2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts: Actors Theatre

As a lifelong theater participant and fan, it was exciting to have the opportunity to visit Actors Theatre of Louisville and talk one-on-one with Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein. If you’re not especially familiar with the theater world, let me just say Actors Theatre is the gold standard in the world of regional theater.

As a former theater student, I can say with certainty the majority of young people who want to work professionally in theater rank Actors Theatre high on their lists of places they hope to someday work. One of the things I think is really superb is that the theater has a well-respected intern and apprentice company that helps train the next generation of theater professionals. And, of course, I have to give a shoutout to ATL for employing graduates of my former theater program at Morehead State University. It’s worth recognizing when regional theaters with presence on the national scene employ people from their own states. Kudos to ATL for recognizing quality talent in the Commonwealth.

This year marks ATL’s 50th anniversary of producing professional theater in Kentucky. While the theater has changed through the years, and continues to evolve, it remains one of the top theaters in the nation and is dedicated to keeping the spotlight on the Commonwealth for years to come. Congratulations to Actors Theatre of Louisville, the 2013 National Award recipient in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

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Give me the rundown of the work and programming produced by Actors Theatre each year.

We have multiple streams of programming. We want to, and feel we have a responsibility, to serve a broad range of people in this community. We have our main stage series which is sponsored by Brown Forman. That is a range of plays that are comedies, dramas, sometimes musicals, sometimes classics, sometimes contemporary. We also have some annual shows which are great holiday traditions for people. They bring their friends and families and they come year after year. We do Dracula, which is unusual in regional theater. This is our 19th year of running Dracula. People love it. We do A Christmas Carol and this will be our 38th season of producing A Christmas Carol. That’s a great entry point, often for children, whose families bring them. We see and have heard many stories from people who remember coming here as a kid and now they’re bringing their own children.

We do the Humana Festival, and that’s how we’re known nationally and internationally. The Humana Festival is like the Sundance of new plays. We produce six to 10 new plays each year during the Humana Festival. It takes place in March and people come from all over the country and all around the world to see it. This past year we had visitors from almost 10 different countries and from more than 30 different states.

How long have you produced the Humana Festival?

In 2014, our current season, we’ll present our 38th Humana Festival. One of the reasons we are so honored to receive the National Award in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts is, over our long history of 50 years, we’ve really been a pioneer. We continue to be a leader in our national field of theater. The Humana Festival was the first new play festival that existed amongst regional theaters in this country. Actors Theatre made a bold commitment and has really stood by that commitment and continued to invest in new play development. And that is to impact the canon of American theater that exists, to continue to feed new work into the American theater. We were a pioneer in creating the business models that exist today for theaters and for many arts organizations, the subscription model that really helps to sustain what we do because people commit to a full season and it allows us to produce a range of programming. Whereas, if we were to sell single tickets to each show, it would be a much bigger and challenging marketing investment.

How has the theater been a leader on the national scene among regional theaters?

Actors Theatre has been a leader over our history and today amongst regional theaters in new play development. We have hundreds and hundreds of theaters and individuals who come to the Humana Festival each year to see the work we are premiering and to either commit to produce it at their organization, to sign on as an agent for one of the playwrights, or to publish the work. We have produced more than 450 new plays for the American theater. One of our big goals each year is to insure they receive subsequent productions. Our current statistic on that is about 80 percent of them go on to subsequent productions. We think that is very strong.

We were actually early in terms of giving access to patrons and donors to our artistic process. We have an open rehearsal process. People can come in and watch rehearsals, whereas many theaters protect that and don’t allow people into the room. We give them access to reading scripts early on in the process.

I would say today we are doing some innovative things in terms of technology. One of the things I’m really excited about we started this past year is a series called The Balcony. For people who are really attached to their phones and need to be on Facebook and Twitter, we have opened it up on certain nights where any seat in the balcony you can Tweet and post to Facebook and interact during the whole show. One of the things I thought was so fascinating and delightful about it is that people who have come there to be on social media and interact with the show have said after intermission, “I want to put my phone away because I just want to watch the show.” We’re really willing to test new media, new technology, in terms of what we do.

Les Waters, who is our current artistic director, is renowned in the world of theater and is a hugely sought after director, one of the top directors working in the states right now. We’re really excited he is here and working with us.

How has Actors Theatre’s location kept Kentucky in the national spotlight over the years and why has that been important to the state?

We are thrilled that we are located in Louisville and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We get tremendous support in terms of people valuing what we bring to the quality of life and in terms of economic impact to this region. Through the Humana Festival, especially, but through other work, too. We bring great positive attention to the state of Kentucky in terms of truly being one of the best in the country and a leader in the arts in the nation. We also are bringing in the 150 artists we work with each year and employing them in the state. I think they learn a lot about Louisville and Kentucky, and they become ambassadors for this area when they return to their homes.

I’m a big believer that if any of the arts organizations thrive, it helps to elevate the entire sector. I do think because of the great support of this community and the state of Kentucky, Actors Theatre has been able to thrive and to remain strong. That helps the entire arts ecology in the state. We do have strong organizations and artists throughout the state. If we all can remain strong it helps the others as well.

Emily B. Moses, communications director

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