When The Bard’s Town Theatre artistic staff programmed its first two seasons, executive artistic director Doug Schutte says they made choices based on little more than pure desire. He had some long-standing wishes he wanted to fulfill, like staging plays by Liz Fentress and Nancy Gall-Clayton, two of his favorite Kentucky playwrights.
Done. (2011′s “Strike Zone” and 2012′s “The Snowflake Theory,” respectively.)
Then came the current season, which closes this month with the annual holiday comedy “The Kings of Christmas.” This year, the Bard’s Town emphatically put its money on newer plays by buzz-worthy American writers like Neil LaBute, Jonathan Marc Sherman and Kate Fodor, establishing itself alongside Louisville’s Theatre  as an outlet for newer work by nationally-recognized playwrights – a shift in local programming strongly influenced by Actors Theatre of Louisville and its Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Now, Schutte says, the company has refined its selection process to be even more intentional, stopping to consider whether, for example, their programming reflects a desired gender balance.
Don’t let the fact that they’re opening a holiday show about Elvis-impersonating magicians (or that your bartender at the pub downstairs might turn into the protagonist on stage at curtain time) fool you – The Bard’s Town Theatre is growing up a little.
In fact, that looseness might be the very thing that helps Schutte and The Bard’s Town co-owner, artistic director, and above-mentioned bartender/actor/director Scot Atkinson lure in new audiences.
“One of the interesting things about the way this thing is constructed, you know, having the restaurant and bar here, is the number of people we bring into shows who would not identify themselves as a theater-goer, and turning them into theater-goers,” Schutte says. “I think that’s a pretty neat place to occupy.”
The company’s fourth season opens March 20 with the Louisville premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s comedy “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” which delves into women’s struggles with feminism in their personal and professional lives. The play made its world premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons to high acclaim in 2012 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Schutte says while women debating feminist theory might not sound, on the surface, immediately engaging for those new-to-theatre audiences, the questions Gionfriddo’s script raises are meaningful and the dialog is funny.
“The two women who drive the story, they were all in grad school together, and one decided to have the family and support the husband and one decided not to do that, and is sort of a rock star in feminist publishing,” he says. “They both seem to want the other.”
Gionfriddo’s a familiar name to fans of the Humana Festival thanks to her plays “After Ashley” (2004) and the widely-produced “Becky Shaw” (2008). But Schutte also became familiar with her work through her connection to Louisvillian Ray Rizzo’s traveling performance outlet Motherlodge, which stages art events in Louisville and New York.
Gionfriddo’s play will be followed by another Louisville premiere, William Missouri Downs’ absurd Brechtian workplace comedy “The Exit Interview,” (May 8-18) which enjoyed a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network last year.
“You see a person getting downsized from the academic community, and there’s a shooter on campus,” says Schutte. “It’s hysterical, but also rather pointed toward something more.”
“If there’s one each season that I’m most excited about, there would be a tie between ‘Exit Interview’ and ‘Rapture’,” he adds.
Also on deck for 2014 are Schutte’s own social media comedy “Just LIKE Life,” (June 19-29) an updated Rip Van Winkle story about falling asleep in 1992 and waking up on Facebook; Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” (July 24-August 3) about an established writer and her protégé, whose new novel is based on the mentor’s love affair with a well-known poet; and Lindsay Price’s dark comedy “Drinking Perfume” (November 6-16), which won the company’s Bard Award for outstanding work selected from hundreds of submitted plays.
The theater’s annual Ten-Tucky Festival returns in September with a slate of ten-minute shows by Kentucky playwrights. Schutte says he’s not sure whether “The Kings of Christmas,” which has already sold out several performances this month, will return for a fourth year.
And Schutte’s looking ahead to 2015, when the company will take another step in the direction of supporting recent stage work by forging a strong relationship with New Dramatists, the competitive playwright residency and new play incubator that has produced eight of the last 12 Pulitzer prizes for drama. (And 24 Tony Awards, more than 70 Obies, 17 Drama Desk Awards and 12 Susan Smith Blackburn prizes, but who’s counting?) Schutte says he wants to make a commitment to produce up to four plays by New Dramatist residents each season.
Current New Dramatist resident playwrights include Annie Baker (“The Aliens,” “Circle Mirror Transformation,”), Kristoffer Diaz (“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”), Samuel D. Hunter (The Bard’s Town produced his Obie Award-winning “A Bright New Boise” in 2012) and Lucas Hnath, whose “The Christians” will open in the upcoming Humana Festival.
Schutte doesn’t want a piece of the world premiere action, though — he’s happy to help a new play gain its legs by guaranteeing those crucial second, third and fourth productions. And he’s keeping an eye on Louisville playwrights with a planned “By Local” new play series, too.
“It is starting to blossom into something where we’re looking at what needs to be done. Things that start a good conversation,” says Schutte. ” Though I will admit that I think we will always do that with an odd sensibility.”