Sandy Speer pointing out the newly purchased Bensingers building in 1981.
Photo-Actors Theatre of Louisville

Actors Theatre of Louisville: Fifty Years

Written and compiled by Kristopher Castle, Kate Chandler, Kirsty Gaukel, & Evan McMahon
160 pages; full color throughout
Butler Books

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

As a follow-up to their 50th anniversary celebration during the 2013-14 season, Actors Theatre of Louisville has published a coffee-table history that documents the highlights of the first half-century of the Tony-Award winning regional theatre.

That Tony Award is, of course, included, and if we should feel suspicious of the integrity of a book authored by members of the ATL staff, we can rest assured that the contents rise above being simply promotional. It is, of course, promotional, but it also betrays a palpable sense of discovery from the creative team. One can easily imagine the giddy excitement of unearthing various pictures or reading handwritten notes and typewritten pages drafted by the near-legendary figures of the company’s past: it translates to the page. Kristopher Castle, Resident Costume Designer, Kate Chandler, Associate Director of Development, Kirsty Gaukel, Associate Director of Communications, and Evan McMahon, Projects Coordinator and Archivist, are all relative newcomers, whose own personal history with the company dates back less than ten years. As the reader moves through the profusely illustrated pages, they are given a glimpse into what must have been a thrilling and exhausting excursion through the archives for these relative newbies.

There is a parade of names, some familiar: Barry Bingham, Jr., Sandy Speer, Jon Jory, Ray Fry, Adale O’Brien, and some perhaps less so: Richard Block, Ewel Cornett, who co-founded and were the first directors of the company. Shining the spotlight on those two names is exactly why the book is so important, for even lifetime residents of Louisville will have a patchwork of first-hand memories of everything that has come before.

Full Page_K-2_Gary Sloan and Steve Rankin

Gary Sloan & Steve Rankin in K2 (1985) Set design by Paul Owen. Photo-ATL

The first production, in 1964, was Christopher Fry’s Lady’s Not For Burning. They set up shop at the old Central Railway Station on 7th & River Road. Then I-64 arrived and wiped out that location, so the current home on Main Street was established and several years later expanded into its current iteration. In the 1970’s long-time Artistic Director Jon Jory placed ATL firmly in the vanguard of the burgeoning regional theatre movement with innovative programming such as The New American Play Festival and Classics in Context and earning that Tony in the process.

It is the Jory period that is still best remembered, and where the reputation was most firmly established. In addition to the aforementioned programming, there were international tours and celebrity playwrights. The steady flow of soon-to-be stars are well-represented here as well with images  Kathy Bates, Julianne Moore, Michael Shannon and Timothy Busfield, to name just a few of the recognizable names who include Louisville on their resume.

But the spirit of the book, and the place itself, belongs to those stalwart leaders who had the vision and kept it alive to see the golden anniversary, and Alexander “Sandy” Speer exemplified that tradition as much as any other single individual. One image, in which he gestures at the newly purchased Bensinger’s building that would become the first annexation to meet the needs of the growing organization, captures the essence of the no-nonsense leadership that built the bedrock business foundation that allowed all of Jory’s innovation.

Actors Theatre of Louisville: Fifty Years earns a place in your library alongside The Encyclopedia of Louisville as an essential volume cataloging local history. If nothing else, it is an invaluable archive of the magnificent design work that has been characteristic of Actors Theatre, most notably the literally thousands of designs from Paul Owen, many of which were simply brilliant. I think you will find yourself pulling it down often and dipping into your own memories of ATL’s rich legacy.



[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for [/box_light]