How are arts organizations in Northeast Indiana innovating during the pandemic?

When Susan Mendenhall and her team at Arts United have been talking with Fort Wayne residents and donors during the pandemic, they’ve heard a common refrain.
“People say: The arts have always been important to me, but I never realized just how important they are until we experienced this disruption the past two years,” Mendenhall says. “The role the arts play in our everyday lives has become much more apparent.”

Susan Mendenhall
As the pandemic stretches on, placing constraints on many arts programs and budgets, the community’s mental health is also at stake. As President of Arts United, Mendenhall sees many of the group’s member organizations tapping into their innate creativity to keep providing for people’s needs—and even innovate during this turbulent time.
“Given the constraints arts organizations have been dealt by this pandemic, some of them are using this experience as an opportunity to accelerate changes and do things more effectively going forward,” Mendenhall says. “They’re learning things and reaching new audiences that maybe they didn’t reach before the pandemic. So as much as it’s been a challenging time, it’s also been a very dynamic period, where a lot of innovation is taking place by necessity.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
This period of innovation is made possible by federal, state, and local support for the arts throughout the pandemic. Among the 18 large arts organizations Arts United monitors in Allen County, each has seen an average 70 percent decrease in earned revenue from 2019-2021. Federal and state relief dollars have helped fill the gap, as well as community donations through initiatives, like Arts United’s Arts & Culture Nonprofit Resilience Fund, which has raised about $3 million total for its member institutions.
Together, this support has given many Fort Wayne arts organizations the capacity they need to keep their doors open. According to Americans for the Arts, less than half (41 percent) of arts organizations across the U.S. have been able to stay open throughout the pandemic.
“Of the 18 organizations that received support from the Resilience Fund, 100 percent stayed open and active in contributing to community life in one way or another,” Mendenhall says.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
So how are arts organizations in Northeast Indiana innovating and providing for people’s mental health needs during the pandemic? We talk with members of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Fort Wayne Youtheatre, and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment to find out.

Fort Wayne Dance Collective

In 2021, Dance Collective brought four resident artists from Haiti to Fort Wayne for a month of live performances and workshops, including an immersive Halloween Show. 

When the pandemic began, Rachel Jones, a Teaching Artist at the Fort Wayne Dance Collective (FWDC), pivoted to teaching Creative Movement classes for three-year-olds virtually out of her living room.

Jones has been part of FWDC for years as a teacher, committee member, and member of its Touring Company. Beyond her “interesting experience” getting kids to dance virtually, she says important discussions started happening among FWDC’s members and other artists in Fort Wayne at the onset of the pandemic.

“We began to ask: What can we do to process and deal with this time through our art?” Jones says.

Out of this discussion, the FWDC Touring Company developed its first “Social DisDANCING” screendances, filmed in spaces around their homes during the shutdown and produced with assistance from Punch Films.

This collaboration inspired a larger community film project in May 2020 called Collective Creations, where members of FWDC worked with local filmmakers, bands, and songwriters to produce a series of music-video-style dances in various locations around Fort Wayne, including local businesses and parks

Along with dance and expression, a large part of FWDC’s mission is to inspire and empower people of all ages and abilities through movement and rhythm. This is what drew Lee Rainboth, a world-traveling visual artist, curator, and arts administrator, to relocate to Fort Wayne during the pandemic, becoming the organization’s new Executive Director.

“I love Fort Wayne Dance Collective’s mission to make sure art and dance is for everyone and make sure people who haven’t felt welcome in spaces like this have a way to express themselves,” Rainboth says.

During the pandemic, FWDC has found new ways to make its programming more accessible and inclusive. Its Dance for Diverse Abilities program, which serves people with physical and mental disabilities, now offers virtual options for participants and has even had at-risk students utilize greenscreen technology, allowing them to film themselves dancing at home to participate in group performances.

FWDC is also adapting its programming for high-risk groups at local hospitals and grade schools. When the pandemic began, it initially halted FWDC's popular Healing Arts program in partnership with Parkview Health, which brings dancers and other artists to hospital bedsides to help patients heal. Even so, Carolyn Meyer and Karissa Kalb at Parkview worked with FWDC staff to quickly pivot the program, creating ways to bring digital arts content and craft kits to hospitals, so bedridden patients can still participate.

Dance Collective hosts an annual Choreographers Lab intensive-style workshop with Youtheatre, where choreographers of all ages and experience levels can receive training and tools.
FWDC’s Dance in Education program has also taken on new challenges and virtual formats at seven Allen County public schools it serves, grades Pre-K-12. 

