Is Fort Wayne’s theatre scene growing? Performers and directors weigh in

In 2018, we told you about Three Rivers Music Theatre (TRMT) breathing new life into the performing arts in northeast Indiana. But in the years since, other groups have emerged or expanded, like Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation, Summit City Music Theatre, and Fire & Light Productions, adding more opportunities to experience live theatre in Fort Wayne.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with three locals “in the know” with Fort Wayne’s theatre scene to learn more about how the community is flourishing and what that means for the region as a whole.

Heather ClossonHeather Closson

Heather Closson is vice president of community engagement for Arts United and also happens to be engaged in Fort Wayne’s theatrical community. She is a choreographer, performer, arts educator, and a professionally-trained dancer with a bachelor's degree in dance from Ball State University and a master’s in organizational leadership from the University of Saint Francis

Closson specializes in musical theater choreography and has provided choreography for over 50 productions throughout Indiana, receiving several awards for theatrical and concert choreography. Locally, she serves as the resident choreographer for Fort Wayne Youtheatre and has choreographed for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Arena Dinner Theatre, First Presbyterian Theatre, and Three Rivers Music Theatre.

IFW: It seems like there are more options to see live theater in Fort Wayne than there used to be, with several new theater groups popping up in recent years. Do you think our theater community is flourishing?
Heather Closson: Absolutely! For example, the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation (IMTF) has long existed in the form of the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre (FWSMT), a program that began in 1999. In 2019, IMTF was established as a way to expand upon the success of the summer program. IMTF is the 501c3 organization that houses the FWSMT program, as well as other programs that provide opportunities not only to the general public but for FWSMT alumni.

Three Rivers Music Theatre and Summit City Music Theatre each offer productions that are not "typical" in our immediate community, or create experiences that are unique to them. Summit City Music Theatre's “A Christmas Carol” at Salomon Farm Park, for example, is presented in an environment vastly different from a traditional theater. I think the continual innovation that occurs with all of our theater companies and organizations is an indication that theater is indeed flourishing.

Heather Closson in "Annie" as Lily St. Regis in 2020.IFW: How are these organizations filling a gap in the arts community?
HC: Our community is incredibly creative in finding solutions to fill voids and that certainly includes our theatrical organizations. As an example, Fort Wayne Youtheatre first came into existence to help children develop poise, better diction, and self-esteem. Originally, it was the "Children's Theatre" within the Old Fort Players (now the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre.) Over time, the program grew and ultimately became an autonomous organization.

Another organization, Arena Dinner Theatre, originally came into existence as a result of budget cuts in the Fort Wayne Parks Department. Formerly known as Fort Wayne Theatre Workshop, they were the only theater in the city at that time to perform in the round. As funding continued to be eliminated, Arena Dinner Theatre was born as a separate organization. Today, Arena presents an experience unique to them– dinner and a theatrical production.

As time goes on, each new company finds its place by filling a void– like Kitchen Sink Theatre. This sensory theater company reimagines theater for everyone by creating productions for audience members who typically have the most access barriers to encounter live theater, including those with profound and multiple learning disabilities and/or those on the autism spectrum. While many organizations in Fort Wayne present sensory-friendly productions, Kitchen Sink Theatre is the only theater company to create material that utilizes five or more senses to engage participants. 

IFW: How does Fort Wayne excel, when it comes to theater, and what could we do better?
HC: Fort Wayne offers endless opportunities to engage with theater, as outlined above. There are a wide variety of organizations, each hoping to provide distinctive opportunities for their volunteers and the community: youth theater programs, dinner theaters, collegiate programs, groups presenting new and/or lesser-known works, faith-based theater, sensory theater, and much more. Each organization works incredibly hard to ensure its programming is mission-focused and unique.

With that in mind, scheduling coordination across theater companies would help to improve the opportunity for our community, and surrounding communities, to engage with Fort Wayne theater. We often have several shows running at the same time, which can present challenges when individuals in productions want to support their friends performing in other productions.

As an example, there were three productions opening the first weekend in March. As a performer in one of those productions, I was sadly unable to attend or volunteer for the other productions taking place at the same time. Additionally, patrons may be forced to make difficult decisions if they have time constraints or financial restrictions. While overlap is likely unavoidable, communication among the various companies could certainly aid in reducing that overlap.

