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New director makes a splash at First Pres Theater with “The Greatest Showman”

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Courtesy/First Pres Theater
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Todd Sandman Cruz: Glad to be home!

Todd Sandman Cruz is making his directorial debut at First Pres Theater this weekend with The Greatest Showman—A Celebration of Humanity!

A Fort Wayne native, Todd cut his theatrical teeth at Bishop Dwenger High School, where he performed in many plays and musicals, and on the Fort Wayne Youtheatre stage under the directorship of Harvey Cocks.

As with many of Harvey's young charges, he recalls the specific words of encouragement that were to define his career path.

And after earning his bachelor's degree at Ball State, Todd continued to hone his skills as well as continue his education on the west coast, until his hard work and creative thinking netted him the job of resurrecting Muncie's Civic Theatre.

He is now happy to be back in the thick of the Fort Wayne theater scene, and sees this new position as Director of Fine and Performing Arts at First Pres as a dream come true.

WBOI’s Julia Meek talks with him about the production, what the upcoming season holds in store and how it feels to be home.

Event Information:

The Greatest Showman—A Celebration of Humanity!
@ First Pres Theater, Fort Wayne
Friday, May 20th, 2022
7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 21st
2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 22nd
2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m
7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

For tickets and more information, visit the First Pres Theater website.

Julia Meek 

Tod Sandman Cruz, welcome.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Thank you Julia.

Julia Meek: Now since your whole life has been all about the drama, drama drama, let's start with when you first fell in love with theater.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Well, I first fell in love with theater as a young kid actually. My older brother and sister both did all the plays in school, I was dragged to other dance recitals, my mom made my brother learn dance because evidently he was a klutz. So she thought that might help him. So I was dragged in and out and just loved going to the theater. My sister, I think she was in fifth grade, was the witch in Hansel and Gretel. And the point where they pushed the witch in the oven. I stood up and screamed, don't kill my sister. (chuckles) But you know, after the show that they took me backstage, I met all the actors. And from then on it was I want to do this.

Julia Meek: That's quite an aha moment. (laughs) Thank you for sharing that. So you then worked your way all around town, you are a Fort Wayne native., then on to Ball State, a stint in Seattle, another one in LA. You returned by way of Muncie then and tackled their Civic Theater? Now, how did all of that prepare you for this job at First Pres.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Well, I will tell you, when they asked me to take part as Artistic Director in Muncie Civic Theater, at that point in time, attendance was really down, half the town thought the theater had closed its doors. So when I arrived at Muncie Civic Theater, there was a lot to be done. And they needed a lot of help. My first job was to raise the quality of the shows get Ball State back involved with Muncie Civic, get the town to know that we were open and we were doing exciting stuff. And we really turned it around in about a year. So it went from being in debt and needing money to doing shows that people wanted to see and were excited about. And I think that over the years, that experience has led me to be very well prepared for First Pres, post COVID.

Julia Meek: Okay, you've just given us the condensed version of your job skills and some of the challenges that you had once you got back to Indiana. So you've brought them all here. Which ones are you finding yourself using now?

Julia Meek: And so it's working out for you well?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Ah! So with First Pres, one of the main things that I was asked to do, because my title is director of Fine and Performing Arts. So not only does that include the theater, but the art gallery. And also I work with our Director of Music Ministry to bring all of that together, because prior they were kind of in their own silos. And now we are working together. For instance, the art gallery, as I'm sure you know, is in the lobby of the theater. So working more together, when we're looking at what shows we're going to be performing and what's going to be in the art gallery and trying to coordinate that a little bit more'; working with our music series for like the best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is our Christmas show, Brent Neuenschwander, who is our Director of Music, is going to be working with me because we're going to actually create the pageant. We're going to bring in the choir, he's looking at bringing in guest choirs from other churches, because we're going to be doing it in the sanctuary. We've created an All-Arts VIP season ticket option. So really bringing all of those together.

Todd Sandman Cruz: It's working out very well. And that's why we put out the fine arts brochure (was my idea) was to bring it all together for not just the church congregation, but for all the Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: That's a great place to be...and speaking of places to be in , Todd, how does it feel to be home?

Todd Sandman Cruz: It's really nice. It really is. Now granted, before this, I was living in Desert Hot Springs right out of Palm Springs and I had no idea, but this was a dream job. This was absolutely my dream job. My mom is 84. My sister's still live here. It was definitely meant to be. It's been a great homecoming.

