Fifty years ago, the founders of Actors Theatre of Louisville were upstarts, theater revolutionaries caught up in the ground-swell of the American regional theater movement, determined to de-centralize professional theater and embed it in communities across the country. The organization turns 50 this year. With a regional theater Tony Award and 37 years of the groundbreaking Humana Festival of New American Plays under its belt, Actors Theatre is now a national and local institution, its annual seasonal productions beloved traditions, its training program a proving ground for tomorrow’s industry leaders.
To celebrate the anniversary, the theater is throwing its own birthday party Saturday to kick off a season-long celebration of theater and community. The free event (1-10 p.m.) between Third and Fourth Streets on Main will feature local arts groups and activities for all ages.
“We wanted to do something that was free, where we could accommodate thousands and thousands of people,” says managing director Jennifer Bielstein.
Visitors will get an insider look into Actors Theatre’s creative and technical processes with hands-on sound and lighting cue demonstrations and a look into the inner workings of the revolving set for the upcoming “Noises Off.” The costume and prop shops will have many recognizable items like the leg lamp and the car from “A Christmas Story” up for sale, too.
The block party will also feature a variety of local talent, from the Blue Apple Players, Theatre  and Walden Theater to pop cellist Ben Sollee and Louisville band The Pass.
“We wouldn’t be where we are and what we are without the support of this community,” says Bielstein. “It’s so fortunate to be part of a community that really values the arts and that truly has the arts as an integral part of the life and the makeup of this community.”
Bielstein says that over the last fifty years, the community has come to expect Actors Theatre to deliver quality live theater that inspires, provokes and challenges. One of the theater’s strengths, she says, is its variety of programming.
“We have a broad array of programming to meet people where they are in life. There are shows that people value as annual traditions, like ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Dracula,’ and then we have the cutting edge new work in the Humana Festival,” she says. “If you’re a big theater lover, you’ll come see it all. There are some people who might see one show a year, and it’s great to be part of their lives in that way.”
Actors Theatre was born during the thick of the regional (or resident) theater movement, built on the idea that professional, nonprofit theater companies could reside in communities outside of Broadway. Jon Jory, Alexander “Sandy” Speer and Trish Pugh-Jones worked day and night to raise the money, awareness and support base to launch Actors Theatre of Louisville into the forefront of Louisville culture and life.
“[Fifty years] is a long time, but it’s also very new,” says Bielstein.
There were only a couple dozen regional theaters in 1963. But bolstered by financial and organizational support from the Ford Foundation and Theatre Communications Group, those numbers swelled – now there are about 80 members of the League of Resident Theatres across the country, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The movement has also changed with time – now New York’s many non-Broadway nonprofit theaters are eligible (though not without some controversy) for the special regional theater Tony Award.
In a Byline interview earlier this year, National Corporate Theater Fund executive director Bruce Whitacre called this year “a signal moment” in the history of the regional theater movement. The NCTF honored Actors Theatre, along with fellow 50-year-old industry leaders (Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Connecticut’s Hartford Stage and Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company) with special awards this summer.
“The movement has grown enormously,” said Whitacre. “There are now many theaters in many communities that you would call a resident or regional theater. But it all started with just a few. Cleveland Playhouse was very early, The Arena Stage in Washington was very early, Dallas Center was very early. Every decade one would pop up and last, until the early Sixties when it really started gaining momentum.”
The block party is just the first event in a season-long celebration. A coffee table book chronicling the theater’s history will be published this year, and Bielstein says the entire season, which launches September 3 with the backstage comedy “Noises Off,” is a celebration of theater and community. Jory will also return to direct his adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th century picaresque novel “Tom Jones.” The main season will culminate with artistic director Les Waters’ production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” after which the theater will host the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays.
“We feel really optimistic about the future,” says Bielstein. “With Les Waters as artistic director, I think there are lots of exciting opportunities in store for us. All of us who are here as staff right now, and volunteers and board members, feel lucky to be a part of this special organization and to get to launch us into the next fifty years.”
Part of that launch is a new strategic plan. It’s not ready yet, but Bielstein says a deeper engagement with the community is part of the broad plan.
“One of the things we want to deepen and expand is our dialogue with all sectors of the community, and really listen and learn and be responsive and ensure that we are doing work that resonates with this community and is informed by the people of this community,” she says.