A 2014 Shakespeare Intensive class visiting the site of Walden Theatre’s original
location in Lyndon. Artistic Director Charlie Sexton is on the far right.
Taking A Look at Walden Theatre
By Keith Waits
Photos by Julane Havems
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Walden Theatre was born in a log cabin in the woods of eastern Jefferson County when Dr. Edward Vermillion invited Nancy Niles Sexton to build a theatre program at his new school. They mounted the first productions of Shakespeare on a multi-tiered stage built in an adjoining meadow. It was an idyllic start, and those early years are halcyon days to the students and faculty who experienced them first hand.
Yet even in the rose-colored glow of memory, there was a foundation to the theatre education offered, from the start, to all students in Greater Louisville. Nancy Niles Sexton’s particular philosophy sought to include any young person with a serious desire to act, and she grew the program from that quaint, folksy atmosphere, becoming autonomous and moving to locations downtown, performances at various venues including Actors Theatre and The Kentucky Center for the Arts, a Young Playwrights program with published play scripts, and membership in the Fund for the Arts.
Now Walden, under the leadership of her son, Artistic Director Charlie Sexton and Managing Director Alison Huff, is reexamining their curriculum so as to keep up with the changing times. This is not the first time that such introspection has taken place, but the additions for fall 2014 represent a key broadening of the scope of the educational experience, one that recognizes the increasing breadth and diversity of those students touched by their programming.
Not all students that Walden Theatre comes into contact with will pursue theatre in college or as a profession, and with enrollment over 250 each semester, Sexton and his staff recognize that would not be a realist goal anyway. But the merits of the program as personal growth experience, whatever an individual’s long-term goals might happen to be, have proven to be significant. Life-long friendships and mentor relationships are formed. The annual teary-eyed senior send-offs attest well enough to that, and the testimony of the parents back it up.
So the curriculum must balance the needs of a pre-professional program with a broader based appeal that continues to draw new students, often through highly successful summer camps. The new initiatives expand the opposite ends of the Walden experience, with the introduction of a class for children aged 5-7, an age Walden has never before included in their primary programming. Entitled simply “Imagination”, the sessions on Saturday mornings and Monday afternoons will teach drama fundamentals by organizing students to conceive and perform an original play. They will participate in every aspect of production, including design and construction of props, sets, and costumes, in an experience that the Walden catalog states will, “…strengthen literacy and teach kids the value of their individual perspective and imagination.”
At the other end, the upper level students will have a greater range of choices available to them. Playwriting as long been a cornerstone of the curriculum, but a new emphasis on other areas of stagecraft such as design and directing, are in place for the fall classes set to begin on September 13.
Plans also include pushing the envelope on the idea of “space teaching”, in which faculty become involved in productions alongside student actors, and mentoring relationships which allow the students to ‘shadow’ directors and production staff. Teaching by example will manifest itself this season in a staff showcase production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in December. ”It ties in to the style set that we will explore all year in the classroom and onstage,” explains Sexton, “beginning with the student cast production of Three Sisters next month.” (October 9-18)
Although these developments are partly an attempt to open the program to new students while current enrollment tests the limits of the building’s capacity, it also embraces progressiveness by looking back to tradition. Sexton and Artistic/Development Associate Julane Havens worked on these ideas while simultaneously cataloguing the archives of press and promotional materials. Rediscovering the past informed many of their decisions and reinforced their conviction that they were doing the right thing for Walden Theatre. “Nancy Sexton was utilizing space teaching for years, bringing in alumni whenever possible to teach, act, and direct,” says Havens. The company’s current staff includes several graduates, such as teachers Hallie Dizdarevic, Neill Robertson, Clay Marshall and Benjamin Wells Park, who spearheads an Alumni Company that has mounted productions in the summer and during the Slant Theatre Culture Festival. Slant, founded, produced, and hosted by Walden each November, involves several other local companies as well.
“We see the opportunity for a relationship with our students who are committed to working in theatre as part of a life-long process. Walden Theatre should continue to be a part of that,” explains Sexton. And to further that connection, Walden will be offering, timed to coincide with this year’s Slant Festival, Adult Audition classes as a sort of trial outreach into the community of local actors. “We’ve had inquiries from people looking for something like this, so we will give it a try, “ says Havens.
Still, the challenge remains in balancing the professional track while emphasizing inclusiveness and accessibility for potential students. There are no auditions required to enter the program, although once enrolled, they are an integral part of the casting process for the many productions. But, finally, the point everyone who works at Walden emphasizes is that, amongst all the structure and discipline, how much fun it all is.
As it approaches its 40th anniversary season in 2015, it is clear that Walden Theatre has come a long way from that bucolic meadow stage and log cabin. Aside from expansion of curriculum discussed here, they are in the midst of a merger with Blue Apple Players that will extend their reach into the state and expand even further the scale of their staff and programming. Only time will tell if it can realize all of its ambitions, but it seems certain that it is building a future with care and continuing appreciation for its own history.
Walden Theatre is hosting a Public Open House over the course of two evenings:
For Advanced Classes (ages 14-18)
Thursday, September 11, 5:30-7:00pm
For Imagination/ Improv/ Studio/ Apprentice Classes (Ages 5-13)
Friday, September 12, 5:30-7:00pm
Placement in the program is based on a combination of age and experience.
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in TheatreLouisville, Louisville Mojo and his own website, The Arts Louisville, before merging operations and becoming Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com[/box_light]