Actors Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season: Familiar Classics Prevail

Actors Theatre of Louisville will celebrate its 50th anniversary next season. The anniversary season is rich in familiar, crowd-pleasing fare, including Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a kitschy production from Chicago of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” and Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy “Noises Off.” Holiday favorites “Dracula” and “A Christmas Carol” return as well. 

“We need to celebrate who we are, we need to show what we can do,” says artistic director Les Waters, who will direct “Our Town.”  ”It seemed to me, in some sense, we needed to throw a party at the theater.”

“I wanted to celebrate Louisville and celebrate Actors Theatre,” he adds.  

Waters says that in celebrating Louisville, he wants his production of “Our Town” to “feel like it was a piece written about home.” 

I’m hoping that a local actor of some renown will be in it,” he says.

Keeping in mind that this excludes the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays, the season slate includes one play written in this century (the Olivier Award-winning drama “The Mountaintop”), a choice that can feel like a retrospective, rather than forward-looking, celebration of what theater is and can do. But with six yet-to-be-determined world premieres coming in the Humana Festival, it should feel more balanced by the close of the season.

But “The Mountaintop” also happens to be the only play written by a woman, Katori Hall. This follows on the heels of the current season, which  featured (again, outside of the Humana Festival) no women playwrights with mainstage productions. Representation of women is one part of a national conversation  on racial and gender imbalances in theater, noted in pundit Howard Sherman’s 2012 essay calling for American theater to more closely resemble American society after Minneapolis’ The Guthrie Theatre, another celebrated regional theater, released a 2012-13 season with no women playwrights or playwrights of color.

Waters says the current and upcoming seasons reflect “the work that came forward that people were most excited about.” He also says  gender diversity does factor into the conversations he and his artistic staff have about season planning. 

“It’s me and the artistic staff. I’m one of five, and the only male in the group. Yes, it is talked about,” he says. “It’s talked about in relation to Humana, and whose work is out there and available. I talk through this with Meredith [McDonough] constantly.” 

Here’s a look at the 2013-14 50th anniversary season: 

The season opens in September with “Noises Off,” a  play-within-a-play comedy about a theater company attempting to stage an English bedroom farce. “Noises Off” is perennially popular with theater troupes of all sizes, appealing equally to actors (all those theater jokes!) and audiences. 

Waters calls the comedy “one one of the greatest comedies ever written, and probably the greatest comedy about the theater ever written.”

Directed by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, “Noises Off” runs September 3-22 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. 

Kartori Hall’s acclaimed drama “The Mountaintop” is the sole new, non-adaptation entry into the season. Winner of the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play, “The Mountaintop” is a fictionalized account of the final hours of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visited by a mysterious, prophetic maid in Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel the night before his assassination. October 8-27 in the Pamela Brown, director to be announced.

“I wanted really to continue the conversation that was set up with ‘The Whipping Man’ [this season],” says Waters. ”I felt ‘The Whipping Man’ was such an extraordinary piece talking about freedom and what do you do with it once those rights have been won, you know, what’s the next step forward.”

Former artistic director Jon Jory returns in November with a new adaptation of Henry Fielding’s picaresque “Tom Jones.” Jory’s been on a Brit Lit classics adaptation streak of late, working his way through Jane Austen’s catalog — he staged “Pride and Prejudice”  and “Sense and Sensibility” at Actors Theatre in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Jory will direct in the Bingham Theatre (November 12-December 8).

You don’t think of Actors Theatre without Jon Jory,” says Waters. 

Shipping in from Chicago is The Hypocrites, who will stage their popular re-imagining of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” where beach balls and ukuleles abound. The troupe’s loopy, high-energy production is often staged “promenade style,” which means the cast performs moving freely throughout a casually-seated audience.

The production will be the second dose of “Pirates” in Louisville in one year — Metro Parks is slated to produce the operetta as a follow-up to last summer’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” at the Iroquois Amphitheatre this summer. Directed by Hypocrites company founder Sean Graney in the Bingham Theatre (January 7-February 4). 

Waters will direct Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Our Town” in the final production to open before the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays. Wilder’s touching portrayal of small town, early-20th century American life is possibly the most well-known American play, a favorite of stages from high school on up. 

“It’s very interesting coming at it from an English perspective,” says Waters. “I’ve only seen it once. It appears to me like a new play.”

“Our Town” runs January 21-February 9 in the Pamela Brown. 

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