by Alison Graham for the Indianapolis Star | photos by Matt Kryger

From outside, Indy Alliance looks like a typical, old church building. But when visitors walk down the stairs, to the left and in through the double doors, they’ll discover something unexpected.

The room looks like a child’s heaven. There are different size, handmade puppets hanging from the walls and ceiling. Cardboard lobsters lounge next to a paper mache campfire. Three-foot cloth and foam pizza slices dangle from a wall.

To the unknowing eye, it looks like junk. But to members of Know No Stranger, the room is a workplace and a museum.

The pizza slices are from the Fountain Square Arts Festival, where Know No Stranger — the wackiest group of performers, comedians, writers and artists working in Indianapolis — performed as a band called “Slice.” Some top hits included “Hot and Ready for Your Love” and “Deliver Me.”

On another wall hangs a gravestone with the name “Jim” written across the front. That was from “Optical Popsicle” performance No. 3. To the right, there is a cardboard water cooler. That was from “Optical Popsicle” No. 7.

Now, Know No Stranger is preparing for their seventh annual “Optical Popsicle,” a variety show they have performed since 2009. On Thursday and Saturday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, audiences will see a mixture of video, theater, art, comedy, puppetry, film and dance.

What started as a small, niche group of friends has grown into an organization with footing in Indianapolis. Know No Stranger is shaking up the arts scene together with their unique performances and ideas.

Know No Stranger members describe the show as a Muppets-style performance. Members play themselves and go back and forth between acting out skits and acting as themselves to put on a show for the audience.

This year’s “Optical Popsicle” will have videos, live sketches, puppeteering and shadow puppet skits.

In most “Optical Popsicles,” the group incorporates special guests from bands, dance groups or other puppeteers. This year, they invited Indy Air Bears, a jump-roping team.

The first “Optical Popsicle” was simple and only thirty minutes long. Since then, the group has expanded the performance to a longer length,

“We’ve gotten a lot better,” Brandon Schaaf, one of Know No Stranger’s founders, said. “We dream bigger.”

Emily Gable, another of the group’s founders, said that the first “Optical Popsicle” was comprised of skits that were just tiny ideas, not fully developed. The group was still starting, trying to figure out how they wanted to perform together.

After seven years, they’re trying to improve with every show.

“We’ve told stories in so many different ways,” Gable said. “It’s always nice to challenge ourselves to do something bigger and better.”

Getting bigger and better doesn’t mean Know No Stranger is losing its roots as a small, intimate organization. The group still makes their own sets, props and costumes — usually out of materials like cardboard, glue and paint.

“We never want to get away from being accessible, open and down to earth,” Know No Stranger member Rachel Leigh said. “We’ll never stray too far from our cardboard. “

As the first-ever performing artist in residence at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Know No Stranger will perform and create a variety of shows and performances for audiences in the IMA throughout 2015 and 2016.

After “Optical Popsicle,” Know No Stranger will begin work on an original musical to debut in the spring or summer.

“Being an artist, you’re used to being alone,” Gable said. “When I started working with other people, it felt like I was part of something bigger. That’s an addicting feeling and the reason I’m still here. It just keeps growing into a bigger monster of cardboard and chaos.”

Alison Graham is a 2015 Arts Journalism Fellow. The fellowship, funded partially by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, is a partnership between the Arts Council of Indianapolis and The Star.

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