It’s a mild Monday night in mid-September, and Louisville’s intimate Baron’s Theatre is bustling. The small stage has been transformed into the sidelines of an indoor swimming pool for Theatre ’s production of Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s play about the Olympic doping scandal that premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre in fall 2013. Monday night is Industry Night at Baron’s, and, with cocktails in hand, a crowd of local actors, designers, directors and writers exchange enthusiastic hugs and updates on their latest shows before the lights go down.
There’s a lot to talk about. Kentucky Shakespeare, the country’s oldest free outdoor Shakespeare festival, just wrapped its most successful summer ever in nearby Central Park, due in no small part to new artistic director Matt Wallace’s passion for employing a nearly all-local cast and crew for the summer season. That gambit resulted in unprecedented levels of enthusiasm for the season—and seems to have spilled over to other theatres as well. On stage in Red Speedo tonight is Louisvillian Jon Patrick O’Brien, a Juilliard graduate who starred in Wallace’s Hamlet this summer. Director Amy Attaway helmed her first Shakespeare for Wallace this summer, too.
And many of the artists in the room are looking ahead to November, when the third annual Slant Culture Theatre Festival runs 16 shows from as many different companies in repertory for two weeks, along with solo shows. It’s not quite a fringe festival—more like a showcase for what Louisville’s independent theatre community, fueled by a new generation of artistic leaders, has become over the past five years, and what it can potentially grow into.
“One of the primary goals of Slant is to cross-pollinate audiences,” says festival producer Alison Huff, 38, managing director of the youth conservatory Walden Theatre, which hosts the festival. “By creating fun, accessible, affordable and diverse programming in a one-stop-shopping environment, we’re encouraging people to take a chance on seeing something they’ve never experienced before.
“I think Slant is an important part of developing the appreciation and the sustainability of diverse theatre in our area,” Huff adds.
For the new class of emerging theatremakers, sustainability is a constant concern—as they cross over into their thirties, they have to decide if they’re going to stay in Louisville, with its affordable historic neighborhoods and vibrant food and bourbon scene. Or should they build a career in larger markets like Chicago or New York, where opportunities abound?
“We want to stay in Louisville. We love it here,” declares Louisville native Attaway, 36, one of the three co-artistic directors of Theatre . “But how can we make sure our artistic selves can thrive in this city? We realized the only way we could make that happen was to accomplish it ourselves.”
So they did. And they aren’t alone.
Ten years ago, Louisville actors weren’t likely to see audition notices for a recent work by a sought-after member of New Dramatists like Hnath, whose career has skyrocketed over the past four years, thanks largely to Actors Theatre of Louisville and its Humana Festival of New American Plays. Actors Theatre has been a mainstay of the community for more than 50 years, while Louisville’s second tier of theatres remained a minor niche in the local entertainment landscape. Not anymore: A casual count now puts the number of small local theatre companies at close to 40.
There are companies with tight missions, like the feminist company Looking for Lilith and the LGBT-focused Pandora Productions. The latter’s current season includes A. Rey Pamatmat’s award-winning coming-of-age story Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them and the raucous comedy My Big Gay Italian Funeral. There’s the Alley Theater, which favors pop-culture tributes like Evil Dead: The Musical, and longtime veterans like the Bunbury Theatre and CenterStage, which focuses mainly on musicals. Even if you don’t count academic programs, suburban community theatres and murder-mystery dinners, there are still at least two dozen non-Equity indie companies regularly producing in Louisville, a city of just under 750,000 people.
It’s made a difference for actors like Leah Roberts. She acted in most of the local companies throughout her twenties before scaling back to focus on film and commercial work. Now Roberts, 32, reserves her stage time mostly for Theatre , appearing (for the first time in several months) in its production of Mike Bartlett’s scathing workplace comedy Bull in the Slant Culture festival. Roberts says the quality of productions has risen along with the number of producing companies.
“Louisville used to boast only a short list of notable, regularly working community-theatre performers,” says Roberts. “That’s not the case now. We have many incredibly talented artists in this town who have chosen to stay here and work, rather then pursue acting in greener pastures. Louisville is the greener pasture.”
Gregory Maupin and Abigail Bailey Maupin have found that to be true. The married couple met in Boston and worked in New York before moving to Louisville, where Greg grew up, 10 years ago. The devising company they helped build, Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, just closed up shop after a decade of producing smart, innovative original comedies—the closure came in part because they and their fellow principals are too busy working on other projects, including acting with Kentucky Shakespeare and at Actors Theatre. The Maupins saw their first commissioned play for young audiences produced by Stage One last season, as well.
“In these 10 years here, I’ve worked a dozen times more than in the 11 years I lived in New York,” figured Bailey Maupin.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. Have the opportunities for interesting work in Louisville grown because more artists now are choosing to make their homes here? Or are more young actors, directors, playwrights and designers choosing to stay in Louisville because there are more chances for them to practice their craft at a high level?
However it happened, it became evident back in 2008–09. With the Great Recession in full swing, some might say it was an inauspicious time to start new arts nonprofits. But maybe biding time until things improved made people a little restless, eager to make a big move. An example: J. Barrett Cooper, a director and stage-fight choreographer, launched Savage Rose Classical Theatre during that season, giving Louisville actors a home for unadorned, non-updated classics like John Ford’s 17th century tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
“I always wanted to do classical theatre,” says Cooper. “That’s my life, that’s what I love. Somebody wrote an article asking: Where is the classical theatre in Louisville? Nobody does it—or when they did, it was usually a Shakespeare. And it was updated or had some real spin on it, supposedly to make it palatable.”
Cooper moved to California this past summer to take a faculty position at Idyllwild Arts Academy, but Savage Rose continues with interim artistic director Kelly Moore and a troupe of dedicated classical artists. They just remounted their popular production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano with a refreshed English translation, proving conventional wisdom—20th-century French avant-garde can’t compete with Netflix—wrong for the second year in a row.
Attaway and Mike Brooks each directed significant shows in 2009—Adam Bock’s The Drunken City and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom, respectively—and a strategic plan to produce plays that felt more relevant to them and to their peers began to form. Along with fellow director Gil Reyes, Attaway and Brooks launched Theatre  in 2011 with a challenging lineup—Mat Smart’s The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell of Columbus, Nebraska; Nachtrieb’s dark dinner-party comedy Hunter Gatherers; and Marco Ramirez’s heavy-metal drama Broadsword. The new company quickly became one of the most reliable wells of onstage talent and energy in the city.
“You have a new generation of programmers—people not just executing the shows but deciding what are the important stories to tell and what are the stories audiences want to hear. And that leads to a new generation of audiences,” says Brooks, now 34. “Along with that was a new generation of artists who found greater value in that more challenging and relevant work. And that helps to keep some of those people around.”
So they stayed. They bought homes. Brooks and Reyes, now 36, work in management and development for Stage One, the professional children’s theatre, and Attaway, a former associate director of Actors Theatre’s apprentice program, is a freelance director. Now in their fourth season as , they have playwrights-in-residence (Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds) and a line of commissioned site-specific plays from local playwrights. Theatre  has produced plays by Jordan Harrison, Rajiv Joseph, Will Eno, Laura Schellhardt and Sarah Ruhl.
It used to be that Actors Theatre was the only playbill in town consistently boasting those names. Indeed, all three co-artistic directors cut their teeth artistically and operationally in jobs at Actors Theatre, and they credit both Actors and Stage One as invaluable training grounds and ongoing cultural partners (not to mention employers of the tight cadre of young technical artists  works with on a regular basis). And it can’t be overemphasized how over its 38 years, the Humana Festival trained Louisville audiences to embrace—even demand—new plays.