Heather Closson in "Bright Star" as Lucy Grant in 2022. Closson also choreographed the performance.IFW: Are there enough people interested in seeing theater and participating to continue our lively theatre community?
HC: According to, Northeast Indiana is home to more than 1 million residents within a 50-mile radius and according to the FY2022 Americans for the Arts Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 study (AEP6), the Greater Fort Wayne Area (the 11-county region) saw 1,093,845 attendees at in-person arts and culture events, and Arts Campus Fort Wayne saw 725,155 attendees at in-person arts and culture events. While these numbers aren't exclusive to live theater– they are certainly indicative of the strong support for arts and cultural activity within our region!

Fort Wayne is home to an abundance of actors– more than even those within the "theater scene" likely realize. As an example, in February three shows were running: “The Color Purple” had a cast of 23 individuals, “The Tempest” with a cast of 21, and “Ragtime” had a cast of 51 individuals. 

Those cast members probably did not overlap with the several shows that were also in rehearsal at the same time and the handful of productions that had recently closed. Taking all of this into consideration, I calculated just shy of 300 individuals engaged as actors in theatrical productions happening within a handful of months. These numbers are also not inclusive of any production team members or individuals serving the show in a backstage or behind-the-scenes capacity. The talent is here and eager to participate. 
Heather Closson in "Sweeney Todd" as a feature dancer in 2019.IFW: What do you want non-theater people to know about the theater scene in Fort Wayne?
HC: The beautiful thing about the Fort Wayne theater scene is that there is always a way to engage with theater. Nearly every weekend is filled with opportunities to be an audience to the theater, whether it's at one of our many community or educational theaters or by attending a professional touring production at the Embassy Theatre.

If you wish to perform, there are dozens of auditions open to the public each year. For those who prefer to engage behind the scenes, there are countless opportunities to volunteer your time by building sets, constructing costumes, helping with technical elements (lights, sound, projections, etc.), crewing a production, being an usher for a performance, and much more. The wonderful thing about the majority of these opportunities is that experience is not a factor for participation. If you would like to learn how to sew, you can volunteer for the Civic Theatre's costume shop and they will teach you. Those interested in performing simply need to sign up for an audition– every theater company in town tells you exactly what is needed for a successful audition and are always happy to answer questions. The theater scene has worked incredibly hard to increase access for both patrons and participants– and anyone would love to welcome you in.


Andrew ShermanAndrew Sherman

Andrew Sherman is CEO and Executive Artistic Director at Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation (IMTF) and assistant director for Homestead High School’s show choirs. IMTF rehearses and hosts some of their performances at RKF Studios on Lake Avenue in Fort Wayne.

IFW: Heather CIosson explained that the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation is not new, but grew out of Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre. Tell us more about that.
Andrew Sherman: Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation is definitely not new. It dates back 25 years. It was started as the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre in 1999 by two high school directors, Jeanette Walsh and Kirby Volz, who oversaw it for 20 years. In 2019, the reins were turned over to me and my program director Alex Leavell. I had been a student involved in the organization from middle school through high school as an actor and on the production side working in various roles as production assistant, marketing director, and then assistant director for four years before taking over after Kirby retired.

When Alex and I took over, we wanted to make it bigger because at that point, the programming of the organization was just one show in the summertime and it was only for high school kids. The Russ Kohlinger Foundation (RKF), helped us develop and form a 501c3 called the Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation or IMTF.

Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre still exists under the umbrella of IMTF. The summer program is also still our biggest production of the year and it still solely involves high school students. But IMTF has allowed us to branch out, producing shows for adults, cabaret series, concert series, and original works. We have had some really good growth over the past three years, all with the help of the community, and wonderful people that we've surrounded ourselves with team members, volunteers, actresses, actors, technicians, and students.

An Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation production of "Hairspray."IFW: Many of the newer groups like IMTF don’t have their own theater space that is synonymous with the theater company. How do you overcome this obstacle?
AS: Really the only organizations in town that have their own theaters are First Presbyterian, the Civic, and Arena. Others like Summit City Music Theatre, and Three Rivers Music Theatre, and we have our home bases where we do smaller projects. When we're doing large projects - what I call our main stage productions - most of us are working with a third-party facility.

Our summer productions– our big ones are normally at Northside High School and we'll be returning for this summer's production of “Legally Blonde” there. We also produce shows in partnership with Arena Dinner Theatre.

IFW: There are a lot of options for live theater these days. How do you suggest people decide what shows to see? 
AS: I absolutely hate it when people say there's nothing to do in Fort Wayne tonight. There’s always something to do, and for me, it's theater.