“Schools are constantly changing their protocols, so we have to be creative in how we offer these programs every single day,” Rainboth says. “Many of our school partners are going the extra mile to help us keep engaging with their students because they truly believe dance is ‘essential’ right now.”

Dance Collective is adapting its programming for high-risk groups during the pandemic.
This heightened value placed on the arts during the pandemic has helped FWDC expand its staff, promoting Jones to Development Director and hiring three additional part-time staff in new positions. The increased operational capacity will help FWDC strengthen and expand its work in Northeast Indiana in the future, reaching more schools, community centers, and social service agencies.

“We’ve been growing pretty rapidly, which is remarkable for an arts organization during a pandemic,” Jones says.

Dance Collective hosts an annual Choreographers Lab intensive-style workshop with Youtheatre, where choreographers of all ages and experience levels can receive training and tools.
The pandemic is also pushing FWDC to get even more creative with its live shows to keep audiences engaged. In 2021, it brought four resident artists from Haiti to Fort Wayne for a two-week residency that included live performances and workshops, including an immersive Halloween Show.

In May, FWDC will continue its Guest Artist Residency program, this time bringing Complexions Contemporary Ballet to Fort Wayne. 

“They’re an incredible ballet company founded on the principles of diversity and inclusion,” Rachel says. “We believe that amplifying the voices of a diverse set of artists is a beautiful way for us to get back into live performances.”

“If people are going to leave their homes in a time like this to experience art, then it has to be something very special that they can’t get anywhere else,” Rainboth says.

In 2021, Dance Collective brought four resident artists from Haiti to Fort Wayne for a month of live performances and workshops, including an immersive Halloween Show.
What’s next?

FWDC’s Spring 2022 classes are open for enrollment across all styles of movement.

Its also hosting its annual Choreographers Lab intensive-style workshop, where choreographers of all ages and experience levels can receive training and tools on the choreographic process, culminating in four live performances open to the public March 5-6.

Starting the weekend of March 18, FWDC is collaborating with Three Rivers Music Theatre in “Songs for a New World,” adding dance and visual movement to the musical.


Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences. 

Before the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 made headlines, you might say the Fort Wayne Youtheatre was ready to act. In Todd Espeland’s previous role as Artistic Director at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, the third-largest community theatre organization in the U.S., he learned a valuable lesson. Espeland
“The executive director who hired and trained me there was great at instilling in me the idea of getting out in front of a problem if you perceive one coming,” Espeland says. “So by the time the shutdown occurred in March 2020, Youththeatre had already had a plan in place for at least six months.”
Working with his staff of four members, Espeland quickly implemented his plan to continue programming during the pandemic for students ages 4 to 18. The first Thursday of the shutdown, his team launched Youtheatre Thursdays, a series of free online theatre workshops, which they had pre-produced and ready to share on social media.
As the lockdown progressed, they made the decision to cut all in-person programming through August 2020. But that didn’t stop them from providing outlets for local youth to act and interact.
“We help young artists in our community develop a sense of self and place, so it was important to keep our programs going, especially through what has become an emotionally trying time for a lot of young people,” Espeland says. “Cutting our in-person programming gave us the opportunity to re-strategize and to be proactive (instead of reactive) in how we do that.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
As restrictions lifted in warmer months, Youtheatre began offering in-person classes in July 2020, partnering with Fort Wayne Dance Collective for its summer Drama & Dance Camp where youth were split into two masked groups in classrooms and given a six-foot box to work on monologues and dance routines for two 10-week semesters.
“That was really pivotal for us because it let us know we can do this in a safe and thoughtful fashion and not interfere with the creative experience,” Espeland says. “Kids got a chance to feel like they were not losing out on their growth as artists. We even had some new participants in that program who just wanted something creative to do to break out of their lockdown bubble.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
This confidence inspired Youtheatre to host their first show of 2020 in October, and since they weren’t able to perform it indoors and make it financially worthwhile, they took it to the streets instead.
“I have a background in street theater, so we put on a free, outdoor production of ‘Stuart Little’ in front of the Arts United Plaza in Downtown Fort Wayne,” Espeland says. “We also toured the show to the James Cultural Plaza in Auburn.”
This experience helped youth use their creative wits in new ways and experience the value of giving back to their community.
“A lot of times in theatre, the focus is on the self—what we’re going through and presenting on stage,” Espeland says. “These performances became a great way to turn that narrative around and let students know that this is something for the community and the place we call home.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
This perspective came in handy when the Youtheatre needed to pivot plans for its 2020 holiday performance. As the virus spread and increased restrictions on gatherings, their long-awaited performance of “The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe,” originally planned for the Embassy Theatre, needed to be postponed to the following spring.
Instead of giving up on a holiday event, one youth in the program suggested that the show must go on—just with a different format and focus. Following their lead, Youtheatre produced its first radio show, an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” which was rehearsed, recorded, and distributed to Fort Wayne listeners all within a week and a half’s time.
“I was really proud we were able to turn that show around,” Espeland says. “We ended up sending the radio show to many theatre groups I’m part of across the U.S., and a lot of people have been using it as a timely example of how to do youth radio theatre during the pandemic.”

