The Heart Of The American Theatre Beats In Louisville

Another one by By Arthur E. E. Smith Senior Lecturer, English, Fourah Bay College. Not exactly library related, but it's a good story:
My interest in the theatre could be traced back to my secondary school days at the Prince of Wales when its simulation of life in its diversity on stage at annual prize-giving ceremonies which were in themselves very colourful occasions greatly fascinated and intrigued me. Then whilst awaiting my results I got myself into acting alongside a number of T.V personalities as well as theatre veterans managing to hold the role of Mark Antony which I played creditably to rousing appreciation from the audiences at the British Council. At Fourah Bay College, I followed that through by acting in LEEDS Drama Workshop productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and GODS ARE NOT TO BLAME. Back at the Prince of Wales school as a teacher I led and directed a number of ground breaking productions and improvisations. Now as a lecturer of American literature I have been concerned amongst other aspects in the development of American theatre which had a later start than the other genres because of the greater intolerance directed at it by the PuritansThe advent of David Belasco and Eugene O’Neill in the 1920’s it was that started establishing an authentic American theatrical tradition breaking away from the earlier imitations and reproductions of British and European drama. But then before 1959-60 American theatre meant production on Broadway in New York City with frontal staging in a building designed exclusively for theatrical performance, with the curtain representing the fourth wall establishing an illusion of reality. The audience was carefully separated from the plays, and the dramas performed were species of light comedy, musicals and serious plays dealing in social criticism or psychological exploration
  Besides O’Neill, American theatre produced important dramatists like Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansbery and Edward Albee. The radical intellectual and cultural currents following the second World War ushered in changes which were also reflected by theatrical activities. Off Broadway which had begun in New York in 1915 with the anticommercial revolt of the Washington Square Players in New York and of the Provincetown Theatre on Cape Cod began to blossom with new companies , new talents in acting and directing and playwriting and new ideas. The Circle in the Square began to come together in 1950. The Living Theater opened its doors in a loft on Upper Broadway in 1951, and the Phoenix theatre began to operate in 1953. The Circle in the Square gave legitimacy to the whole enterprise with its production of Tennessee Willliams’ SUMMER AND SMOKE (1952). The power and professionalism of that highly successful Quinterro production attracted an attentive audience. When Carmen Capalbo’s production of Brecht’s THREE PENY OPERA with Kurt Weill’s Widow, began a long run at the Theater des Lys in 1954, the weight and gravity of theater Off Broadway was established beyond doubt. Off Broadway thus became a thriving enterprise henceforth.
  In 1953 Joseph Papp began his New York Shakespeare Festival, an enterprise which by 1970 employed more actors than any other theatrical enterprise in the U.S. Papp moved from free SHAKESPEARE in Central Park to the presentation of radical new works and the introduction of such new playwrights as David Rabe, Ed Bullins and David Mamet.
  Meaanwhile, theater across the country was growing and changing. No more were only a few cities to be priviledged with ‘Little Theaters’ whilst most other cities remained mere road stops for touring Broadway attractions. From now on regional theater expanded at a great pace. Seattle and Houston and Washington were , for example, establishing theaters like Seattle Repertoire Company, Alley Theater and the Arena Stage respectively. These later joined by others like the Playhouse in Cincinnati, performed the classics mainly but were also engaged in encouraging new writers and trying out new methods of acting and staging.
  Within a few years with the establishment of Joe Cino’s Caffe and the Café La Mama in 1960 the new venue of Off Off Broadway was born. Then the avant-garde theater also began to take shape. Caffe Cino, a coffee house introduced the work of Lanford Wilson and La Mama. Another gave playing space to such writers as Wilson, Paul Foster, Jean-Claude Van Italie, Sam Shepard and Ross Alexander. Theaters sprang up in churches. Theater Genesis, which produced Sam Shepard’s first plays was in the basement of the ancient St Mark’s –in-the- Bowerie. Then the American Place Theatre of New York began in St Clements Church in 1964.
