Poster from the 1986-87 Humana Festival of New American Plays

Commentary by Martin French

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We are all well aware of the current kerfuffle at Actors Theatre – the canceling for this year of the Humana Festival of New American Plays (at least) has provoked many different reactions. Many lament the loss of a long-cherished event and feel it is the end for Actors. Others are glad to see change happening and support Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming’s vision for moving forward. And many are somewhere between. I find myself there for the most part – I want to see what is coming down the pipeline before I go strongly one way or another.

But then, I am an outsider – I don’t have that same connection built up over years of it being my local big Theatre Festival. My attachment to the Humana Festival is chiefly through appreciation for the 10-minute plays they produced over the years, which was where I came across it first. This was a moment when I started to consider what the purpose of the Humana Festival really is/was. And from that, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the question we should ask: What is the purpose of Actors Theatre of Louisville.

What do we perceive to be the purpose of Actors Theatre in our community? I ask about our perception specifically rather than what is the official mission? What do we expect our “National Theatre of Louisville” to be? This was constantly a question in Ireland over the Abbey Theatre, our national theatre. In London, it would regularly be the question about both The National and the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is surprising to me that I seldom hear the question asked here.

In Ireland, the state-funded Abbey Theatre is generally perceived as having three main roles within the nation. For me, the first is to contribute to the National Debate – our conversation with ourselves about ourselves and what it is to be Irish in the 21st Century, as well as engaging with the great discussion of the day. Another role of that is the exploration of our rich theatrical history and acting as a cultural ambassador for it at home and abroad. The final responsibility is the development of new Irish writing.  People will disagree with a focus on one element or another, but when a season or a show fails to fit into one or more of those threads, then you can expect the unsettling of the masses

For the National Theatre, it was a similar series of roles, though I would note that the thread of cultural promotion has replaced in more recent years the strand of engaging the public in a discussion of the nature of theatre and supporting more Avant-Garde work that was traditionally a part of their remit. For the Royal Shakespeare, it is very much Bard focused and anything tangential to his works and legacy, but also has the cultural diplomacy tag too. The Globe Theatre in London has a similar place too, though it is seldom the focus of much debate.

In the case of all of the above companies, there are massive outreach and education programs that take place quietly, under the radar. These departments, like the one run by Erica Denise as Director of Learning and Creative Engagement at Actors Theatre, are responsible for powerful work to generate a huge future and current arts and theatre engagement. Unfortunately, they seldom take any headlines and are generally ignored when we come to talk of the purpose of the theatre. Most of us need to change our perspective in this regard and incorporate this to any understanding of what the purpose, the meaning of Actors Theatre is – without their work, the future of our local theatre and arts scene is limited.  

To add to that, what else does Actors Theatre mean to us?  Being an outsider and coming from an internationalist perspective, I have my own thoughts on what a “national theatre” by any other name should mean. As our largest theatre in the Kentuckiana area and the Commonwealth of Kentucky I feel that in the public eye, it should play three major roles.

  1. It is a forum for discussion on who and what and where we are in this area. It should be home to our local conversation with ourselves. This means more programming of local writers, of work with themes that resonate close to the time and place we are in, and involvement of artists who have a genuine connection with the area and the broader region in key roles within each production. It is a stage upon which we should literally see reflections of ourselves, and where we can come to reflect on the issues. Some of this work already appears to be happening on digital platforms since the pandemic started.
  2. It is an opportunity for us to engage the broader themes of what is going on nationally and internationally in the context of who we are. It should allow for work and artists new and old to be invited into a season and to work and be examined through the lens of social and historical currents in this city and this area.  
  3. Actors Theatre needs to become an ambassador for Louisville, Kentucky, and Kentuckiana. I certainly come at this with an Irish experience, but I would see immediately that a part of this is to take a slice of our life and bring it beyond the theatre stage, representing our cultural world to all walks of life both in the city, the area, and beyond, nationally, and eventually internationally. I would imagine that the expertise already exists within the organization given the work of Learning and Creative Engagement in reaching people where they are at.

Actors Theatre in my opinion should not be just another company that flits from one show to another avoiding any sense of a cogent identity. By all means, A Christmas Carol and Dracula should continue, or even add others that creep towards the Summer – they bring people in, and I would also presume that they are financially among their best shows every year. Let them be the carrot to get people in.  

The stick? Well, if we want a theatre like this to succeed, we actually need to do the work and support what we want it to do, rather than get upset when poor attendance and engagement lead to a program or an event being canceled. I would imagine that Humana figures were not fantastic in recent years, based on my last few trips.

This is just my perspective as someone who is not from here, and with a foot still elsewhere. I would love to hear more about what you think Actors Theatre of Louisville should be. Please feel free to say what you perceive or think it to be over Twitter or Facebook, or (God help us) email – I’ll be happy to compile a list of what people think and share it here again.

Martin French has worked in a variety of theatrical roles over many years in a number of countries. In Louisville, he has worked with a wide range of local companies. Never with Actors Theatre, though.

He is a Founder and Co-Artistic Director of The Chamber Theatre.