Eric Booth & Particpants in the Teacher’s Institute. Photo – Fund for the Arts.
By Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved

The last time the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s annual theatre conference was in Louisville was in 1996, and a blizzard welcomed theatre practitioners from the ten-state area that comprises SETC. This year, the snow was everywhere but Louisville. Although that led to delays, it did not prevent more than 4,000 theatre aficionados from descending on Louisville (some delayed) for the five-day, largest theatre gathering in the country.

The hub of the conference was the Galt House hotel, much expanded and improved since the last time SETC was in Louisville; and, with the growth of SETC in the intervening years, the conference sprawled beyond the hotel too. The regional High School Festival was at the Bomhard Theater at The Kentucky Center for the Arts, as were some dance sessions of the Music Theatre section. The Youth Performing Arts School hosted the Community Theatre Festival, and the Teacher Institute was housed at the unique Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School. Sessions featuring Actors Theatre of Louisville staff were held at their three-theatre complex on Main Street. And conference participants were also able to take in Humana Festival offerings at ATL and a Looking for Lilith Theatre production at the KCA.

Kicking off the convention was the day-long Teachers Institute on Wednesday, March 6, at which the renowned Eric Booth was the featured guest artist. He also did double duty, becoming the first opening night keynote speaker of SETC’s history. This session was scheduled immediately following the Disney-sponsored Presenter Reception at which convention-goers had greeted friends and colleagues only seen once a year, creating energy and excitement that flowed over into the adjacent session space for Mr. Booth’s brief presentation. Greeting attendees as “agents of artistic experience,” his high-energy presentation (delivered without notes) got the gathering off to a good start.

Attending the SETC convention can be overwhelming. In addition to the two one-act play festivals and teacher programming listed above, there is a fringe festival; auditions for college students and professionals seeking professional work; high school auditions for college; new play awards for professionals and students; a 24-hour play festival; student awards for history papers; workshops and presentations spanning pedagogy, production, and performance; a vendor area; a university/college fair; design labs; four keynote speakers; a lunch hosted by the ten member states; and an awards banquet to wind up the busy days on Saturday evening. And, of course, the informal networking and socializing that happens at all hours of the day and night in every nook and cranny of the convention hotel space.

A snapshot of the conference would have to include the busy registration and information hub housed on the second floor of the Galt House East. Located between session rooms and the display areas on this level, and session rooms above and below, here is where the majority of convention-goers passed by or sank thankfully into the few couches placed around to peruse the magazine-thick conference program or to catch up with new acquaintances or old friends. Auditions were housed in the Galt House West, leading to a completely different energy in that area of the hotel. 

The annual states’ lunch on Friday is a longtime tradition of SETC at which an interesting cross-section of attendees gathers:  winners of the student history paper, the high school new play competition, and the KEEP-Award high school students, together with their SETC sponsors; state theatre association representatives, presidents, and executive directors; SETC staff; and other convention-goers. Here in Louisville the lunch was held in the Rivue Restaurant, offering a panoramic view of the Ohio River, Louisville, and neighboring Southern Indiana – a vista hard to be matched at other convention venues. Typically, the mayor or county executive of whatever city SETC convenes addresses this gathering. Here Barbara Sexton Smith, CEO and President of the Fund for the Arts, the oldest unified arts fund in the country, addressed the hundred-odd lunch-goers. Ms. Sexton Smith is a great ambassador for the power of the arts and arts education and for the wealth of arts in the Louisville Metro area. On Friday she did not disappoint; with a tongue-in-cheek bow to how the Mayor would have addressed this arts-friendly crowd, she quickly had everyone in a ripple of laughter at the boosterism of any speech targeted to visitors, and equally quickly turned the room to appreciation of the history and richness of the arts in Louisville, particularly theatre, as always giving specific and meaningful examples relevant to the particular audience she addresses.

Seventeen high schools from the ten-state area converged on the Bomhard Theater for two full days of performance. Both Owensboro High School and the Youth Performing Arts School here represented Kentucky in Louisville. Owensboro’s production of Lindsay Price’s Among Friends and Other Clutter won the overall Best Play Award, and their director Carolyn Greer won Best Director. Students from both schools were also recognized for their work, with nominations to the “All-Star” cast award, for which notable performances from many of the seventeen competing schools were recognized.

Louisville and Kentucky were well represented at all levels of the SETC convention. Saturday morning at the Fringe Festival was all about Kentucky, with performances of both Silas House’s new play This Is My Heart for You by Berea College, and Louisville-based Pandora Productions’ remount of their LGBTQ Youth Project. Both these productions are testament to the power of theatre to bring stories to life and lift up voices that are traditionally not heard. The legacy of UofL’s African American Theatre Program was palpable as alums of the program, now teaching in the Southeast, led several sessions about pedagogy and training for the black actor. Looking for Lilith led a devising workshop; Kentucky artists led sessions about one-person shows, creating original work, dialect for stage, and working with differently-abled theatre artists, to name just a few.

By Sunday morning, the Galt House was stripped of all evidence of a theatre conference in attendance: gone were the lighting and sound instruments from the design labs, gone were the elaborate displays in the vendor area, gone was the dais plat forming for the fringe and 24-hour play festivals. The only sign of the four-day extravaganza were weary members of the SETC staff, board, and committees that do the work of putting together the annual conference, gathering to discuss the business of the organization, and already making plans for SETC 2014 in Mobile, Alabama.