  By 1963 Joseph Chakin’s Open Theater was giving performances in Sheridan Square, and the Free Southern Theater of John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses was presenting WAITING FOR GODOT to black audiences in the Mississippi Delta. The Guthrie in Minneapolis, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and the Seattle Repertory Company all started up in 1963. Then a year later Amiri Baraka’s powerful and influential play DUTCHMAN was first staged. That same year,1964, the Actor’s Theater of Louisville, which I will be giving much more attention in the rest of this article, took the first steps forward into the field. By then the trauma of Vietnam was inaugurating a decade-long theatrical response in the form of street and guerrilla theater. The urgencies of the civil rights movement was also motivating black theater across theCountry.
  Actors Theater of Louisville , now widely acknowledged as the most successful regional theater, like the Living Theater earlier mentioned, opened its doors on a loft in 1964. From then it has had a rapid growth and development in stature. Ten years after its start it became designated the State Theatre of Kentucky. Furthering that, it has emerged as one of America’s most consistently innovative non-profit professional theatre companies. For over four decades it has been a major force in revitalizing American playwriting. Its approach to the presentation of classical dramatic repertoire is unique thus winning for itself some of the most prestigious theatrical awards and earning as well worldwide recognition for excellence.
  Actors Theatre, born out of the merger of Actors, Inc and Theatre Louisville, started operations from a tiny loft at South Fourth Street. Quickly outgrowing its 100-seat capacity it moved over to an abandoned Illinois Central Railroad station at Seventh Street and the Ohio River quickly converting it into a 359-seat theatre whilst preserving most of its interior structure.
  Jon Jory, just appointed producing director gave it a renaissance with his directing of Dylan Thomas’s UNDER MILK WOOD. The final production before the station was demolished to make way for the construction of a connector highway was the moving presentation of Arthur Miller’s classic drama DEATH OF A SALESMAN in May 1972. Audiences sadly recalled the joyous moments there and the rapid growth of subscribers and productions.
  It moved over to a new complex in the old Bank of Louisville building and the adjacent Myers-Thompson Display Building in downtown Main Street. The Chicago-based firm Harry Weese and Associates melded the two diverse structures into one and constructed at their rear the 637-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium, with a thrust stage. The 159-seat Victor Jory Theatre, was opened a year later, in 1973.
  The theatre’s mission is to provide insights into the human experience through live theatre that invigorates minds and emotions. It also strives to correct social ills and point the way forward for society. It leads the American theatre in creating new plays and through its innovatively re-imagined dramatic renditions of the classics.
  To keep itself alive and fresh to reflect a dynamic and fastly changing world it is constantly remodeling, refurbishing and restructuring as well as expanding its facilities.A 12.5 million dollar expansion and renovation project in 1994 built a new 318-seat Bingham theatre, a flexible arena theatre, and a revolutionized staging technology. Pamela Brown Auditorium and Victor Jory Theatre stages were enlarged and enhanced. Patron amenities were improved with expanded lobbies, ticket sales areas, restroom and seating facilities in the restaurant. A nine-level parking garage also got added. It is impressive to see the harmonious blending of historic Main Street architecture of the past with modern, state-of –the-art facilities. Four years later in 1998, restoration of the theatre’s main Sara Shallenberger Brown lobby refurbished the original colors and gold leaf accents of the décor and allowed new lighting arrangements.
  Actors Theatre, Louisville, relies on generous support from individuals, corporations as well as foundations such as the Humana Foundation which supports consistently the Humana Festival which the Los Angeles Times describes as the Kentucky Derby of the American Theatre. This internationally celebrated Festival of New American plays started in 1976 by Jory from 1979 to now has been underwritten by the Humana Foundation. Each Festival has been uniquely testing the boundaries of theatre in different ways to reveal the wonders of the stage and the power of live drama. Over 300 Humana Festival plays representing the work of more than 200 playwrights have been produced with over three-fourths of them published in 17 anthologies as well as individual acting editions thus going to swell the permanent canon of American dramatic literature. Through its Ten-Minute Play Contest that evolved from its National One-Act-Contest nearly 100 new short plays and new playwrights were introduced to American audiences. Shorts thus became a growingly popular form of the theatre’s festival of premieres. It has premiered Pulitzer Prize-winning plays: Donald Maguilies’ DINNER WITH FRIENDS, Beth Henley’s CRIMES OF THE HEART and D.L. Coburn’s THE GIN GARNE and Pulitzer finalist KEELY AND DU by Jane Martin. Other well-known Humana Festival Premieres include: ROAD TO NIRVANA by Arthur Kopit and SLAVS! by Tony Kushner.
