After a decade of stage bows, the Towle Theater is firmly established in Northwest Indiana with not only a solid season subscriber base, but also programming that ranks as cutting edge rather than cutting teeth and learning the ropes about what attracts audiences.
The Towle Theater in Hammond is wrapping up its 10th season with the Indiana premiere of "Pursued by Happiness" Sept. 6 to 22.
"Pursued by Happiness," a dark comedy by Keith Huff, follows the budding relationship of two socially awkward biochemists as they fall in love and meet each others' parents, with each revealing dark family secrets.
"It made me laugh. It made me cry. It startled me," said Jeff Casey, managing director of the Towle Theater at 5205 Hohman Ave., which he runs with the equal help of Kevin Bellamy, who serves as director of administration.
"At one point, I remember thinking, what in the ... is going on right now, because this is messed up. The character is hearing this secret being revealed for the first time, as these people are laughing about it, and it is not a laughable situation. He wants to get up and run away. It is that weird that they are laughing about it. That is exactly how you feel as an audience: this is highly uncomfortable and I don't like being in this situation."
He said he felt compelled to produce the show because of the audience connection felt with the character, which he said is rare.
"Pursued by Happiness" isn't the only curious choice for the Towle Theater's anniversary season. One of the earlier productions featured this year was "Tomorrow Morning," a musical following two couples in different stages of a relationship. And "Jewtopia," a comedy playing on Jewish stereotypes, along with "Brooklyn, the Musical," a musical concerning homeless musicians near the Brooklyn Bridge, both generated positive audience buzz earlier this year.
"We view theater as art, as in entertainment art, but art nonetheless," Casey said.
"If a thousand people come see a theater show, and everybody just walks out and goes 'Oh yea, that was nice. That was good. Yea those actors did a good job. Jeff did a good job.' If that is the only response, then to me, why bother. See another production of 'Annie' if that is the response you want, or another production of 'Hello Dolly' or 'My Fair Lady' or name the other thousands of shows that are overdone in America."
He emphasizes the mission of the theater space and company isn't to offend people, while clarifying his belief "something can be offensive, without totally offending someone."
"We kind of straddle that line sometimes," Casey said.
The lack of traditional titles and offensiveness has been a hallmark of the Towle Theater since its first production, "A Fabulous 50s Christmas" in 2003.
"We were brand new and we didn't know anyone knew we were here," Casey said.
"We wrote that show, so it was a show no one was familiar with."
The Christmas production garnered sold-out audiences, and Casey said at the time he was shocked. The show has now become an annual tradition and will begin performances this year starting Nov. 30.
While the Christmas production has remained a constant for Towle, the theater has not repeated any of its other season productions since its opening in September 2003.
He said the theater's origin and launch was conceived by former Hammond Mayor Duane Dedelow, Jr. and developed with discretionary funds from the Horseshoe Hammond Casino to enhance the community. The Theater was named for the first mayor of Hammond, Marcus Towle, who built the Towle Opera House in 1903. While none of the original opera house still exists, the Towle Theater was built in the same location where the opera house stood more than a century ago.
"When we first opened, I had people tell me: 'You are going to fail; no one will come to theater in downtown Hammond. No one will come. People are scared of downtown Hammond; it has a bad reputation. People perceive it as dirty and dangerous.' Even if you get a few people, you will never build an audience of people who will come to downtown Hammond to see theater,' " said Casey, proud that a decade later, the Towle is still proving wrong any such ideas or perceptions and has a more than 700 season subscriber list.
"That is why people come from Chicago, Munster, St. John, Valpo and other places. People are willing to drive four times a year because they are going to see really good theater here and it's something they are not tired of seeing."