Q to produce in the future as a fully realized production, and we had three of those. One came out of a teen playwright festival and so now those three pieces are being presented as part of this emerging playwrights series.
Tiffanie Bridges wrote a piece called “Without a Spot or Wrinkle”, it’s a great one act. It’s going to be a lot of fun. She’s a Fringe performer. Jordan Lyons is a published author and he wrote “Fishing with Seymour Drosty”, it’s a triad of short scenes that all together make a one act. Maureen O’Leary, the teen playwright, is now in school at Ball State and she wrote a piece called “God and the Machine” with five women. It’s an existential piece. Following that we have a series of things that are either brand new or revivals of our own pieces. The next piece is a piece by Paige Scott called “Bum on the Bus,” which is a parody of the movie “Speed,” starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It’s a musical version. At the 2012 playwright festival we did a scene from it and it was received really well. It has been going through a re-working process and finally we’re putting it up. They are all extremely different from one another and audiences will love all three of them for different reasons.
We are remounting “Bunny Spectacular” around Easter. It’s a fully realized one act puppet show that people have been asking us to do again. And since when we did it the first time we had over 60 puppets, I am not sure what the numbers are going to be this time. But I know we are going to have as much fun as we did then because we learned so much and I have wanted to do it again ever since.
In May we are doing a new piece I’ve written called “Attribute of the Strong.” It will be the first piece since “ZirkusGrimm” that I have written and will technically be my first full length musical that is written from scratch. It’s a brand new play.
“ZirkusGrimm” is going back up in July and then we’ll be doing Fringe again. In October we are bringing back “Monster Concert” because we had a great time this year putting that up. “Cabaret Poe” will be back up and then our “Q-munity” presentation. We are doing an online contest theme for the Q-munity presentation which will be a lot of fun.
Then we’ll bring back our holiday show and we are also adding another holiday show this year based on the piece I wrote for Fringe last year. “A de Sade Family Christmas” will be offered in addition to our regular “Christmas Carol Cabaret”, which will be the nice feel good time that people generally want for in a holiday show. The “de Sade Family Christmas” show will be the exact opposite of that. We’ll see what happens.
Where do you want to be in five years?
In five years I would like for us to be still presenting original works here but for us to offer a caliber that is maybe a step above what we are able to offer now in terms of production quality. Right now it is a lot more work for us to make it look as good as what you see in the end because we are having to go through the back door a lot of times as opposed to having costumes designed beautifully from the start. Sometimes we have to design them and work backwards from the budget as opposed to “let’s borrow a little money from this to do this.” It’s just because we are newer and the money isn’t as flowing as it will be in 5 years.
For tickets and information about Q Artistry’s 2014 season call (317) 677 – 5317 or visit www.qartistry.org.
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