The Fort Wayne Youtheatre serves students ages 4-18.
As 2021 progressed, Youtheatre has been able to reinstate its live shows and in-person classes with safety protocols. They’ve also strengthened their systems to shift as the pandemic evolves.
“It’s almost like we’re back to business as usual because we’re not constantly rewriting the playbook week by week,” Espeland says. “But if artists are not adapting what we’ve learned the last two years into their work going forward, then they’re missing out on an opportunity.”
While there’s a certain amount of theatre that will always require in-person interaction, Youtheatre will continue to use media, like radio and Zoom, in post-pandemic times to expand what they do educationally and reach more students, parents, and donors virtually.
“In some ways, we’ve been having a better year than we did in the fall of 2019,” Espeland says. “We’ve found that this experience has been an opportunity disguised as a problem.”

Fort Wayne Youtheatre educates, engages, and entertains students ages 4-18 through quality theatrical experiences.
What’s next?
March 4-7, Youtheatre has its annual Linda L. Ruffolo Young Heroes of Conscience show, featuring a series of social justice plays about youth who have made a difference in the world.
“This year, it’s about the youth of Louisa May Alcott, leading up to her writing Little Women,” Espeland says.
They also perform Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” May 6-9.

Honeywell Arts & Entertainment

Musicians from around the world participate in the 2021 Resonance program of the Honeywell Arts Academy at the Eagles Theatre in Wabash.
The Honeywell Foundation rebranded itself as Honeywell Arts & Entertainment during the pandemic to better reflect its offerings as one of the region’s largest cultural hubs. It supports the arts in Wabash County, about 45 minutes Southwest of Fort Wayne, by ​​providing diverse art and entertainment opportunities through a variety of venues it owns and/or partners with.
For Tod Minnich, the organization’s President and CEO, there have been two phases of the pandemic’s impact on the arts so far.
“There was the initial shutdown phase, and then there’s the phase of the pandemic we’ve been in for the last year or so, where the world is fairly open, but infection rates are still high,” he says.

Tod Minnich is CEO of the Honeywell Foundation.
During the initial phase of the shutdown, Honeywell largely channeled its efforts toward future planning, developing programs and initiatives for after the pandemic ended. Now that the pandemic has stretched on far longer than many anticipated, it’s a matter of figuring out how to provide for people’s essential needs for the arts during this limbo stage, kicking off some programs while also trying to keep everyone safe.
“We continue to believe that arts and entertainment are a vital part of people’s lives,” Minnich says. “We’re not a social service agency; we’re not providing for people’s basic needs, but we are providing the enrichment that reminds people that life is about more than basic needs, and during the pandemic, we lost a lot of those outlets in our society.”

The main lobby of the Honeywell Center in Downtown Wabash.
As Honeywell Arts & Entertainment has reopened in Wabash, it’s been incorporating some of its new program plans and attempting to return to business as usual at a smaller capacity. It’s hosting concerts and events, offering music lessons, and supplementing schools’ arts education with video content and artist residencies.
Still, the pandemic has taken a toll on how many residents and travelers are attending events at the Honeywell Center’s Ford and Eagles Theatres. It’s also affected Honeywell’s regional conference center bookings, due to a lack of corporate events and meetings.
While turnout for shows this winter has been lower than usual, those who attend frequently express their heartfelt thanks to the organization for sustaining the arts, Minnich says. Funding from the federal government and support from state organizations, like the Indiana Arts Commission, has also allowed Honeywell to keep serving its community.
“With the current variant and such a high percentage of infection rates, we’re looking at shows through February and wondering what level of audience we’ll have,” he says. “We may not have the sales at levels we anticipated in the near term, but we’re hopeful in those saying this is the final rough phase of pandemic, between new drugs to fight COVID-19 and higher vaccination rates.”

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.
His team is also having conversations on risk analysis for future pandemics and variants and how these events might impact the regional arts scene.
“It’s hard to plan for what you don’t know, but we want to learn and be prepared to act,” Minnich says. “Knowing what this pandemic has done to our operational revenue and knowing the impact it would have had without federal relief and donor support, we’re trying to think ahead to plan for the future.”
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.