Now in its 57th season, Actors Theatre of Louisville is the state theater of Kentucky, with a mission that serves to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich quality of life by engaging people in theater that reflects the wonder and complexity of our time. Over the last nine months, we’ve all certainly been tested on many fronts.
The company moved to a digital stage for several seasonal favorites that received great reviews. They are now launching Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End that will stream until January 28 and is a ‘pay what you can’ set-up.
Audience publisher, G. Douglas Dreisbach, caught up with Executive Artistic Director, Robert Barry Fleming, to hear more about how the company has navigated through the pandemic so far, and what might lie ahead.
Listen to the full interview for free below.
G. Douglas Dreisbach: Looking back nine months ago when stages went dark, and then the civil situations sta rted to arise, what were your initial thoughts, and how have those events changed or altered your overall mission or collaborations on the stage?
Robert Barry Fleming: Well, I think it’s just really been made manifest. Those three tent poles of our mission, unlocking human potential, building community, enriching lives — we’ve been able to do that in a much more immediate way than we might have in person. Amid the incredible challenges of a year where there’s been so much loss —economically, in terms of human life, and security and safety — there’s been a sense of really having to re-investigate what it means to be human and be a part of a community. The bright light is that there is a vaccine coming.
There’s an opportunity for us to really regroup and rethink what our relationship to one another is. And we’ve been doing that through art and culture and civic engagement, and nowhere has that intersection been more evident than in the work that we’ve done with our Facebook Live events, ranging from Fix It, Black Girl to Finding Black Boy Joy and okolona habla (Okolona Speaks). It’s been a challenging nine months, but we’re really energized by the fact that we’ve had so much engagement on the digital platform, and that people still want to be supportive and engaged with Actors Theatre’s storytelling including music and poetry. We have been able to do that with our Unscripted panels and Borrowed Wisdom podcast, as well as work that is made for old media, like the radio play adaptations of A Christmas Carol and Dracula, and projects for new media, where we’re moving into the virtual space. It has been a whole exploration of form and content that allows us to really dig into some tough questions and find ourselves within them.
GDD: This year, you’ve had the opportunity to showcase your creativity, and you have done a fantastic job with that. What were some of the challenges of taking what you see, whether it was COVID or on the streets, and transforming those into plays and productions? What was that process?
RBF: Yeah, it’s been fascinating. Nothing’s been more devastating than the fact that there have been layoffs, and we are working with a much smaller team, so many of our roles have become hybridized. Along with the loss of that camaraderie and the loss of the enormous talent that the organization had, our work has been completely transformed by the fact that all of the live event gathering has been put on pause while we are fully engaging with digital content. With the invention of Actors Theatre Direct — our own platform to share that work as the foundation of how we tell stories — has proven to be really edifying, and it has allowed us to be much more responsive, in real-time, to our communities.
The creators and storytellers have been everyone from new collaborators, like animators and local spoken word poets, to our virtual company of artists across the country from California to New York and many places in between, who are capturing work remotely in quarantine. So, while we’re on a virtual platform, it’s not like we’re all running into a studio and working together.
We continue to prioritize making sure that people stay safe and well while staying engaged with one another and telling these stories. And having that collective effort all across the country and locally has been, I think, part of what’s allowed us to sustain ourselves over this really difficult period.
GDD: One of the biggest months of the year for Actors Theatre is when you host the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Can you share an update about what this year will look like? Obviously, it’s going to be a digital experience this year.
RBF: We’re excited about this exploration. The Humana Festival is not only a festival of new work, but we are always challenging the form and our understanding of how stories can continue to build bridges in interdisciplinary ways. We have projects working in all kinds of extended reality spaces, stories that are rooted in poetry and music, exciting work that explores what’s happening with our frontline workers, and experiences accessible to folks who have grown into disability and might not be able to get out of their home spaces to be engaged.
When you have a virtual platform, you have the technology and the navigation to find new ways to connect with the story. We are working very diligently to make sure that the work is inclusive, and we’re looking forward to sharing some of the titles that are coming up.
We’ve already announced Ali Summit, which is all about Muhammad Ali’s conference with major political and sports figures in Cleveland, Ohio, in June of ’67. That is being written by Idris Goodwin and directed by myself, and we’re very energized by offering a multidisciplinary digital experience as a way that people can explore and meditate on that particular fascinating moment in history and story.
GDD: We can’t wait to see it. And all these things to keep you there and your team there — it takes money. So, as we move forward through this, what are some of the best ways for people in the community and around the country who hear this and read this to support Actors Theatre, now and for years to come?
RBF: Jump on ActorsTheatre.org. You’ll see a large swath of offerings, as well as opportunities to engage with residencies that we’re doing in the schools. There are so many ways to be engaged with us. Just visit the website and start perusing the projects, because you’re going to find something that piques your interest and is sure to inspire you in the way that it has inspired us.