The non-profit organization began when a pair of theatre companies, Actors, Inc. and Theatre Louisville, merged under the title Actors Theatre of Louisville. Housed in a tiny loft, formally the Gypsy Tea Room at 617 1/2 S Fourth Street, the company's founding directors were Richard Block and Ewel Cornett. Quickly outgrowing its 100-seat domicile, the fledgling troupe moved to an abandoned Illinois Central Railroad Station at Seventh Street and the Ohio River. Louisville architect Jasper D. Ward converted the building into a 350-seat theatre, preserving most of the station's interior structure.
In May 1969, Jon Jory was appointed the theatre's new producing director. Jory's October 1969 Louisville directing debut with Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood marked a renaissance for the organization. Alexander Speer, former executive director whose tenure of forty years began in 1965, became Jory's partner.
Due to demolition of the station to make way for a connector highway, the company's final production at the station was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in May 1972. As final performances were presented, sentimental audiences recalled how the station had been a good home—a place where Actors Theatre had grown from several hundred season subscribers to over 9,000, and where over 65 productions had been staged.
The theatre 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 Streets. Erected in 1837 and designated a National Historic Landmark, the bank was designed by prominent 19th-century architect James H. Dakin and is one of the best examples of small-scale Greek Revival architecture in the country. The Chicago-based firm Harry Weese and Associates melded the two diverse structures and constructed at the rear of the two buildings the 633-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium, with a thrust stage, which opened in October 1972. The 159-seat Victor Jory Theatre, a three-quarter arena performance space, opened in April 1973. The building is the third-oldest building still standing in downtown Louisville, and is a copy of the Bank of America building at the corner of Wall Street and Williams Street in New York City, which was built in the early 1830s. The two buildings in Louisville which predate the Bank of Louisville building are The Old House on S. Fifth Street (built 1829, housed the city's first electric lights) and Christ Church Cathedral on S. Second Street (the main part built 1824).
In 1976, Jory started the internationally celebrated Humana Festival of New American Plays, the preeminent annual showcase of new theatrical work, underwritten since 1979 by The Humana Foundation, that draws theatre-lovers, critics, producers and playwrights from around the world. The theatre has produced over 300 Humana Festival plays (full-lengths, one-acts, monologues, T(ext) shirt and car plays) representing the work of more than 200 playwrights. Over three-fourths of the Humana Festival plays have been published in 25 Actors Theatre anthologies as well as individual acting editions, making them part of the permanent canon of American dramatic literature. The theatre's distinguished New Play Program also included a national Ten-Minute Play Contest, started in 1989, that evolved from the National One-Act Contest (1979-1989). Parallel to the growth of the New Play Program, attention was warranted for the forgotten play form, the one-act. Shorts became the theatre's festival of premiere one-act plays and in the five seasons, 1980-1985, the Shorts Festival introduced nearly 100 new short plays to American audiences. These mini-plays were incorporated into the Humana Festival until the program ended in 2017.
The Humana Festival has premiered the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Dinner with Friends (Donald Margulies), Crimes of the Heart (Beth Henley) and The Gin Game (D.L. Coburn) and Pulitzer finalists Becky Shaw (Gina Gionfriddo), Keely and Du (Jane Martin) and Omnium-Gatherum (Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck) as well as Getting Out (Marsha Norman), Agnes of God (John Pielmeier), Lone Star (James McLure), In the Eye of the Hurricane (Eduardo Machado), Courtship (Horton Foote), Extremities (William Mastrosimone), My Sister in this House (Wendy Kesselman), Tales of the Lost Formicans (Constance Congdon), Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley), Marisol (José Rivera), One Flea Spare (Naomi Wallace), Slavs! (Tony Kushner), The Batting Cage (Joan Ackermann), Y2K (Arthur Kopit), The Christians (Lucas Hnath) and Cry it Out (Molly Smith Metzler).
Actors Theatre's achievements and dedication to the production of new plays have resulted in the theatre receiving the three most prestigious awards given to regional theatres. In March 1979, Jory and the theatre won the Margo Jones Award, presented for the encouragement of new playwrights. In May 1979, the theatre received the Shubert Foundation's James N. Vaughan Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement and Contribution to the Development of Professional Theatre. And in June of 1980, Actors Theatre became the second theatre to receive the Special Tony Award as an outstanding non-profit resident theatre. Actors Theatre evolved as a major international company in the fall of 1980, when it launched an overseas tour to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Israel. Since then, the international touring program has included more than 1,500 invitational performances in over 29 cities in 15 foreign countries.
In 1981, a $3.4 million capital campaign is launched to raise funds to acquire the former five-story Bensinger Building to provide offices and rehearsal space for the theatre as well as rentable income.
The Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival (1985-1997), an ingenious multidisciplinary arts and cultural event, underwritten by Brown-Forman Corporation, elucidated dramatic literature's masterworks for today's audiences by examining the social, political and aesthetic influences surrounding the creation of the plays through lectures, panel discussions, exhibits, film and video.
Past Classics Festivals included the work of Molière, Luigi Pirandello, John Steinbeck, Ferenc Molnár, Thornton Wilder, and modern American director Anne Bogart, as well as Restoration Comedy of Manners, Commedia Dell'Arte, the Moscow Art Theatre, theatre of the Weimar Republic, and theatre during the Romantic era, the Victorian period and the Roaring Twenties.
The biennial Bingham Signature Shakespeare was launched in May 1989. The Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. Fund makes it possible for the theatre to produce Shakespeare without compromise. Avant-garde solo and small ensemble performances were part of the theatre's repertoire from 1993 to 1997 as part of the unique Flying Solo & Friends Festival.
In the fall of 1994, a $12.5 million expansion and renovation project included the new 318-seat Bingham Theatre, a flexible arena theatre, and, to revolutionize their staging technology, the Pamela Brown Auditorium and Victor Jory Theatre stages were enlarged and enhanced. Improvements were also made to patron amenities such as expanded lobbies, ticket sales areas, restroom facilities and seating in the theatre's restaurant. A nine-level parking garage became part of the complex. Harry Weese and Associates and Theatre Projects Consultants handled the project, impressively blending historic Main Street architecture of yesteryear with modern, state-of-the-art facilities. In 1998, restoration of the theatre's main Sara Shallenberger Brown Lobby refurbished the original colors and gold leaf accents of the decor and allowed new lighting arrangements.
Actors Theatre has become the cornerstone of the revitalization of Louisville's Main Street. As the centerpiece of the city's urban cultural district, Actors Theatre has significant economic impact on a vital downtown life.
The theatre offers the Professional Training Company, a program designed to help recent college graduates make the transition from academic to professional theatre. This competitive program results in excellent employment placement for its talented participants.
Four active volunteer support groups assist the theatre—Actors Associates, a service-oriented organization founded in 1966; InterACT, a league of young professionals, established in 1991, which works primarily to build a new generation of audiences; the Teacher Advisory Council, a group of active and retired teachers; and a large usher corps that assists with patron services at performances. In all, over 800 individuals provide volunteer service for the theatre.
Acclaimed for its artistic programming and business acumen, Actors Theatre presents over 500 performances of about 20 productions during its year-round season composed of a diverse array of contemporary and classical fare.
The theatre's other community outreach offerings include free Professional Training Company showcase productions; public seminars and workshops; pre- and post-performance discussions; facility tours; discounted season tickets plans for students, senior citizens, people with disabilities and educators; audio described performances for low vision patrons; and performances interpreted in American Sign Language. Works by distinguished local and regional visual artists are showcased during the season in a free gallery located throughout the theatre's lobbies.