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St. Francis launches another venue for theater in Fort Wayne

Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" first production

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The University of St. Francis has always received high praise for its fine arts program, which is responsible for launching some of the Fort Wayne area’s best artists. Now, the Creative Arts school is trying to “get something going” among their drama and performing arts community with a production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Gunderson Theater in Achatz Hall.

If you’re scratching your head right now and wondering where, exactly, Gunderson Theater is, you’ve probably got lots of company. It’s a low-key auditorium in Achatz Hall that, according to Barefoot In the Park director Brad Beauchamp, doesn’t get used for performances very often. Named after Hal Gunderson, who formed the Jesters acting troupe about 20 years ago, the theater is still used by the Jesters and as a lecture hall. But Beauchamp says Rick Cartwright, the Dean of the School of Creative Arts at St. Francis, simply wanted to explore what else could be done with the venue.

Beauchamp was a student at St. Francis, and knew Cartwright from then. A few months ago, Cartwright asked him if he would be interested in directing a production at St. Francis, and Beauchamp, who has been involved in countless community theater productions as both an actor and a director (“I started to go through the shows I’ve been in, but I quit after a while,” he says. “I just couldn’t remember.”) jumped at the opportunity.

“I guess I’m just a hired gun,” Beauchamp explains. “They’re just trying to get some excitement going. (St. Francis has) a lot of students interested in not only the fine arts, which they are very well known for, but in the performing arts. (Cartwright) just wants to get something going off the ground and get it rolling.”

“We’re very happy to have his talent and abilities,” says Cartwright of Beauchamp. “He’s exciting, fun to work with, and works with students very well.”

After some discussion, Beauchamp and Cartwright chose Barefoot In the Park, Neil Simon’s 1963 play about a young, newly married couple and their neighbors in a Greenwich Village apartment building. The play has great name and author recognition (helpful for “starting something new”), with some excellent dialogue for any actor, and it’s perfectly suited to the intimate Gunderson Theater. It holds about 200, and Beauchamp compares it to the old “Black Box” at IPFW. “It’s perfect for Barefoot In the Park,” Beauchamp says. “You certainly wouldn’t want to do Les Miz in that space.”

For the production, student actors Emily Ottenweller, John Marc Grodi, and Jimmy-Dan Connors are joined by community actors Mason Dillon, John Hermes, and Peggy Burnell. “I tried to cast the show as close to age-appropriate as I could,” Beauchamp explains. “I didn’t want a university student playing a 50-year old.”

“I’ve worked with Hermes and Mason Dillon, but not the rest of the cast and crew,” Beauchamp adds. “I’ve stumbled into some really talented kids. It’s a lot of fun.”

Next fall, St. Francis’ theater productions will move across Spring Street to what is now the Abundant Life Tabernacle. The university recently purchased the property and will be creating a 500 seat theater in that space. “We hope to do a variety of things, everything from musicals to comedy to pretty heavy drama,” says Cartwright. “The idea is to bring a broad range of topics to campus and the community.”

Barefoot In the Park
March 24, 25, (8 pm; doors open at 7:30) and March 26 (2 pm matinee; doors open at 1:30)
Achatz Hall, University of St. Francis
Tickets: $8/person

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