“All the world’s a stage….” but in Louisville, the arts community is fortunate to have multiple stages and a number of opportunities for exploring the theatrical arts. From the venerable Actors Theatre to the scrappy and dedicated Acting Against Cancer, the Louisville theater scene is thriving and bursting with creativity, active audiences and blockbuster shows.
It’s been a busy year of new leadership, new collaborations and new performances. Many of the area’s local theater groups weathered challenges to enjoy robust seasons. While some are wrapping up their 2019 runs, all are actively planning for the new year.
We took a peek backstage with several area theater gurus to learn how the year has gone so far and find out what is in the wings.
By Laura Ross
The breaking news at Actors Theatre of Louisville is the arrival of Robert Barry Fleming as new artistic director. He arrived in June, shortly after the conclusion of Actors’ Humana Festival of New American Plays. Fleming, a Kentucky native, returned to the state by way of Cleveland, Ohio, where he served as associate artistic director of the Cleveland Play House. Previously, he was the director of artistic programming at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
“Louisville is an ecosystem that is rich in artistic activity with real ownership and interests in supporting and valuing all that is a part of the cultural landscape,” said Fleming. “I want Actors to be a vibrant resource for civic discourse, a cultural watering hole and be at the center of an ongoing conversation through art of just how deeply the social impact of our work can be felt.
“We’re poised and ready to jump into the new season,” added Fleming. “We’re celebrating summer with Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash and looking ahead to a great season of theater beginning with Fifth Third Bank’s Dracula and Hype Man by our good friend and astounding artist, Idris Goodwin, in September.”
Perennial holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol will close out 2019 with the new year kicking off with The Wolves. According to Fleming, the new season revels in the joys and complexities of the indomitable human spirit.
“Actors Theatre is transforming, just like Louisville,” said Fleming. “We’re proud to be part of the cultural wave that’s responding to our communities’ calls for inclusion and opportunity. The stories onstage in the Brown-Forman series feature great theatrical elements – poetry, music, movement and dance. We’ve got Measure for Measure, thanks to the Bingham Signature Shakespeare Series; The Wolves, which has quickly become a modern classic; and my directorial debut at Actors, Once on This Island.”
ACTING AGAINST CANCER
Acting Against Cancer may not have the theater girth or budget of an Actors Theatre, but the earnest company, led by executive director Remy Sisk, has a mission to change the lives of children touched by cancer through the arts. It does that by staging large-scale, high production value musicals that raise awareness as well as funds for an after-school children’s program. The musical theater instruction classes are available for any child; however, those affected by cancer participate for free so that they may explore the healing power of the arts.
“There’s a bit of a misunderstanding in the community where some folks think we’re raising money for cancer research, and while we have done that in the past, that’s not what we’re trying to do,” explained Sisk. “Rather, we are working to improve the lives of kids who are dealing with a family member’s cancer journey – or even their own. When they have the chance to get on stage, become someone else and work toward a common goal on a supportive, inclusive team, it’s amazing what can happen for both their mental and physical health.”
At the end of August, Acting Against Cancer will tackle its most ambitious project to date, a production of Pippin in collaboration with CirqueLouis. “It can be intimidating to produce (this show) due to the circus and magic elements that the script calls for, but CirqueLouis is really taking their side of this project and running with it,” said Sisk. Acting Against Cancer will focus on the musical theater perspective, and CirqueLouis will infuse the show with dazzling circus acts.
Following Pippin in August, the company will produce its sixth annual production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in October at PLAY Louisville and PLAY Nashville. “In January, we’re getting ambitious again with American Psycho,” added Sisk. “It’s a musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel made famous by the Christian Bale film. It has a unique electronic score by Duncan Sheik, and there’s going to be plenty of blood – even more than we used in last year’s Carrie. Then, our season will close in March with Murder Ballad, which is a very intimate rock musical that we’re looking to make into a more immersive experience.”
The mainstage season shows’ success allows staff to work with the kids facing cancer. “(That revenue) helps us with the financial freedom to sponsor students in after-school classes and continue changing the lives of children who have found themselves in absolutely unbearable situations,” said Sisk.
DERBY DINNER PLAYHOUSE
Across the river in Southern Indiana, Derby Dinner Playhouse is happily celebrating its 45th birthday. Lee Buckholz, producer and artistic director, has watched over its stage for more than 30 years.
Once known as a popular dinner theater featuring the “Star System” of using retired TV and movie legends from the 1940s onward in mostly musical comedies, Derby Dinner Playhouse now entertains more than 220,000 guests a year with a budget of nearly $7 million. Today, Buckholz and his company produce eight main stage shows, four children’s theater shows, 12 concerts and offer a performing arts academy and summer camps each season.
“We’ve had a remarkable year so far,” said Buckholz. “We reached sales goals for season tickets well before expected. I find it especially exciting that patrons are rushing to get seats before we even go into production, knowing that our shows tend to sell out quickly.”
