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    Charlie Sexton’s second-floor office in the former St. Aloysius school building on Payne Street reflects his work with Commonwealth Theatre Center, which through Walden Theatre Conservatory offers extracurricular training for young people ages 5 to 18. Old furniture emits a vintage smell. The Bard’s face is everywhere, along with other theatrical posters. Shelves of books, files and knickknacks take up a stretch of wall. Sexton pushes aside a chalkboard. “This isn’t normally here,” the 54-year-old artistic director says, “but they’re doing their show next door.”

    Charlie Sexton in Much Ado About Nothing, 1978 // courtesy of Walden Theatre Conservatory

    On this August day, the center is wrapping up its summer youth camps — 22 of them this season, with 417 students. In the black-box theater on the ground floor, in what was once a gymnasium, a giant green screen glows in an otherwise dark room, illuminating a faux Yellow Brick Road — evidence of the eight different productions and dozens of performances of the Wizard of Oz, each put on by a different director and camp ensemble. Now in its 25th year, the summer program started with one camp and 19 people in 1993. Sexton, whose costume-designer mother founded Walden Theatre in 1976, wanted to expand the program and make it year-round. (Walden absorbed the outreach program Blue Apple Players in 2015 and rebranded it as Commonwealth Theatre Center. Blue Apple Outreach takes drama workshops and performances into schools and community centers, reaching 50,000-plus students a year.)

    As the summer camps wind down, Sexton is preparing for the fall curriculum — digging through plays from the past, going back to the ’80s and ’90s trying to find some new scripts to use in class. Many have been written by former students. Recently, Sexton came across one by Walden alum Will Oldham, the musician and actor who goes by Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

    Walden’s season, which produces 150 public performances a year, began in September with Blue Stockings, which chronicles a group of girls from the 1890s at Cambridge in England, when women could take classes but couldn’t get a degree. That’s followed in October with The Laramie Project, about the murder of a gay man in a small town, a reaction to Matthew Shepard’s hate-crime murder in Wyoming in 1998.

    Last year, Walden became the first youth conservatory in the world to complete the canon of all 38 Shakespeare plays at its annual Young American Shakespeare Festival. Sexton realized in 2006 that YASF had already staged 26 of them in Walden’s first 30 years, so he made it his mission to do the last 12.

    Jennifer Carpenter with Thomas Graves in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1998 // courtesy Walden Theatre Conservatory

    Among the thousands of students who have taken classes at Walden over the years, alumni include Jennifer Carpenter, who starred in the Showtime series Dexter, and Jess Weixler, who was in the CBS series The Good Wife. Jennifer Lawrence took classes for a couple semesters. “It’s a work-ethic thing,” Sexton says of the students who take their training to college and beyond. “I can say to you, ‘Some people might have more of a natural proclivity than others,’ and you might say, ‘Well, isn’t that talent?’ And I’d say yes and no. I prefer to think of it in terms of: If you want to do it, I’m here to help you do it."

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 90. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Pexels.com

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    Part of "33 Reasons We Love Our Arts Scene."

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    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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