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The Leading Man

Robert Barry Fleming. Photo by Jonathan Roberts.

Robert Barry Fleming on life at Actors Theatre of Louisville

By Laura Ross

“I was bossy and already an artistic director as a kid, making my cousins do shows in our basement when they’d visit.” For Robert Barry Fleming, 55, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s recently hired artistic director, life and art are all consuming. He belly-laughed with a rich, deep mirth at the childhood memory, and added, “My mom took us to the Chinese opera, to museums, to concerts and the ballet. I had a lot of rich arts experiences sparking my imagination and shaping my brain to be something of an innovator. I’m not the least bit surprised that it has held for over 50 years now.”

A Frankfort, Kentucky native, his first foray onto the stage was a childhood part in “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was performed at Kentucky State University, where Fleming’s father was a professor. The acting bug bit early, and he set his sights on a creative career. He studied at Temple University and launched a professional career that took him across multiple disciplines as an actor, artistic leader, producer, director, choreographer, teacher and coach.

Fleming rehearses with the cast of “Once on This Island.” Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Playhouse.

Fleming comes to Louisville by way of Cleveland, where he served as associate artistic director of Cleveland Play House. Previously, he was the director of artistic programming at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.  He was also a tenured associate professor and chair of the University of San Diego Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Department. 

His professional acting credits include stints on Broadway, playing major regional theaters, television (the Emmy-winning Disney Channel series “Adventures in Wonderland”) and film, including “L.A. Confidential” and “Twilight of the Golds.”

Coming home to a prestigious position at the world-renowned Actors Theatre is a high coup for Fleming. “The Commonwealth formed me, and I’m thrilled to return and share all that I’ve learned and grown in my craft,” he said. “Actors Theatre has a storied history, and I was floored by the variety and excellence I see on the stage. I have incredible partners locally and nationally, and we have big plans for what we are going to do here.”

Fleming is mid-way through the 2019-2020 season and is looking forward to the 44th Humana Festival of New American Plays in March. “We have the opportunity to see Actors contribute to the national conversation in so many different ways and build our national cannon of new American plays, and that’s just extraordinary,” Fleming said.

He hopes Louisvillians realize the international importance of Actors Theatre in the arts. “It’s really fortifying to know this state is so influential in the nation’s art and culture and has meaningful impact in the cultural scene. This is a spot in the middle of the country that is home to great theater and many important conversations. Great art can be centered in unexpected places,” he said.

Louisville’s rich arts scene is energizing, he added. “The crop of brilliant fellow leaders and artisans has been so thrilling, and they are all so distinguished. Louisville is a cultural watering hole. We want to do transformative theater that moves audiences and gives people a chance to think critically, and we want to contribute in meaningful and substantive ways to our ecosystem and nation.”

Fleming calls Actors Theatre a “welcoming place with radical hospitality,” and said, “The arts create those political, timely and social situations that explore the conversation, even when that’s uncomfortable. (Actors Theatre) provides a place that produces high art, excellently rendered, and adds to the social cohesion and connection that we are so desperate for in these polarizing times. Theater is the place where we are deeply reminded how vulnerable we are as a species and how much we really need each other.”

Fleming is working with Actors’ staff and the community in building programming through key initiatives like community conversations and ticketing grants, hoping to deepen cultural conversations and expand Actors Theatre’s reach throughout the community.

“You’ll see more music, more movement and universal languages of the body and voice that entertain things different from how you might think, but which provides an immediate, rich and fun experience,” he said. “We are looking for high art that is deeply, viscerally entertaining but has meaning with social impact.”

He brings his enthusiasm to work each day.  A downtown resident, Fleming walks to work early each day and dives into the world of Actors. “I actually begin the night before, taking notes for the coming day before I sleep,” he explained. “Then, I’ll start with notes, emails and meetings in and out of the office. Next, there are rehearsals, interviews, back to my desk, working on a five-year plan. Then, I go to shows, have dinner with a donor, share stories with board prospects and more. It’s all encompassing.  I get to meet motivated, smart and passionate people. It’s hard not to love all of that.”

Photos by Kathryn Harrington.

