acts of agape

By Rebecca Berfanger // Photography by April Knox and submitted

Greenwood-based youth theater company infuses productions with love

For Greenwood-based Agape Performing Arts Company members, the productions are a labor of love. This approach is even in the group’s name: Agape comes from the Greek root term for sacrificial love.

That’s just what the director Kathy Phipps had in mind when she founded the youth theater company, with the goal of giving young performers a chance to learn and grow.

At their core, the productions are about honing talent on the southside and presenting works with positive themes. Every show she has selected for Agape has had one major theme in common. “The story must have a positive message,” Phipps says. “There is so much entertainment out there that is negative and not family-friendly. We want to do shows with a strong, positive message.”

Founding days

Phipps has extensive experience and training in theater, including a Bachelor of Arts in speech and theater from Carthage College, a Master of Arts in theater from Illinois State and a doctorate in theater from Michigan State University. As part of her graduate studies, she studied Shakespeare in London and Irish drama at University College in Galway, Ireland.

After working with a youth performing arts group in the Indianapolis area, she decided to start an organization that would be based on the southside. As a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Church, she reached out to the pastors, who offered the church as a practice space. It is also an occasional venue for public performances and Agape-sponsored events.

Since founding the group, Phipps has directed every show to date. Her directorial oeuvre for Agape includes “Les Miserables” (which boasted a cast of 75 and a full orchestra), “Into The Woods Jr.,” “Newsies” and “Pirates of Penzance.”

She has also directed Agape performances for Indy Bard Fest on Massachusetts Avenue since 2018. This summer, Agape will offer a summer camp, which will culminate in performances for Indy Fringe Festival 2020, and will perform “Henry V” for Indy Bard Fest in October.

And Phipps wants Agape’s live theater experience to be affordable for entire families to be able to attend.

“We offer extremely reasonable prices for high-quality productions,” she says. Tickets for the group’s upcoming production of “The Sound of Music” start at $5 and cap at $15 for VIP seating.

Different approach

Phipps says that she hopes audiences realize that the story of “The Sound of Music” isn’t just about a nun who falls in love and leaves her order to get married, but also about how Maria brings music back to the Von Trapp family, plus her nurturing relationship with the Von Trapp children. The musical highlights a turbulent time rife with political unrest, anti-Semitism and the horrors of war.

“Young people need to be reminded of how quickly and how quietly it started,” adds Nikki Moore who, along with her daughter, has been involved with Agape for the last few years. Now she is the show chairwoman for “The Sound of Music” and a member of Agape’s steering committee. Moore joined Agape after seeing the company’s production of “Les Miserables,” which brought her to tears. “It was as well done as any professional show that I’ve seen.”

That professionalism draws more people to audition, with sibling groups and entire families strutting their stuff in hopes of a part. Although many of the performers are drawn to Agape because it is faith-based as a ministry of Our Lady of Greenwood, Moore says performers of all faiths are welcome. They do not have to be members of the church or even Catholic or Christian to participate in Agape shows.

The group’s website makes clear that the company has high expectations. Performers come prepared with a song, a monologue or perhaps choreography. Then there is a series of callbacks and cuts, until the final cast is set. Auditions reel in children and teens from as far away as Lebanon, Greenfield and Noblesville, who turn out in healthy numbers.

For “The Sound of Music,” for example, 90 people auditioned for a cast of 55, including understudies who will have at least two public performances and a choir of 30 who will portray nuns in the show. Those who didn’t make the stage can head backstage for the technical theater aspect. Parents volunteer, as well, producing props and costumes.

During auditions, Agape production members are not necessarily looking for the performers who have the most experience, but for those who show they have talent in their auditions and are willing to learn.

“In a sense, they are a blank canvas, and this is an opportunity for them to open up to something new,” says musical director April Barnes, adding that they encourage all of the performers to really get to know the characters they will be playing.

Cast members are expected to practice on their own. For instance, for “The Sound of Music,” the children only had two practices per week as a group and were “off-book” only a few weeks into rehearsals.

By performing, the children and teens are learning about “creating and seeing different versions of who they can be,” says Barnes, adding that they figure out, “‘This is going to teach me how to speak, how to express myself and be confident.’ I think that’s always fun. I rather enjoy working with the kids … to be able to pull the music out of them, to teach them how to sing.”

Shaking up Shakespeare

Ann Lewis will direct Agape’s production of “Henry V” for Indy Bard Fest in October. She taught drama and English at Lumen Christi Catholic School in Fletcher Place and served as Phipps’ assistant director during Agape’s productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” for previous Indy Bard Fests, as well as “Newsies.”

For “Henry V,” actors are expected to learn their lines in the two months between auditions and rehearsals with only a few chances early on to have their scripts in hand. Although Shakespeare can be daunting, even for adults, she has been impressed with how the children approach their roles.

“We see kids who really want to work,” Lewis says. “They are learning, and they are growing, and we see their growth from year to year. Of course they have a director, assistant director and even a student director, and those people can go off and work with the kids in small groups to keep them on task, but [the kids] don’t goof around. They’re there to learn, and they know what their job is.”

Going forward, all four women have high hopes for Agape’s future. They anticipate they will continue to attract strong talent not only in terms of performers but also having more diversity, more youths in leadership roles, including directors, stage managers and others who can help the company continue to succeed, and they will continue to encourage Agape participants to pursue entertainment in college or even as a career.

They also expect to continue to produce ambitious shows.

“We can do this, and we have talented kids. Having confidence in your kids gives them confidence in themselves,” Lewis says. “We know they can do this, and we can help them.”