December 22, 2010
In the northern Chicago neighborhood of Andersonville, in the basement of a building that's served both as a Catholic parish center and school since 1904, a group of four Indiana State University theater alumni have found an unlikely home.
Andrew Park, Buck Blue, Jason Bowen and Nick Rupard ended up in Chicago looking for work after graduating from ISU in 1999 and 2000. In the theater circles in which they were moving, their paths overlapped. And with theater careers developing more slowly than their college loans were coming due, the alums often found themselves without the extra cash to spend on entertainment.
"We had been used to going to theater all of the time," Park said. "But we realized we couldn't afford it."
The men who relied on their theatrical skill for their livelihood combined their interests and came up with an unlikely plan.
"We decided that maybe the problem was that theater wasn't accessible," Park said. "Maybe theater should be completely free."
So with that idea in mind, the four - a writer, a producer, an actor and a designer - began putting together the Quest Theatre Ensemble.
They began writing their own plays and took their first two productions on the road, loading their sets, props and costumes in the backs of their cars and performing their shows for small groups and churches - completely free of charge.
"We started out in my living room making puppets and touring a show called ‘Blue Nativity' to churches, and 10 years later that show has since toured Europe. It tours all over the Midwest. It plays all kinds of venues," Park said.
By 2003 they had acquired a fan following and even a bus for transporting their equipment, and they set up their theater company to perform in the basement of St. Gregory the Great's parish school. Ever since, they've been producing 18 performances of four to six shows a season. The only catch with the free performance space, says Bowen - the group's managing director, is that the Quest Company has to tear down and set up their sets each week according to the church's bingo schedule.
"We share with bingo, obviously," Bowen said, pointing to the numbered chart on the wall that is a permanent fixture in their performance space. "We just have to make sure that we leave no trace every time we do something down here.
"But we're just very fortunate to have this big open room to do whatever we really want."
Doing whatever they want has gone over well with Chicago audiences. Their shows of the past two seasons have garnered nine Jeff Award nominations from Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Committee. Annually in Chicago, more than 250 theatrical productions vie for a coveted Jeff Award - the equivalent of Broadway's Tony Award - that recognizes 26 categories of theatrical excellence.
But Bowen and Park say they don't write, produce and perform for the accolades. They do what they do with Quest because they are committed to offering quality theatrical experiences to people who wouldn't otherwise attend a performance.
"We've always talked about we want to be in history books," Bowen said. "The style of what we do and the stories we tell and the way we tell it and the mode of making ourselves accessible, that deems history. That deems something really positive that is not really given to a lot of people."
Bowen, Rupard, Blue and Park all attribute the ISU theater program with giving them the education and skills they needed to help them succeed at Quest as well as in their professions.
Bowen, a full-time actor in Chicago, learned some of the basics of acting in ISU performances at the New Theater and Dreiser Hall. Rupard, who spent most of his time at ISU developing the skills that helped him work behind the scenes as a designer and director, now makes his living teaching and producing shows at a private school that specializes in the arts.
Blue, a teacher who says he acquired his passion for lighting and production work under the instruction of Theater Professor Emeritus David Del Colletti, works as the production manager for the Chicago Academy of the Arts and is a freelance builder and designer for Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. And Park, who was primarily a performer during his days at ISU, is now in demand in the Chicago area for his writing and producing ability - particularly at the famed Shedd Aquarium where he works as artistic director.
"I got to do everything" at ISU, Bowen said. "From light design, makeup design, acting, singing, dancing, I got to do everything. Directing. And I think that kind of gave everyone just a more well-rounded artistic vision."
Even though the four men have moved on from Terre Haute, their ISU roots are still intact. Del Colletti and theater department Chairperson Sherry McFadden serve on the board of directors for Quest, and travel to Chicago to keep up with the work of their alums.
"There have been a lot of students in the 30 years that I've been teaching theater, but this group of students, this group of four, I find has been one of the most successful groups of students that has come out of the ISU program, and I'm very proud to be part of that," Del Colletti said.
"Just to see how they set up and take down every weekend, and the intricate shows that they do and what Andy writes and what Jason directs and Nick designs it's just, it's a wonderful set up."
While Park, Blue, Bowen and Rupard remain the heart and soul of Quest Theatre Ensemble, seven other ISU alumni have been involved with the group at various times since its formation and several continue to support Quest by serving as board members, garnering donations, publicizing shows and accounting for the finances of the operation.
It's the support of those who are passionate about Quest's mission that will help the theatre ensemble continue to grow and serve the Chicago community for years to come, Park said.
We're "about bringing a diverse group of people together to share a common experience," Park said. "And I think that it's in that common experience and finding that commonality that we have the opportunity to enact extreme social change."
We're "evolving," Bowen said. "I imagine that eventually down the road, Quest will have it's own space.
"We will be able to compete with all of the biggest theaters in town."
Contact and writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University at 812-237-3028.
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Generic-Media-Release-Shots/1015135736dsc3191quest/1133698358_iSqPD-L.jpg - Andy Park encourages one of his young actresses during a rehearsal at Shedd Aquarium where he is employed as artistic director. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quest-Theater-Company/DSC4061Quest/1015145607_TUwuZ-L.jpg - Jason Bowen, center, performs the lead role in the Quest Theatre Ensemble production of Drum Circle Pandora. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quest-Theater-Company/DSC3253Quest/1015137241_aeLX4-L.jpg - Buck Blue, one of the founding members of the Quest Theatre Ensemble, interacts with his students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Quest-Theater-Company/DSC2834Quest/1015129222_ygRwA-L.jpg - Nick Rupard works behind the scenes at a Quest Theatre Ensemble performance to transform a bingo hall into a performance space. (ISU/Kara Berchem)
Andrew Park, Buck Blue, Jason Bowen and Nick Rupard comprise the Chicago-based Quest Theatre Ensemble, which puts on free performances throughout the Midwest and has played in Europe.