His energy is seemingly boundless and cheery, and he readily admits the position is not a 9 to 5 job. “Leadership is not separate from the art,” he said. “You are always thinking about both. It’s a constant joy and passion of continually thinking, etching, conceiving and conferring. This ability to keep conceptualizing and sharing ideas is what you wish you saw more of in other sectors of the community.”

Fleming is a self-described workaholic, but he sees that as a good trait. “I’m pretty complex, but I think that’s just me,” he said. “It took me a while to find balance, but this life works great for me. I’m having a ball.”

With a career that has spanned the stage, television, film and more, Fleming has accomplished more than most. “All those things intersecting makes sense now,” he said. “You walk your own way because you earned it, and you find it through the rigor of your practice. I want to grow and help people find their paths.”

His boundless enthusiasm can sometimes unnerve others, however. “I live downtown and came out of my (house) and someone said, ‘What are you so happy about?’” he laughed. “I can’t help it; I just really enjoy this moment of my life.” V

Livin’ and Lobsterin’ on Island Time: Actors Theatre’s Lobster Feast 2020

In the depths of winter, the islands are calling.

Lobster Fe ast benefitting Actors Theatre of Louisville hits the Louisville Marriott Downtown Feb. 8 for its 18th year of  feasting and festivities. Perennially rated as one of Louisville’s best parties, Lobster Feast features an all-you-can-eat lobster and locally-sourced dinner buffet, Cooper’s Craft signature cocktails and open bar, live and silent auctions and dancing until midnight. 

“I love the idea of Lobster Feast,” said Actors Theatre Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming. “It’s fitting that it’s happening around my directorial and choreographical debut of ‘Once On This Island,’ so we have the theme of having an island adventure. It’s going to be a lot of fun and will be about what coming together as a family looks and feels like. Actors Theatre is my found family, and we want to share that love and connection in a fun way with Louisville.”

Lobster Feast is quite literally dinner and a show with the returning “It’s Showtime” theme and special nods to “Once On This Island,” which will be on stage at Actors Theatre Jan. 29 through Feb. 23. 

Guests are encouraged to channel island time and dress appropriately, but anything goes at Lobster Feast. In addition to the lobster, the Marriott provides a full buffet that includes partnerships with locally-sourced food providers.  Live and silent auction packages abound, and theater-friendly-themed auction items – including naming rights for theater elements – are part of the fun.

And, about that lobster, which is flown in from northern waters: in 2019, Lobster Feast included around 2,500 pounds of lobster with enough butter and bibs to go around for more than 600 guests. The event sells out each year, and ticket sales this year are already underway. Individual tickets are $300 each, with tables of 10 available for $3,000. VIP tables of 10 for $5,000 include premium seating, dedicated serving staff and other special touches.

Rock (Lobster) on, Louisville. It’s about to get messy in here.

Lobster Feast 2020 is
Feb. 8 at the Louisville Marriott Downtown. Doors open at 6 p.m. and dinner is served at 8 p.m. Purchase tickets online at lobsterfeast.org. Or, call Erin Meiman at 502.584.1265 x 3003 or email her at emeiman@actorstheatre.org.

Director’s Cut:
30 seconds with Robert Barry Fleming

Morning caffeine before hitting the stage:  I just “discovered” coffee a year ago and I’m obsessed. I use my Keurig for coffee each morning and have lately been enjoying a Gevalia Majestic Roast coffee.

What’s so great about living downtown?  It is so convenient to walk to work, and I love the great views of Greater Louisville.

How late does a typical day go?  There are no typical days. Generally, I start around 8 a.m. and depending on what is running in the theaters, in rehearsal or what needs attention, I finish close to 8 p.m. 

Favorite way to chill out? I love my two cats, Mufasa and Kaz, who keep me in stitches. I’m a corny dad about that because there’s something about animals that I’ve always loved.

What’s on your nightstand? I have an insatiable love of books. I’m reading “Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James, “My Love, My Love: or the Peasant Girl” by Rosa Guy and “Persistent Disparity” by Sandy Darity. I was riveted by Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” on Netflix.

Definition of a perfect day?  For a workday, it is getting to contribute to the stewardship of the art and business at Actors Theatre and enjoying the privilege of developing the potential of brilliant staff.  A perfect day of pleasure is spent in the beauty of nature, meditation and reflection.