Actors Theatre of Louisville

Episode #604 First Aired: September 22, 2014

A Kentucky Muse Special Presentation: Actors Theatre of Louisville

Actors Theatre of Louisville, Louisville’s esteemed and beloved theater institution (and Kentucky’s official state theater company) is in the midst of its 50th season. From a modest beginning in downtown Louisville in 1964, Actors Theatre has become one of America’s top theater companies. A who’s who of actors has graced its stages, and its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays attracts worldwide attention.

How and why did Actors Theatre become so important? What does its future hold? A special Kentucky Muse presentation takes a look at the remarkable story of this ground-breaking Kentucky arts organization.

Interviews with Actors Theatre’s leadership past and present, leading actors, playwrights, and directors — along with footage and photographs of dozens of productions — document a tradition of excellence and inspiration that has never waned in the 50 years of the theater’s existence.

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Actors Theatre of Louisville, 50 years and counting…

Since its founding in 1964 by a group of young, passionate, and dedicated stage enthusiasts, Actors Theatre of Louisville swiftly earned local acclaim before gaining, and holding, international attention with what would become the organization’s signature: the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Two local theater companies merged to become Actors Theatre of Louisville when it was clear that the city wasn’t large enough to financially sustain separate playhouses. Under the direction of co-founders Ewel Cornett and Richard Block, the new non-profit company relied on a host of volunteers working on and off the stage during its fledging years.

Their efforts paid off, though, and Actors Theatre quickly outgrew its original space on South Fourth Street. For a new theater, the group renovated the abandoned Illinois Central Railroad Station and turned it into a 350-seat venue. On opening night, audience members took a train to the auditorium, only to be victims of a staged “train robbery” with the pillage going to the company’s coffers.

New artistic director with a vision

In 1969, Actors Theatre hired Jon Jory as the new producing director, a position he would hold for 31 years. Already familiar with fledgling regional theaters, Jory had helped establish the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., a pioneer in the genre. Jory brought a new vision and vibrancy to the group, and would ultimately make Actors Theatre the standard to which other regional theaters would aspire.

“Jon had only one thought in mind his whole life, and that was the theater,” said longtime and founding supporter, Roanne Victor. “We used to have to tell him when Christmas was and that he couldn’t perform on that day.”

Under Jory’s stewardship, the community’s interest in the troupe swelled to several thousand season subscribers. Jory was astounded by the response and reception Actors Theatre received in Louisville. “The thing that struck me was that it was the most arts-interested small city in the country,” Jory said.

In 1972, Actors Theatre made a bold move which would resonate in the artistic community and throughout the city of Louisville. The company relocated to a new complex downtown comprising two historic structures, including the 1837 Greek Revival-style old Bank of Louisville building on Main Street. Though it wasn’t evident at the time, Actors Theatre was a progenitor to downtown Louisville’s ongoing Renaissance as the cornerstone to the city’s cultural district.

Local, national and international attention with new festival

A few years later, Actors Theatre made an even bolder move which would garner international attention. With an emphasis on new works by American playwrights, Jory established what would become the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1976. The series quickly became, and remains, one of the most anticipated and significant theater events each year, attracting stage professionals and aficionados from around the world.

“It’s become, in a way, a miniature Cannes festival of theater,” award-winning drama and film critic for Newsweek magazine Jack Kroll said.

The Humana Festival of New American Plays has gone on to premiere the Pulitzer Prize-winning works “Dinner with Friends,” “Crimes of the Heart,” and “The Gin Game,” as well as a number of Pulitzer finalists.

“New plays, that’s what sets you apart. Everybody can do ‘Death of a Salesman’ – some do it well, some don’t – but when it came to experimental, new American plays, there was nothing like the Humana Festival,” said Karl “Buzzy” Victor, who has been a supporter and benefactor of the troupe since it began.

Proving ground for playwrights, plays, and aspiring actors

Along with the acclaim the festival brought to Actors Theatre, a cast of notable performers who got their professional footing in Louisville has also given the company industry stature through the years. The long list includes Holly Hunter, Mary McDonnell, Ken Jenkins, John Turturro, Julianne Moore, and Kathy Bates.

“I can’t underestimate the influence the Actors Theatre of Louisville has had on my life and my career,” Bates said.

Actors Theatre of Louisville was also the launching pad for hometown talent Marsha Norman’s artistic career. While working as a writer for the Courier-Journal, Jory encouraged her to try playwriting. Her first play, “Getting Out,” premiered at the Humana Festival in 1979. Hearing the audience’s sounds of approval on opening night was a pivotal moment in her life. “The sound literally blew my previous life away,” Norman said. She went on to have a successful playwriting career, penning the Pulitzer Prize-winning ” ’night, Mother” in 1983.

Today the organization offers a very competitive and intense apprentice and intern training program for aspiring theater professionals, where participants attend stage classes, train under mentors, and have the opportunity to attend rehearsals. “It’s probably hardest I’ve ever worked, my year there,” said actor Josh Hopkins, who went through the apprentice program in 1992 – 93. “I truly look back on it with fond memories, but at the time it was rough. I still call it my biggest break.”

Global stature, local importance

Actors Theatre of Louisville celebrated its 50th season beginning in 2013 with “Noises Off” and ending in April 2014 at the conclusion of the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Along with hundreds of performances each season, the organization has a number of community outreach offerings and public programming options, making it a vital institution to the people of Louisville.

In the coming years, Actors Theatre of Louisville directors want to continue to raise the organization’s profile in the community. “In the beginning of the next 50 years, we want to enhance the work that we do directly with all sectors of the community,” said managing director Jennifer Bielstein. “I think you can only be important nationally or recognized nationally if you are relevant and resonant locally.”

The current and fifth artistic director, Les Waters, was hired to Actors Theatre in 2012. Not only is Waters going to be responsible for maintaining the production quality fans have come to expect, but also for finding new ways this esteemed arts organization can continue to evolve.

“I’m interested in the theater’s future, and with Les Waters – one of the best directors in America – it’s in great hands,” former artistic director Jory said. “And so it’s not just hanging around, it’s moving forward. And that means the world to me.”

— by staff writer Robbie Clark