Standing Ovation: Actors Theatre of Louisville
Without a doubt, one of Louisville’s biggest attractions is its rich culture in the performing arts—yes people visit Louisville for more than the Kentucky Derby. Actors Theatre stands as one of the city’s leading performing arts venues and attracts one of the largest subscription audiences in the nation. The theater has withstood the test of time by being much like the city it calls home: innovative, susceptible to change, and willing to grow.
In 1964, local producer Richard Block and Louisville native Ewel Cornett merged Actors Inc. and Theatre Louisville into what the Derby City now calls Actors Theatre. A small loft at 617 ½ S. Fourth St., which had been the Gypsy Tea Room, served as the theater. The establishment quickly outgrew the loft’s 100-seat capacity. Louisville architect Jasper D. Ward converted an abandoned Illinois Central Railroad Station at Seventh Street and the Ohio River to hold a capacity of 350. Much of the station’s interior was preserved and offered theater-goers the unique feel of being in a train station.
Jon Jory was appointed Actors Theatre’s producing director in May 1969 and made his directing debut with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Executive director Alexander Speer became Jory’s partner. The converted train station served Actors Theatre well for several years with 65 shows until the construction of Interstate 64 caused the theater’s third and final need to relocate in May 1972. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was this location’s last show.
The old Bank of Louisville building and the adjacent Myers-Thompson Display building on Main Street between Third and Fourth Streets were chosen as a new location. These buildings’ architecture and location made a good fit for the theater to become a staple in Louisville’s arts culture. The Bank of Louisville building is downtown’s third oldest building, a replica of the Bank of America building on Wall Street in New York City, and registered as a National Historic Landmark. Within two years of the Main Street location opening, Actors Theatre was designated the “State Theater of Kentucky.”
The Humana Festival of New American Plays began in 1976 and was the preeminent new play festival in the nation. The theatre's commitment to new play production have garnered Actors Theatre three of the most prestigious awards given to theatre: the Margo Jones Award in March 1979, the Shubert Foundation’s James N. Vaughan Award in May 1979, and a Special Tony Award for outstanding non-profit resident theatre in June 1980. Actors Theatre was the second theater to ever receive the Special Tony Award.
Aside from the hugely successful Humana Festival, which will run February 6 to April 6,2014, Actors Theatre brought further critical acclaim and national spotlight to Louisville’s theater scene in the 1980’s by taking shows on tours. The tours saw a total of 1500, well-received performances in 29 cities and 15 countries.
In this Main Street location, Actors Theatre recognized a need expanded and accommodate the growing demand for theater in Louisville. The theater underwent a $12.5 million expansion and renovation in 1994, which included the addition of a third performance space--the 318-seat Bingham Theatre--and a much-needed parking garage. The largest of these three theaters is the Pamela Brown Auditorium, named for Actress Pamela Brown (Alice in Wonderland, Becket, Wuthering Heights). This theater has a seating capacity of 633. The Bingham Theatre, which was built with the renovation, is the second largest with a seating capacity of 318. The Victor Jory Theatre comes in third with an intimate arrangement comprising of 159 seats.
During the season, Actors Theatre presents nine world premiers--six full-length productions and an evening of ten-minute plays--during the Humana Festival; two annual holiday shows, Dracula and A Christmas Carol, and five additional plays as part of the Brown-Forman Series. This year's lineup includes the prominent productions Noises Off, The Mountain Top, Tom Jones, Pirates of Penzance, Our Town, and even the iconic Dracula and A Christmas Carol.
Actors Theatre is non-profit organization and fully produces its productions. A staff comprised of 130 full-time persons operates the theatre and help it to also act a venue for other Louisville events. The venue hosts The New Voices Festival in the spring. Tech Events, which are where theater enthusiasts are invited to come and watch rehearsals, occur regularly, as well as Community Conversations where audience members have the opportunity to watch a production and engage in a post-show conversation led by community leaders that is sparked from themes and ideas expressed in the play. Business functions, educational events for local youth with an interest in acting or theater, training, and local theatre companies without a home theater use Actors Theatre as well.
Actors Theatre draws a national audience to more than 500 performances of nearly 20 productions in its year-round season. The theater boasts an annual attendance of more than 200,000 while playing a pivotal role as sophisticated and transformable venue space for downtown Louisville with the Sara Shallenberger Brown lobby, which is the converted space of the old Bank of Louisville building, and smaller lobbies periodically used as art galleries. Louisville residents also enjoy MilkWood, a critically-acclaimed restaurant owned by local chef Edward Lee located in the venue’s lower level. For more information on plays, or hosting an event at Actors Theatre, visit http://actorstheatre.org  for more information.