More to Louisville Than ATL? Little Theatres Speak Up

News   More to Louisville Than ATL? Little Theatres Speak Up “We don’t think of the other local theatres as living under our shadow,” Michael Dixon, literary manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville told a gathering of American Theatre Critics Association members at a March 30 panel. “Each Louisville theatre casts its own light.”

“We don’t think of the other local theatres as living under our shadow,” Michael Dixon, literary manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville told a gathering of American Theatre Critics Association members at a March 30 panel. “Each Louisville theatre casts its own light.”

Other panelists were more than ready to assent, from Juergen Tossmann, founder of the Bunbury Theatre, to Moses Goldberg, founding director of the family-oriented Stage One. “We have got to be good,” said Tossmann, “our lives depend on it. We’re a `traditional’ theatre, and we need to provide high-quality work. Our mission is to introduce children to cultural literacy.” Earlier in the week, the ATCA critics had been treated to a performance of Benjamin Franklin’s Apprentice, which, indeed, treated a potentially didactic and drily historical theme with subtlety and dramatic, storytelling smarts that would be welcome in most plays geared towards any audience.

Warren Hammack, artistic director of Horse Cave Theatre, admitted to a wider berth as to the kinds of chances he can take for the company. “We’ve done Godot and modern work, even a teenage Two Gentlemen of Verona, and we have a new play development series called “Kentucky Voices.”

The 99-seat Actors Guild of Lexington had been similarly adventurous, artistic director Deb Shoss told the assembled. “We were started in 1984 by University of Kentucky graduates who wanted to do counter-cultural work...but the past two seasons have scaled back to more mainstream stuff, rather than just the new and different.” That said, Shoss confesses pride in having staged many Athol Fugard plays and for being the rare regional theatre to do both parts of Angels in America. Hoping to draw the Louisville community closer to the theatre, Shoss said the theatre is placing “a stronger emphasis on local talent” and “drawing more from the region.”

The fifteen-year-old Bunbury, a “professional avocational theatre,” works on a smaller scale, using mostly non-Equity actors (but professional designers). Tossmann, whose The Salvage Yard is currently on view at his theatre, bemoaned the attrition of acting talent from the community and wondered “what kind of base” would be there for local theatre in the years to come. Easily the most outspoken -- and engaging -- panelist was Lundeanna Thomas, speaking on behalf of the University of Louisville’s one-of-a-kind African-American Theatre Program. Begun in 1993 with two classes and one production, the program has grown to eight classes and spawned the country’s first MFA certificate (as well as Minor degree) in African American theatre. Questioned Thomas, “What is the black aesthetic? What makes it different from all the theatre that’s Eurocentric? And can we teach people to judge these shows by Afro Centric standards?”

As an example of the unique style of her theatre, Thomas brought up a recent version of The Wiz, set in Africa. “Dorothy needed to identify with her roots. The Tin Man, rather than missing a heart, was looking for some soul, because he’s all stiff and creaky and soul helps you move, it frees you. When he finds it, he breaks into rap and dancing. And Dorothy’s prize at the end is an NAACP Award.”

On a less-pleased note, Thomas complained that the Courier Journal, Louisville’s major daily newspaper, doesn’t cover productions by her theatre. “They say they only have one critic. We say, `so hire another one.’” (An ATCA critic subsequently pointed out that the Courier Journal, like a number of other major papers, does not review university productions, whatever the ethnicity.) Thomas did add that students in the program, both white and black, were given more than just exercises, scenes and productions to understand the black theatre experience. “We take them to church,” said Thomas. “We took a group to Harlem. It’s about the total experience.”

With so many different types of small theatres in town, it was momentarily easy to forget that the ATCA conference was centered on the Humana Festival, and that all the buzz centered on ATL artistic director Jon Jory’s last slate of new plays before he steps down at the end of the season. Far from denying the Humana Fest’s tremendous boon to the region, Stage One’s Goldberg summed it up with this metaphor: “Actors Theatre of Louisville is like a big tree spreading seeds all over. That’s how the smaller theatres grow.”

-- By David Lefkowitz