Identify organizations that you have had great experiences with, whether that be ours or someone else's. Look at their calendar first and put dates for shows that you want to see in your calendar– even if it's something you haven't heard of, put it in your calendar and go. That's what I would say: pick the organizations you know you have been impressed by in the past, go support them, and then fill the rest of your cup by trying new things.

Andrew Sherman gives directions at a rehearsal. IFW: In addition to your role as CEO and Executive Artistic Director at IMTF, you also work at Homestead High School. How do you - and everyone who volunteers their time to do this, find the time? 
AS: Well, a lot of us don't sleep. We don't. No one goes into the arts and musical theater for the money. We go into it because we love it and we thrive to create and to make opportunities and then to cultivate environments of inclusion. That alone is worth the four hours of sleep that I might get on a weeknight where I'm trying to work on IMTF’s production and trying to do a crazy weekend at Homestead.

The best thing that you can do out of appreciation for an organization that is run by people who are doing theater is to buy a ticket to support them. That alone makes all of the long nights and hours worth it.


Lisa Ellis, Fire & Light ProductionsLisa Ellis

Another new-ish theater group in Fort Wayne is Fire & Light Productions. Lisa Ellis is the executive director and founder of the organization.

IFW: What is Fire & Light Productions?
Lisa Ellis: Fire & Light (F&L) is a troupe of 90 to 100 youth, ages 8 to 18, performing five to six full-scale productions each season for the Fort Wayne community and surrounding areas. Anyone who has a passion for theater and is willing to abide by the behavior standards of our actor’s contract can be enrolled in our academy and is cast in two shows per year.

IFW: Can you tell us about the history of Fire & Light?
LE: Fire & Light began as a six-week skit and dance club in October 2010. We had no sets, props, or costumes, but on the very first day, 40 kids showed up, and it was clear that those kids had an interest in creating engaging stories.

Over the next five years, we began to perform one-acts at a community center, and in 2015, we began operating a summer camp. Over the next few years, our productions grew on that little community stage into full-scale productions. All of these shows exemplified what became our mission– to create classic, wholesome theater productions that would inspire youth and families.  

In 2021, we became a partner with the University of Saint Francis (USF) Creative Arts Department, allowing our kids the opportunity to perform at the historic USF Performing Arts Center. In addition, USF students in the Music Technology program, as well as theatrical professionals, became an integral part of the production process increasing our ability to tell stories.

In October 2022, we became a member of the Arts United Regional Arts Council, providing funding, marketing, and publicity opportunities. When the University of Saint Francis announced their intent to sell the Robert Goldstine Performing Arts Center, where we had been performing for two seasons, Fire & Light pivoted to performing at the Arts United Center campus for most of our 2023-24 season. Next season, again, will look different for our little company as the Arts United Center closes its doors for renovation in June. Arts United is offering us space at the ArtsLab, a much smaller stage, and our organization will make the most of that interesting space to grow and learn from the Arts United staff along the way.  

A Fire & Light Production of "The Wizard of Oz."IFW: What sets Fire & Light Productions apart from other youth-centered theatre in Fort Wayne?
LE: If you become a member of the academy, you are cast in a show. The audition process is simply to select what role each young performer will portray. Along the way, in each rehearsal, we teach characterization, blocking, stage movement, proper vocal technique, dance, and even tap!  Our academy shows are for students in a private school or online school situation, as rehearsals are offered in the afternoon. As we grow, however, we are offering more and more after-school opportunities in theater, improvisation, broadway dance, studio classes, sewing, and building.

Because our academy has a waiting list, F&L has searched for other ways we can expand our mission and train more youth in theater arts. During the past four years, we’ve developed low-cost daytime and after-school classes in foundational theater, improvisation, tap, sewing, building, and dance. This summer, Fire & Light will launch free art classes on Friday afternoons for registered kids in our Forest Park community.

IFW: Fort Wayne’s theatre scene appears to be growing. Why do you think that is?
LE: I am so happy about this! This is happening because our little community is becoming a haven for a strong arts and music culture.


One thing is clear about Fort Wayne’s theater scene: there’s an abundance of opportunities to see live theater in our community. These passionate artists and skilled technicians are making our arts and culture landscape more vibrant. If you haven’t checked out their work or been to the theatre lately– Go!
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jennie Renner.

Jennie Renner is a Hoosier native who has lived in the Fort Wayne area for most of her life. She believes that art, in all its forms, makes everything better. Her work can be found in Glo Magazine and Input Fort Wayne and self-published on Medium.