Summer is a very busy time for Derby Dinner Playhouse, added Buckholz. Shrek the Musical runs through Aug. 18, and following that production, Million Dollar Quartet – the Broadway musical about a twist of fate that brought Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis together for a jam session in 1956 – will take the stage. Also new to Derby Dinner Playhouse is Ken Ludwig’s fast-paced comedy Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, coming later in the year. It will feature four actors portraying more than 40 characters with silly accents and disguises while revealing clues and lining up suspects. Then, theater goers will embrace their inner elf at Christmas, when Elf: The Musical premieres.
“The Louisville arts scene is one of the strongest in the nation because there are so many offerings,” said Buckholz, “but what makes Derby Dinner stand out is our affordable and immersive experience.”
Long-time Bunbury Theatre producing and artistic director Juergen K. Tossmann is busy wrapping up the 2019 season and looking forward to Bunbury’s upcoming 32nd season.
“We had a great partnership with ShPIeL Theatre Identity (project) in Chicago. We produced two shows together, and we are lined up to produce more next season,” said Tossmann. “The Green Book broke attendance records, and we were extremely pleased with that.”
Bunbury’s stage at the Henry Clay Theatre on Third and Chestnut may be dark currently, but it will open in early October with The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. A Holiday Memory by Truman Capote and adapted by Russell Vandenbroucke will carry Bunbury through the holidays, and Visiting Edna by David Rabe and Imagining Heschel by Colin Greer and David Y. Check will fill out spring 2020. Bunbury’s season will wrap in June with I Am Cat, written and directed by Tossmann.
“Bunbury has been around since 1986, and we are pleased to be a recipient of the Fund for the Arts sustainable arts grant,” said Tossmann. “We are true to our theatrical roots. Our mission is to engage, entertain and challenge audiences with theatrical productions that examine identity and social constructs. We provide that and think that it’s refreshing to go to the theater and see a deeper art.”
Pandora Productions, Louisville’s only theater company dedicated to telling the stories of the LGBTQ community, also shares the stage at the Henry Clay Theatre.
“We’ve just completed our 2018-2019 season,” said Pandora Productions Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury. “(The upcoming season) is likely our most ambitious season to date. We have several regional premieres including the revival version of the iconic Torch Song (Trilogy) opening Sept. 13, Fun Home in November, Choir Boy in January and Southern Comfort in May. In addition, we will bring La Cage Aux Folles, the Musical, to our stage this coming season.
“We’re most proud to finally be bringing Choir Boy and Southern Comfort to the stage,” he added. “Choir Boy takes place in a black prep school, and Southern Comfort deals with a group of transgender friends in rural Georgia. That show will be cast with all trans actors, except for the one cis-gender character.
“You’ll see things on the Pandora stage that you truly won’t find anywhere else in the region,” said Drury, noting the theater will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020. “Pandora enjoys a very diverse audience and invites anyone interested in great theater to come and see a show. We won’t disappoint. Our productions are profound, provocative and enjoyable. They impact the lives of so many, not just those connected with the LGBTQ community. The stories are universal.”
STAGEONE FAMILY THEATRE
Like Actors Theatre, StageOne Family Theatre has a fresh artistic director in Idris Goodwin, who came on board in August 2018. His first season at StageOne was appropriately dramatic.
“(StageOne) got off to a bit of a rocky start with having to move spaces,” said Idris Goodwin. “We are a long-time resident of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, but after their lobby was rocked by the water and smoke damage of last summer’s fire, we did two shows at Memorial Auditorium and another at the Brown Theater. The whole StageOne team pulled together to adapt with verve.”
The teamwork proved successful. Despite the fire and varied locations, 60,000 young people enjoyed StageOne’s 2018-2019 mainstage productions, many seeing a professional theater production for the very first time. As it enters its 73rd season, StageOne Family Theatre is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest and leading professional theaters for young audiences and families.
“We are at the precipice of our 2019-2020 season themed, ‘Small Steps, Giant Leaps,’ which features stories of allyship in times of change and transition,” he added. “Three newer titles will make their Louisville premieres, and we’ll have one time-tested StageOne classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
“In addition, we’ll have our Storytellers performances, Jacked!, a touring play created in collaboration with Cleveland Play House, and a few special events,” Goodwin said. “We’ll also be present in dozens of schools across the region introducing more students to the power of theater.”
IN THE THICK OF IT TOGETHER
The theater directors all know the entertainment dollar is tight, but they don’t necessarily see each other as competition. They see their mission as one to bring the arts alive.
“This is an exciting time for Louisville,” said StageOne’s Goodwin. “It’s a moment of renewal and transitions. There is new leadership in long-standing organizations, innovation and partnerships, new developments.”
Derby Dinner Playhouse’s Buckholz agrees. “The Louisville theater community has always been, and continues to be, a supportive community across the board,” he said. “I’ve always believed that when theater as an art form flourishes, each producing organization is healthier because of it. We don’t look at the other arts groups as competitors; we embrace them as partners.”
“All art is a reflection of who we are as a community, country, world,” added Goodwin. “Theater, the art of live storytelling, music, dance, poetry, costumes, lights (and) scenic and props are ancient, sacred, cathartic and necessary. It shows us who we are and who we could be.” V
Acting Against Cancer
Derby Dinner Playhouse
StageOne Family Theatre