Derrick Ledbetter, Clarity Hagan, & Jay Marie Padilla-Hayter in rehearsal. Photo: Highview Arts Center
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare opens Sept. 9
Article by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Louisville takes pride in the arts. It has for many years. But most of those arts exist in and around the downtown area. Museums and performing arts on Main Street, the NuLu district, Shakespeare in Central Park in Old Louisville. There is the occasional theatre company or gallery located to the east and the great Iroquois Park Amphitheater on the south side (whose size is a challenge for most local companies), but most outlying neighborhoods feature little to no arts opportunities outside of schools.
In the Highview neighborhood in the southeast part of the city, a group of highly motivated artists has been working for months to change that, creating a new performance venue on Fegenbush Lane. I have been hearing talk at local theatre community meetings for about five years about the idea of developing such a space, and now it is a reality.
While those conversations were happening, District 23 Councilperson James Peden was looking for a building that could house an arts space in his district and was focusing on the Highview area. After a few choices didn’t work out, he became aware of space opening up on Fegenbush Lane.
“I can remember Blue Apple Players coming to my school when I was a kid and from that time I was a huge fan of theatre”, says Peden, who has experience teaching at Jeffersontown High School and has been a firefighter for many years in his district.
At that point, Peden had connected with some of the theatre artists that had been on a similar mission and work began emptying and starting to rebuild the 9000-square-foot space. The councilperson enthusiastically describes,”…the hours of volunteer hours, begging and pleading, lots of heart, and a WHOLE lot of Scott Davis!”, referring to the founder of The Alley Theater who relocated that company several times into locations that required this same kind of renovation, making him the most experienced hand at such a project.
Money is, of course, also required. Peden has allocated Neighborhood Development Funds (NDF) to the project and there have been some substantial private donations. “We’ve got the funding to get us to 2023.”
This entire conversation took place in the company of a handful of volunteers: Director Emily Grimany, designer Jill Marie Schierbaum, event planner Taylor Torsky, and musician Tom Boisvert, all HAC board members, and actor Dawn Moretz. There was the sound of saws, drills, and hammers pounding in the back rooms; the performance space in the center of the building looks ready for the first full production opening on September 9, and we are now in the nearly finished front lobby, which includes a small corner stage for stand up comedy or solo balladeers, but dressing rooms are being completed now.
Boisvert knows Peden from serving as firefighters together, and he was one of the first to get a call from the council member. “I think we can always find musicians and singers to perform here even in partnership with the theatre. And I am hoping to learn a lot from these theatre people, specifically about sound tech.”
It illustrates how such things go by friendship, and one of the surprises is how theatre professionals like Schierbaum and Grimany either reside in the area or have family here. “My parents live practically across the street,” Grimany gestures towards the window. When asked about the “remote” location, there are several comments about living in Highview and traveling to downtown or southern Indiana for work. Highview resident Moretz recently appeared in Nunsense at Clarksville Little Theater. “I drove it nearly every day for three weeks. It’s not so far.”
There is the obvious question of “if you build it WILL they come ” but the HAC crew has also worked to build awareness within Highview and surrounding neighborhoods at a grassroots level, establishing a presence at church socials, neighborhood fairs, and public school open houses. The first full season of productions will demonstrate if those efforts were successful in drawing audiences from the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the words of Grimany, that season is designed to be one with, “…broad family appeal that will attract people who aren’t necessarily into theatre.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare opens on September 9, followed by Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus on December 2, The Kiss Me Curse on February 10, 2023 a New Play Festival of short plays by local writers on March 10, and ending the season with a musical, The Marvelous Wonderettes on May 12.
As reflected in the group I met with, Highview residents are predominantly white, and there seems to be great intention in the first production to be diverse and inclusive. Director Keith McGill is a stand-up comic and theatre education professional who has worked with Actors Theatre and Commonwealth Theatre Center, but he also is a gay Black man, a point he stresses in explaining how he cast The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. “They are queer, persons of color, non-binary…” But he also emphasizes that he was looking for people who are quick and fluid in their work on stage. “I knew immediately that the schedule would not allow for auditions and that the rehearsal period would be…tight, so I had to select actors who could hit the ground running and connect with each other quickly.” Clarity Hagan, Jay Marie Padilla-Hayter, and Derrick Ledbetter make up the cast, and Megan Meyer is McGill’s Stage Manager.
All of which is crucial because, for the uninitiated, the piece is a ridiculous (in the best way) send-up of Shakespeare’s plays, typically performed at a rapid pace that often brings the running time under 90 minutes. In its original form, much of the humor is viewed as problematic in 2022. “It has been updated twice for that reason, most recently in 2013, but we still found some things that we felt needed tweaking.”
This is where the diversity pays off, according to McGill: “The mix of sensibilities in the cast ensures that it is not just wacky slapstick but that there is also a core of humanity.” That compassion extends to the audience as well. “The script calls for a lot of audience participation but we are taking care to not embarrass anyone. Being the first production, we don’t want Highview Arts Center to be known as the ‘pick on you’ theatre.”
It may be the first production, but over the summer, Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, where Jill Marie Schierbaum is a company member, used the facility for the Adelante Girlspeak Ensemble, who developed their Estrellado: Abriendo Paso / Shattered: Breaking Through before it’s public presentation at Kentucky Performing Arts on July 30.
There is also a backyard that the board of directors hope to utilize for productions and gatherings. It underlines the unlikely nature of an arts center in a low-key storefront next to a hardware store. As Peden explains, “That hardware store is locally owned and has been there for many years, and across the street is one of the few locally owned coffee shops (Highbrew Coffee Company) so that is what this is all about. Remember the ‘keeping it weird’ campaign (highlighting Louisville-owned business)? We’re doing that here in Highview!”
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Directed by Keith McGill
September 9, 10, 16, 17 @ 7:30 PM
September 11 & 18 @ 2:00 PM
Highview Arts Center
7406 Fegenbush Lane
Louisville, KY 40228
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.