Know No Stranger: Indy’s newest theater troupe takes over
By Susan Watt Grade for NUVO
Michael Runge stood center stage at Earth House, determined and persuasive after the first performance by Know No Stranger, the Indianapolis arts collective he began in June 2009. He asked the audience a favor:Please stop complaining about Indianapolis. If you think there is nothing to do, then make something happen.
That was my awakening to the 27-year-old art educator who’s rapidly becoming something like a cross between Indianapolis’ community ambassador and a less radical Abbie Hoffman. Through creative collaborations, kindness, humor, bravery and sheer moxie, Michael Runge (pronounced Rung’ee) is revolutionizing Indianapolis by advocating that residents change not just their thoughts about the city, but also their actions.
The seemingly soft-spoken Speedway native and Iraqi War veteran is the impetus for Know No Stranger. “The idea behind Know No Stranger is that everybody’s a friend, and anyone can do this – something positive for our community,” says Runge. He’s also an urban farmer raising gardens, chickens, bees, and his near eastside neighborhood’s spirit. He’s working with local arts nonprofit Big Car on their community and art series called Made for Each Other to provide free eastside art performances and classes. And his next big project happens this summer at a lake within the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s (IMA) 100 Acres: The Virginia Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. He, along with collaborating artist Jessica Dunn, will live on an artificial island made by acclaimed artist Andrea Zittel.
For Runge, who just graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Art Education from Herron School of Art and Design, community interactions are his art. He wants to empower others to make their community their art. He says he wants “A way for neighbors to nourish neighbors and a way to highlight what makes Indianapolis different from other cities.” He wants individuals to work together to, “Take charge of the change.” Is Indianapolis ready to take on collaborative responsibilities?
On Indianapolis’ near eastside by Shades Park, Michael Runge’s home contains an adjacent, fenced lot he cultivates. His urban garden springs forth chives with soft purple blooms, and soon vegetables and fruits: peaches, grapes, raspberries, and strawberries, although he admits the strawberries aren’t doing well. He tends to chickens and honeybees, a new venture. Until recently, he fostered Greyhounds, but nowadays is too busy. Cut and piled fire logs topple outside of their shelter near a fire pit surrounded by Bohemian style chairs indicating Runge’s home is a destination – a place where friends and his Brookside Bunch neighbors congregate.
A pitch-in dinner in Runge’s yard led to his friendship with Brandon Schaaf, a 21-year-old artist and musician who also lives on Indy’s near eastside in Woodruff Place. The two formed an alliance that brought Schaaf into the arts collective, Know No Stranger. “I’ve potlucks every other week to meet new people or as an excuse to get friends together, and to help build community,” says Runge. “Brandon is one of the first people I pulled into Know No Stranger; he’s been involved since the beginning.”
About his role with Know No Stranger, Schaaf says, “I feel like the co-captain or co-pilot. I make sure everything’s getting done…especially now that we’ve taken on bigger projects.” Tight timelines and an ever-increasing number of performances have led him to delegate tasks and responsibilities.
Runge purchased his house with earnings from the Indiana National Guard. “I joined the military in June of 2001 to pay for college, and then the whole September 11th thing happened. I went to Iraq in 2004. That feels like a separate life to me. I saw combat. I lived there a year, wearing the same clothes, and around the same people.
“In Iraq, I was stripped away of all distractions. In the U.S., there are so many choices and distractions: advertisements flashing and people on their cell phones. They’re distracted.
“In the military, everyone tells you what to do…it gave me a perspective of what is important to me, and gave me energy and a motion…a motivation to make my life what I want. That was four years ago. Really, it’s only this last year that I’ve taken control of my life.”
Between joining the military and serving in Iraq, Runge moved to Chicago. “I studied web design at the Art Institute of Chicago for two years, then went to Columbia College for two years and studied film. I didn’t finish either degree. I realized I didn’t want to work behind the computer.
“I’ve always enjoyed creating things. My dad (Marvin Runge) is an inventor.” Runge and his siblings – he’s the oldest of four – gained insight into creative processes through their father’s ventures.
“My family lives in Speedway right by the racetrack, and Dad created the Zoom Balloon. Have you seen one or heard of it? It’s an inflatable balloon with a toy car inside that races around.” Runge explains with enthusiasm and admiration. “Dad would sell them at the Indy 500, and he did all the marketing and design, and had the balloons printed. He’s now sold the patent, but he used to assemble all those little cars. He set up a machine in our basement. Made a whole factory.”