Julia Meek: Good for you. And have you performed at First Pres before this very joyful homecoming?

Todd Sandman Cruz: I have not. I performed at Fort Wayne Civic with Harvey Cocks, who gave me some great advice when I was a senior at Bishop Dwenger. I was actually going to ditch--I'd been accepted to Ball State and I was going to forget it and just go to LA and be an actor. And Harvey said, "Todd, I think you need to rethink that." And he was right. I mean, he's the reason actually that I'm here because had I done that I wouldn't have gotten my education, wouldn't have gotten my master's degree, etc.

Julia Meek: What a wonderful part of your story and the Fort Wayne theater story to be sure. So how do all of these theatrical experiences shape the way you think of your present position as well as the possibilities that it affords?

Todd Sandman Cruz: It gives me the confidence to think big, to think broader. When I got my initial tour of First Pres Theater, there is a balcony that's actually part of the stage that had been blocked over and use for fabric storage. We for the greatest showmen have a main staircase that goes up to that. So we have cleaned it out, we're utilizing it. A built in, two story stage is a dream. I mean that theater is--I'm biased--but I think it's one of the best theater spaces in Fort Wayne because it's intimate and yet it holds 300 people.

Julia Meek: You're not alone in thinking that, I know. And it's wonderful to hear that you're utilizing it that way, Todd. Now you're no doubt teeming with ideas and plans, that's pretty obvious. (chuckles) Would you describe your very, very basic strategy for this first season?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Exactly. How I started looking at what shows to do, I went to the congregation of the church and polled them. I showed up during the run of Bad Seed in October. And so we polled the audiences, we polled the congregation and our entire season for 2022- 23 came from those lists. You know, the congregation itself has the potential to make such a difference in the use of that theater and getting them in there finding out what they want, that's where I started. And they had fantastic ideas. It gave me the positive feeling about secular theater-- that yes, they were completely on board for secular theater.

Julia Meek: Sounds like you got a green light?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Big time. Big time!

Julia Meek: Okay, then.Very Good!

Todd Sandman Cruz: Yeah, the emphasis is really, and I came in with this because this is what I mainly did with Muncie Civic--you find out what do they want, you bring in shows that everybody wants to be in. That includes music, dance, and children. And when you do that you grow an audience fairly quickly.

Julia Meek: Great philosophy, and we certainly can't wait to see the outcome. Now let's raise the curtain on your upcoming production, The Greatest Showmen, a Celebration of Humanity in Concert. Great title, amazing concept! Would you give us a one sentence scenario?

Todd Sandman Cruz: We're using the music of the Greatest Showmen to tell our own story of love and acceptance, you know, getting away from shame, judgment and labels. So it's about love and acceptance. And that movie, those songs are all about accepting each other not judging each other, acceptance of who we are and growing because we all have these unique gifts and talents and to be confident in them and use them and not be ashamed.

Julia Meek: Great message for anytime and in a circus setting. Now, how wild and crazy is that? (chuckles)

Todd Sandman Cruz: Well...Yes, if you're going to do the music of the Greatest Showmen, you got to have some circus feel to it. So we do have aerialists--were using scarves. And they are quite amazing and beautiful to watch. So we're very much utilizing that which is so tied into the song, Rewrite the Stars, in the film, and it gives such an exciting...to see them hanging up there. Okay, it's a little unsettling at times because they do these drops where they just roll out. And every time my heart does stop a little bit, but it's exciting. And dance. We're showcasing ballet, modern tap, jazz. It's a cast of over 25!

Julia Meek: You've got a lot going on, on that beautiful stage. Is it going to work?

Todd Sandman Cruz: It does work!

Julia Meek: Wonderful!

Todd Sandman Cruz: It does work! And I will tell you I was a little...I said that's a big cast for that stage. But it's--it's just joyous. It really is.

Julia Meek: We all can't wait to see for ourselves. And that will be happening shortly. Now, it is quite a vision that you have, Todd, how does it speak to exactly what you're about? And what we can expect from your directorship, taking a challenge like that for your very first show here.

Todd Sandman Cruz: It's kind of a way to get in my brain. You know, I was actually in talks, going through interviews for the position, still living in Desert Hot Springs. And I was sitting in my pool and thinking about if I got the job, what would I want to do? And that popped into my head and I couldn't let it go. Because for me and coming back to Fort Wayne, it's a little challenging. I haven't been here in 30 years.

