ACTORS THEATRE OF LOUISVILLE IS FORMED
The non-profit organization formed in 1964 when a pair of theatre companies—Actors, Inc. and Theatre Louisville—merged under the name Actors Theatre of Louisville. Housed in a tiny loft, formerly the Gypsy Tea Room at 617½ South Fourth Street, the company's founding directors were Richard Block and Ewel Cornett. When the fledgling troupe quickly outgrew its 100-seat space, it moved to the abandoned Illinois Central Railroad Station at Seventh Street and the Ohio River. Louisville architect Jasper D. Ward converted the building into a 350-seat theater, preserving most of the station's interior structure.
In May 1969, Jon Jory was appointed Actors Theatre’s new producing director, making his Louisville directing debut with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Alexander Speer, whose tenure with Actors Theatre had begun in 1965, became Jory's partner, serving as executive director.
More than 65 productions were staged at the train station, which was Actors Theatre’s home until its demolition in 1972 to make way for a connector highway.
THE REVITALIZATION OF MAIN STREET
Actors Theatre of Louisville established a new complex in the old Bank of Louisville building and the adjacent Myers-Thompson Display Building on downtown's Main Street between Third and Fourth Street. Erected in 1837 and designated a National Historic Landmark, the bank was designed by James H. Dakin and is one of the best examples of small-scale Greek Revival architecture in the country, as well as one of the oldest structures still standing in downtown Louisville. In 1972, the firm Harry Weese and Associates melded the two diverse structures and constructed the 633-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium at the rear of the two buildings, with a thrust stage. The 159-seat Victor Jory Theater, a three-quarter thrust performance space, opened in 1973.
A capital campaign was launched in 1981 to acquire the five-story Bensinger Building on Market Street, which provided offices and rehearsal space as well as rental income. In the fall of 1994, an expansion and renovation project on Main Street included the new 318-seat Bingham Theater, a flexible arena theater. To update their staging technology, the Pamela Brown Auditorium and Victor Jory Theater stages were also enlarged and enhanced.
THE HUMANA FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN PLAYS
Actors Theatre of Louisville is one of the nation’s preeminent powerhouses for the development of new work and has been home to the internationally acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays since 1977. The festival gained widespread renown within a few short seasons and found a generous, visionary sponsor in the Humana Foundation in 1979, resulting in a decades-long shared commitment to the full production of new work. The festival has championed the extraordinary breadth of American theatre by seeking out and amplifying new voices and diverse viewpoints, and by celebrating innovative storytelling for the stage and beyond. The range of artistry featured in past festivals includes not only groundbreaking full-length plays, but also short plays discovered through the National Ten-Minute Play Contest (1989-2017) and the National One-Act Contest (1979-1989), work devised by inventive ensembles, and experiments in form like T(ext) shirt and phone plays.
Most recently, 2021’s virtual exhibition featured new work that explores the theatrical possibilities of emergent technologies such as virtual reality, gaming, and interactive community-building online. This iteration of the festival brought together collaborators from a range of disciplines—from writers, directors, visual artists and musicians to game designers and immersive artists working in XR/VR. Some of the projects included Ali Summit, a collaboration between writer Idris Goodwin, director Robert Barry Fleming, and the extended reality storytellers of Crux Cooperative; Plague Doctor: Contagion 430 BCE – 2020 AD, a video game created in partnership with Two Scoop Games; and Wolf 359’s Block Association Project, a comedy that unfolds through an online neighborhood gathering. To read more about the 2021 virtual exhibition, click here.
The Humana Festival has introduced more than 450 plays and has launched thousands of subsequent productions around the world. Celebrated past premieres include Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This, Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry it Out, Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom, Idris Goodwin’s How We Got On, A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, Charles Mee’s Big Love, Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, José Rivera’s Marisol, Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, and Marsha Norman’s Getting Out. The festival has also featured new work made by acclaimed ensemble companies, such as Rude Mechs (The Method Gun), UNIVERSES (Ameriville), and SITI Company (Steel Hammer, Cabin Pressure, and more).
Three Humana Festival plays have won the Pulitzer Prize—The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn, Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley, and Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies—and plays launched in Louisville have received a host of other prestigious honors. More than 400 Humana Festival plays have been published, making Actors Theatre of Louisville a visible and vital force in the development of the American dramatic repertoire.
Actors Theatre’s achievements and dedication to the production of new plays have been acknowledged by the three most prestigious awards given to regional theatres. In March 1979, Actors Theatre won the Margo Jones Award, presented for the encouragement of new playwrights, and in May 1979, received the Shubert Foundation’s James N. Vaughan Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement and Contribution to the Development of Professional Theatre. In June of 1980, Actors Theatre became the second theatre to receive the Special Tony Award as an outstanding non-profit resident theatre.