When asked how he became so community oriented, Runge pauses. “I think a lot of it has to do with low self-esteem. I went through a breakup…and I wanted to prove something to her…that I was worth being around.”
Know No Stranger
Runge started Know No Stranger, a group of creative, local do-it-yourselfers – friends, students, artists — that provides original, live, inspiring interactive events and performances. They proclaim they’re set on making the city they live in a more enjoyable place by giving the community a good time with inexpensive, local entertainment.
Their performances, filled with art, music, and storytelling, speak to contemporary life. Whether presenting for audiences at the Central library, Earth House Collective, Wheeler Arts Community, Big Car Gallery, or the Arts Educators of Indiana conference, their intent is the same: to instigate a positive city vibe.
“Everyone involved with Know No Stranger is a volunteer – and we’ve never done anything like this before, ” says Runge. The core group started with Runge and Schaaf, plus Emily Gable, Amber Remeeus and Courtney Ware.”For every project, there’s a request for volunteers. We’re pulling in people we know, most with no art experience, and giving them an avenue to make art happen. Each project builds on the next one.”
Optical Popsicle, a series of original vignettes, was the group’s first full-scale performance. Runge rallied 30 friends – most students from Herron – to put together the weekend show at Indianapolis’ Earth House last October. Big Car helped promote and preview acts in Fountain Square.
The set of Optical Popsicle consisted of white fabric stretched over PVC frames that made a screen – not unlike a blank canvas – across the stage. Beautifully inventive and fanciful skits performed against the translucent setting came alive through images created on-site that radiated from old-fashioned overhead projectors. Artists with markers drew props and scenes on transparency films or manipulated paper into shapes that played with light, shadow, and the imagination. Performers appeared as silhouettes or dressed in fuzzy character suits and masks holding handcrafted speech bubble signs, dancing or playing music and interactive spectator games.
They ignited the audience of all ages with songs, tales and low-tech tricks that could rival a performance by the Flaming Lips and shared a similar infectious energy. Storytelling was so heartfelt that any sentimentality was forgiven. Behind all the charm and cleverness reminiscent of the simple joys and discoveries of youth were messages ranging from embracing the awkwardness of interactions to finding wonder in the human experience, and ultimately, recognizing the value of life’s journeys.
“So many of our projects incorporate what we would want to see: shadow puppets, videos, and whimsical moments with music, ” says Runge. “I’m hesitant to take credit for the collective because I feel the success of it is so much more than me. I’m the founder. I put things in motion to make things happen. The group has been going off my vision, but so many people have used their talents to make the group what it is. There’s nothing special about us. We’re just regular people tapping into our potential.
“The overwhelming feeling I’ve had during this whole great experience is that I’m just along for the ride. My ideas, and the opportunities, feel like they’ve come from something outside of me,” Runge muses.
“I hope to inspire people to do projects that they want to do, that don’t cost a lot of money, and are made from materials that are donated or found,” Runge continues. “The overhead projectors we used in Optical Popsicle were checked out from the library. Paint we used was donated by a friend, and we got cardboard free from bicycle shops.”
Conversation switches to the project called Inter-Web that happened this spring. “I wouldn’t call it a performance, but an interactive experience based on the idea: Wouldn’t it be silly if there were a room that represented the Internet?” says Runge. The result: a playful humanization of cyberspace.
“People portraying viruses were running around,” Runge describes. “Google was represented as a cardboard facade of a web page. Inside a cutout window Kaylin Linnemann portrayed Goggle. She wore a tracksuit. When asked a question, she ran across the room to find the answer. My friend Twon Schroederwas Hikipedia and made up random arguments while chewing on a piece of straw.”
The group is preparing for the Know No Stranger Musical (see sidebar) on May 26 at Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, part of Big Car’s Made for Each Other series. Schaaf hinted that the audience should expect more theatrical components and actual sets to supplement the usual overhead projectors, live music, dancing, monster characters, and audience interactions.
“Jim Walker (Big Car’s Community Art Coordinator), he’s been like a mentor,” Runge says.
“Made For Each Other promotes social practice in art and community art, ” Walker says. “Our outlook fits well with Know No Stranger. Know No Stranger is definitely driven by Michael. He’s an idea person with unlimited energy. He’s not competitive and not a glory seeker.”
“Michael is a really unusual artist,” says Walker. “Most creative people I know, their favorite subject is themselves. His favorite subjects are community and audience, and making art fun for kids and everybody. In Indianapolis, I think there’s a shortage of people who have that vision.”