Julia Meek: Well, you certainly see him up for the challenge. And well, well skilled. And we have to go back to the fact that you have a marvelous setting in which to live your dream and actually share it with the community, so a word on that theater itself? It's a perfectly intimate yet accessible space. What other possibilities does it conjure up in your creative imagination?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Well, we have a really exciting season coming up. We're doing The Play That Goes Wrong, which is a hysterical farce in which, similar to Noises Off, the set itself is quite a character in that play. So it's challenging, but perfect for that space. We're also doing Disenchanted, which is a hysterical musical, really about female empowerment. It's all the Disney princesses, but who they really are. It's a little body but hysterically funny, but it's really about women saying that ain't real. This is real and important. It's just a great way to get female empowerment in a very funny way. And then I can mention we're doing the best Christmas Pageant Ever in the sanctuary. We're doing Godspell, a little throwback, but perfect. We're doing the 2012 version. So it's gonna be updated. And we're doing Clybourne Park, which is a very exciting, exciting piece. It's Pulitzer Prize winning play. It's all about gentrification, it sandwiches, the Raisin in the Sun. So the first act takes place in the 50s and it's about a black couple moving into a white neighborhood. Then it takes place, modern day, and white couple moving into a black neighborhood, and which is gentrification. It's happening all over Fort Wayne, so it's very much an important story to be told. And is told in a very funny but witty and a little biting way. It's a really important piece.

Julia Meek: You look for big messages, it sounds and then for amazing ways to convey those messages with big punches and big fireworks and everything else imaginable. Would you call yourself eclectic? (chuckles)

Todd Sandman Cruz: Very much so and not always very subtle! (laughing)

Julia Meek: I think you wear both of those things well! So just how outside the box do you see yourself going production wise? That start is really quite impressive.

Todd Sandman Cruz: You know, certainly the space has some restrictions on size. I don't see us doing a Hello, Dolly anytime soon, you know, but certainly, there's so many new musicals that are coming out that are smaller, that are hard hitting, and you know, the Presbyterian Church is the thinking man's church. So what are the issues that affect Fort Wayne, that affect United States that affect everyone? And how can we tell those stories in a way that's exciting and fun, and yet do cause that critical thinking? That's what excites me.

Julia Meek: And you seemingly can translate it into theater. That's a gift on its own. We are so glad that you have that. I am kind of curious, Todd, since our local art scene has truly exploded in your absence, especially theater, now that you're back in the thick of it, how does what you're bringing to the table, enhance and magnify what's already there.

Todd Sandman Cruz: I believe that the theater that we're starting to and continue to be doing is going to be hard hitting, really interesting, yet entertaining,

Julia Meek: And attract more people--hat's another wonderful thing in this 21st century that's relevent.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Absolutely! Absolutely!

Julia Meek: Yeah. And besides that awesome partnership you have inherited with Fort Wayne Youtheater, where else might you tap into the local talent pools?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Yes, we are very excited to have Fort Wayne Youtheater as our youth theatrein-residence. They are so incredible to work with.

Julia Meek: It sounds like you all follow the same quest and are on it very, very nicely.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Yes. Todd Espeland! We call ourselves Todd squared. (chuckles) And when we're together, it's Oh, it's the other Todd. Oh it's the other Todd. But yeah, we're very much like-minded. So that's very exciting. But I see us, you know, we're actually in talks for the 2023-24 season, prepped to do a collaboration with Fort Wayne Dance Collective.

Julia Meek: And you have already added a battery of dances to this very first production. So more of that going forward?

Todd Sandman Cruz: Absolutely. I'm a huge fan of dance. As you will see, with the Greatest Showman, I think just about every type of dance is displayed. So I'm really excited about collaborations. Fort Wayne Youtheater, we are actually going to be collaborating in 23-24 on a show. They're going to have the kids, we're going to cast the adults. There's so many talented people in this town. It's just super exciting!

Julia Meek: For all of us. And thank you for that. And last question, Todd. In your mind, what kind of doors does First Pres Theater's focus on inspiration through the arts open for you personally, Todd Sandman Cruz, its new director.

Todd Sandman Cruz: It's an opportunity for me to tell stories that I love, that I'm excited about, and can share that with everyone.

Julia Meek: Fort Wayne native Todd Sandman Cruz is First Pres Theaters new director. Todd, thank you so much for this update. Thank you for your spirit. Keep up the great work. Welcome home.

Todd Sandman Cruz: Thank you so much, Julia. It's been great meeting you and chatting with you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.