Neil Brewer, Valerie Canon, & Mason Stewart in the 2009 production of Evil Dead, The Musical. photo: The Alley Theater.
By Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In Louisville’s community of theaters, if Actors Theatre is the show breed, then The Alley Theater is perhaps the lovable mutt. For 25 years, in multiple locations, The Alley delivered up as wide a range of plays as can be imagined, but developed a particular profile for quirky cultural icons like Evil Dead: The Musical, Point Break! Live!, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, drawing young, twenty-something audiences unfamiliar (or uninterested?) in more reputable, award-winning fare to late night shows, “splatter zones” with plastic ponchos provided at the door, and reinterpretations of cultural touchstones such as Gilligan’s Island, The Tick, Reservoir Dogs, and The Princess Bride.
But in a June 4 press release, current Artistic Director Joey Arena announced that the company would close its doors on August 1. The theater will not complete its previously announced 2018 season, but will close the doors following its next two productions, Saucy Jack and The Space Vixens, opening in June and The Alley original parody “Star Trek: Boldly Going WAY Too Far: The Final Frontier”, opening in July (2 colons in the title feels very Alley).
“The reasons for this decision are purely financial”, explains Arena. “We simply aren’t selling enough tickets to pay our bills these days, and the couple of us that have supplemented the bottom line with our own money over the years simply can’t justify it anymore. Like many local theater companies, we’ve received neither any arts grant money nor corporate sponsorship. And since theater event listings in the local newspapers and weeklies have disappeared over the last few years getting the word out hasn’t been affordable for a smaller theater.”
Scott Davis started The Alley Theater on Baxter Avenue, in the back room of what was then the Highlands Ground Coffee House (owned by Davis). That space sported a proscenium stage, so there was evidently some performance history there. Some of the first shows were Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Human Artist, and Ubu Roi, plays that were certainly off the beaten track. “We chose plays that we thought needed to be seen in Louisville, but we felt only we would do them,” remembers Arena, who appeared in some of those shows. “Some of it was weird shit!”
After a few years, Davis moved to Los Angeles and the theater closed up shop. But when Davis returned home in 2007, he revived The Alley in a space at The City Block on Liberty Street, but it was not a satisfying experience. In March 2009, real estate developer Ron Tasman invited Davis to occupy an expansive space at The Pointe in Butchertown. Davis told Arena that after renovating the space for their needs, they would open their first production in January 2010.
But Arena had received a call from a friend who had discovered a little-known musical adaptation of Sam Raimi’s horror classic, The Evil Dead. “I told Scott we had to open four months early. I fell in love with the material and knew I had to do it, and I KNEW we had to do it in October. I’m a haunted house designer – you’ve got to do a show like that in October. It sells better.”
The production was a big hit and established The Alley as a place for heady takes on alternative popular culture. They repeated Evil Dead two years later, using an event space at The Pointe to accommodate an audience of 250 for each performance. “Every time we did Evil Dead we would average 90% sell-through on tickets based on the title alone, remembers Arena, “no advertising budget. It was an epic production for such a little theatre.” Point Break! Live!, a parody of the Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves action flick, followed, and the future looked bright.
Then Tasman had the opportunity to lease the space to a higher-paying client and offered The Alley Theater space in the basement. The company tried to take the move in stride, opening three stages and trying their hand at festivals like the “Inhuman. A Festival of Undead Plays” that could energize the unorthodox configuration, and running a series of late-night movie serial parodies, loose, shaggy-dog productions that felt largely improvised.
Perhaps things were too loose. The company’s reputation suffered some from the sometimes lackadaisical approach to production. When Arena became President of the Board of Directors, he oversaw a move out of the difficult basement to a new location on the 4th floor of 633 West Main Street. Once again, The Alley family worked to completely renovate another space into a performance venue. In a January 2014 Arts-Louisville article about the move, Arena remarked, “This is our fourth theatre (that we’ve built) so we’re old hands at this!”
And the switch to a downtown address brought new pressures to leave behind the less polished late-night endeavors and get back to producing unusual but compelling plays. Explains Arena, “The objective was to expand our audience base and gain greater legitimacy without a marketing budget.”
For four seasons the schedule included familiar fare such as revivals of Evil Dead and Vampire Lesbians, new original parodies of The Tick and Star Trek, and Verily, A New Hope – Star Wars as if written by William Shakespeare. But there were also productions of Shakespeare’s King John, Annie Baker’s The Flick, and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. The company just finished a run of the award-winning Frost/Nixon that was one of it’s finest hours, suggesting that they still have plenty of creative juice.
A robust, year-round schedule suggested a healthy bottom line, yet economic realities weighed the company down. “I think everybody’s ticket sales are down unless they have some kind of marketing muscle,” says Arena, noting that companies working in The Mex, located just one block east at The Kentucky Center for the Arts, benefit from that venue’s marketing infrastructure, including a high profile digital billboard facing Main Street traffic and inclusion on the Center’s website.
But the truth is that Arena has kept the company afloat with his own money, and the writing on the wall was apparent to him and Davis, who has remained on the board even though he has been devoting most of his energies to his Arts Caravan project, which suffered a devastating set back last year. He and Arena had been having the conversation about closing down the company for several months before the question finally was put before the board of directors for a vote.
“It has been a great run, but it’s time for a nap,” has been Arena’s catch-phrase response to the question. He mentions that he hasn’t had a weekend off since a trip to New York City two years ago during which he proposed to his wife, Natalie. The couple was married last summer but have yet to take their honeymoon. “Now I’ll have both the time and the money to do that.”
What lies ahead for Arena and other people connected to The Alley Theater? Arena considers, “Scott has the Caravan, and everyone else will likely be active elsewhere…do other things. Outside of The Alley, I have only acted in three plays in something like ten years. I look forward to doing that more. Working in a show where I don’t have to care about whether the popcorn gets made and I can just work as an actor sounds like heaven to me.”
Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens opens June 14 and runs through June 30. Get tickets here.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. 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 Arts-Louisville.com.