Runge is part of a small group of near eastside artists, including others from Know No Stranger, who will provide free programming like drawing lessons for a Made For Each Other space set to open in June near 10th and Rural. The projects are about or made by people living in the neighborhood. The series of interactive, community-building events are funded with a grant from the Great Indianapolis Neighborhood Initiatives IMAGINE Big Program.
Runge’s summer home will be on a 35-acre lake within IMA’s 100 Acres: The Virginia Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. He and artist Jessica Dunn, a 21-year-old Herron sculpture and painting student, won a collaborative proposal to live on “Indianapolis Island,” an 18-by-20-foot structure fabricated by internationally known artist Andrea Zittel. Follow them as they blog about their experiences at www.imamuseum.org/indianapolisisland.
“The IMA selected Jessica Dunn and Michael Runge after a rigorous competition open to Herron School of Art and Design undergraduate and MFA students,” says Lisa Freiman, Director of the 100 Acres.
“We chose Dunn and Runge’s project, “Give and Take,” for a number of reasons. First, it cleverly uses Andrea Zittel’s “Indianapolis Island” as a platform and catalyst for their own work, creating a site of exchange that will occur between the artists and Park visitors throughout the summer while they are living there. It also focuses on the water, which is a huge feature of the Park.”
Made of foam with a white-painted, fiberglass coating, the Island is anchored near the lake’s shore. “It looks like an igloo,” says Runge. “There’s a roof, door, and kitchen cabinet. We’ll have a portable toilet, and may leave the Island to use the IMA’s facilities.”
The two will have an emergency radio and may take shelter inside the main museum building during severe weather.
The Island has a sitting area surrounding a space to make a fire, plus a narrow deck Dunn and Runge will alter into a beach to dock a rowboat, their mode of transportation and interaction with Park visitors.
Visitors may be rowed to the Island to take tours and, as Freiman explains, bring something to exchange for something from the Island. “As a result, the interior will be constantly changing, creating new content for visitors to consume.”
Dunn and Runge met in a Herron sculpture class. Dunn also created a video for Know No Stranger’s “LOVE, KNS” project last winter. The two developed the “Give and Take” concept after the initial callout for artists. “She had ideas for the interior, I had ideas for the exterior…it made sense we’d work together,” says Runge.
“I’m about bringing art to the public in an interactive sense and not having art be so high and mighty,” says Dunn. “Together, we’ve ideas on a social and interactive level. We both plan on being on the Island most of the time, but we both want to try a solitary experience: What is it like living on an island by oneself?
“Our work is called “Give and Take” because Zittel is giving us the Island to modify for our needs. Next year, one or more Herron students will live on the Island. We’ll leave what we’ve done. The piece will be there for four years, I believe,” Dunn explains. “The interior will have modular dual-purpose furniture that I designed: a bed that turns into a couch that is also a storage container. We’re also building a bicycle generator to convert physical energy to electrical energy that will be stored in a battery to use for lights, to charge our phones, use a laptop. We could even run a TV if we wanted to, but we’re not.”
Runge is designing a floating garden – big Tupperware-like containers will self-water the vegetation he’ll plant. “We’re currently testing the lake’s water quality, which is important because people fish there,” says Freiman. “The result of the findings will enable them to either grow a hydroponics garden for sustenance or a floating flower garden with Morning Glories.”
“We’re hired as IMA employees for the project and earn a stipend,” says Dunn, “but we’re actually declared as pieces of art, which is kind of funny and interesting. I like it because I’m interested in blurring the lines between art and life.”
“We’ll be under so many viewfinders,” says Runge. “This is so much bigger and more serious than anything I’ve ever done.”
“Know No Stranger is such a fluid thing that I’m trying to let it go its own way,” says Runge. ” I’d love to go on tour. We’re working to promote Know No Stranger to other organizations that may schedule us for fundraisers and benefits to raise money for a cause. All the money would go to fund their cause.”
The group wants to reach a wide range of people – from those experienced in shaping Indianapolis as a city to those who aren’t often heard – to collectively interact and react.
“Someday I would like to pursue not-for-profit status for the group. But I don’t want to be the captain forever, I want the group to be an artists’ collective giving a lot of people voice and community.”
Walker wants to help Know No Stranger. He suggests that the group could seek affiliation with Big Car, which already has 501c3 nonprofit arts status.
“Michael is the kind of person who we should not have go away,” Walker says. “If we lose him to another city, we’re really losing something. We need to find funding to support him. He just graduated with an art education degree at a time when school programs are being cut. He can’t just keep giving everything he does away for free. He needs to make a living. What can we do to encourage him to stay?”
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