OTHER IMPORTANT INITIATIVES
The Bingham Signature Shakespeare Series (1989–present), generously sustained by the Mary and Barry Bingham, Sr. Fund, supports Actors Theatre in producing the Bard’s plays biennially.
New Voices (2006–present), a cornerstone of Actors Theatre’s Learning & Creative Engagement programming, celebrates the work of teen artists from Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Originally a classroom writing residency and contest that culminated in an annual playwrights festival, New Voices is evolving to expand the forms of expression from a primary focus on the written word to incorporate other disciplines such as music, physical theatre, spoken word, and visual arts (including XR technology such as virtual and augmented reality). This initiative seeks to empower students to heal, grow, and fully flourish through creativity and self-expression.
The Professional Training Company (1972–2021) was a nationally recognized, full-immersion program focused on practical, experiential training designed to ease the transition into a professional career. Actors Theatre remains committed to early-career professional development and is currently in the process of revising how the organization equitably and sustainably supports young practitioners in all areas of our discipline.
The Flying Solo & Friends Festival (1993–1997) brought avant-garde solo and small ensemble performances to Louisville, inspired by a desire to embrace aesthetic diversity and amplify voices marginalized by the mainstream. Notable performers included Jane Comfort, Marga Gomez, Danny Hoch, Kevin Kling, Lisa Kron, Roger Guenveur Smith, and Tim Miller.
The Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival (1985–1997), a multidisciplinary arts and cultural event underwritten by Brown-Forman Corporation, examined the social, political and aesthetic influences surrounding the creation of classic plays through lectures, panel discussions, exhibits, film and video. Festivals included the work of Molière, Luigi Pirandello, John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and contemporary American director Anne Bogart, as well as Commedia Dell'Arte, the Moscow Art Theatre, and theatre during the Romantic era, the Victorian period, the Weimar Republic, and the Roaring Twenties.
International Tours (1980–1992) began with overseas performances in Yugoslavia, Ireland and Israel, marking Actors Theatre’s evolution as a major international company. Tours abroad included more than 1,500 invited performances in over 29 cities in 15 countries.
ACTORS THEATRE OF LOUISVILLE TODAY: STORYTELLING (R)EVOLUTIONIZED
Now in its 58th year, Actors Theatre of Louisville is transforming into an arts and culture organization as social enterprise, strategically centering experiences that reflect a civic commitment to the social good and to the health and wellness of the many constituents we serve. Under the leadership of Executive Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming, Actors Theatre combines adventurous storytelling on our stages and virtual platforms with innovative learning and creative engagement programming, art-based wellness initiatives, and robust community partnerships. Grounded in anti-racist, anti-oppressive praxis and the work toward our collective liberation, we strive to fulfill the company’s mission to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich quality of life by engaging people in theatre that reflects the wonder and complexity of our time.
Over the past several years, the trailblazing artistic work for which Actors Theatre is known has taken on new dimensions as we’ve explored a multiplatform transmedia approach to storytelling, using technology to connect people to art and to each other. We’ve created in-person, mixed-reality performances, live virtual events, digital streaming productions, animated shorts, radio plays, virtual reality experiences, a video game, a podcast, a series featuring Kentucky musicians, lively forums for community dialogue, and more. This time of reinvention and experimentation has been a chance to investigate new cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, and as we share both live, in-theater performances and experiences on digital platforms, we will continue to innovate onstage and online. Our R&D laboratory intersects art, emergent technology, and social transformation for a storytelling (r)evolution.
Actors Theatre of Louisville invites participation in our work with a spirit of radical hospitality and extravagant welcome, and cultivates partnerships and conversations with our neighbors throughout Greater Louisville, including our youth. Our Learning and Creative Engagement initiatives not only empower young people in classrooms, but also bring together voices from the community on our platforms, hosting an array of opportunities to connect, share stories, and participate in civic dialogue. In this new evolution of Actors Theatre, we see engagement in the arts as part of a holistic strategy to nurture physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being and support healing needed in our community. This is evidenced in programs like Unscripted, our online community discussion series, and The Clinic, our partnership with nurse and dancer Tara Rynders and the Kentucky Nurses Association to bring art-based resiliency workshops to healthcare workers.
As Actors Theatre reimagines how a 21st-century theatre can serve the full flourishing of its community, the company has also shifted from a subscription model to memberships. Starting at no cost to join, and including access to a Member Library of digital content, memberships create an accessible way to support and experience Actors Theatre’s work, removing economic and geographic barriers. (In fact, members hail from across the country.) In addition to democratizing the art, this model also gives Actors Theatre more artistic freedom to plan and announce new programming, and allows us to be more nimbly responsive to events in our community and world. To learn more about memberships, click here.