  This pre-eminent annual showcase of new theatrical works attracts theatre lovers, critics, producers and playwrights from all around the world. Actors Humana Festival has been integral also in bringing the drastically changing political as well as social landscape in America to the stage in Louisville and beyond. What begins here often goes on to full houses, award ceremonies, film adaptations and varied audiences in America and throughout the world.
  Actors have come a long way indeed. In March 1979 they won the Margo Jones Award, for the encouragement of new playwrights. In May 1979 they received the Shubert Foundation’s James N Vaughan Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement and contribution to the Development of Professional Theatre. Then in June 1980 it earned a Special Tony Award as an outstanding non-profit resident theatre. In September of 1980, it became a major international company when it launched a tour to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Israel. Since then its international touring program has included more than 1,500 invitational performances in over 29 cities in 15 foreign countries.
  Jon Jory is credited much for the solid base he built for Actor’s which attracted an equally competent man Marc Masterson to succeed him, follow his tracks and build further on it.when he finally decided to retire into a University teaching job. Jory’s legacy here is immortal. He had such an influence on many people. And his legacy continues unto now. Appointed artistic Director in 2000 Marc Masterson forms the foundation for a vision of Actors future which he describes as ‘a place where artists thrive and continually enrich us, where our work elevates the role of the theatre in contemporary society by redefining the way that an arts organization relates to its community, and where pluralistic values inherent in our art form become a celebration of the diversity and richness of our cultures.’
  Under Marc Masterson’s leadership, the theatre presents a diverse range of classical and contemporary works in over 699 performances during a 40-week season. It retains 150 top theatre professionals attracting to its stages many of the world’s most talented theatre artists. Normally it presents up to 24 performances a week in its three-theatre complex.
  Its internship program helps recent college graduates to move from academic to professional theatre thus providing excellent employment placement for the most talented Through its community outreach it holds student matinees, free children’s theatre productions, free apprentice showcase productions, described performances for low vision patrons, performances interpreted in American Sign Language and previews in which value priced performances are given before a productions’ official opening. This program provides as well teacher study guides, inservice training, public seminars and workshops and pre- and post-performance discussions.
  The biennial Bingham Signature Shakespeare was launched in May 1989. Through funding from the Bingham Fund the theatre produces Shakespeare without compromise. Avant-garde solo and small ensemble performances were part of the theatre’s repertoire from 1993 to 1997 as part of the unique Flying Solo and Friends Festival. I am so fascinated by the huge presence of Shakespeare and the great interest maintained in him in the U.S. that I am persuaded to giving that a separate article later.
  Actors’ versatility is further demonstrated through the Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival [1985-1997]. Through this ingenious multi-disciplinary arts and cultural event, it elucidates dramatic literature’s masterpieces for today’s audiences by examining the social, political and aesthetic influences surrounding the creation of the plays through lectures, panel discussions, exhibits, film and video.
  The works of Moliere, Luigi Pirandello, John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and modern American director Anne Bogart as well as Restoration Comedy of Manners, Commedia Dell’Arte, the Moscow Art Theatre, the theatre during the Romantic and the Victorian periods and the Roaring Twenties have amongst others been featured in past festivals.
  How much I regret my inability to have a first hand view of plays produced live onstage by Actors Theatre of Louisville whilst in that cultural Mecca of a city. Our tight academic as well as touring program gave very little space for that. It was at San Francisco we had the chance of seeing a play, at a church, DEATH AND THE KING’S MAIDEN it was. But I long so much for a longer opportunity to better explore the immense cultural as well as artistic treasures in LOUISVILLE.

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