A Look Back at Louisville Arts in 2013

Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes … now that the earworm’s in place, let’s take a minute to reflect back on the year in Louisville’s arts – leadership changes, success stories, notable openings, and moments of triumph for our local companies, big and small. 

ONE SIDE MAKES YOU GROW

The now-formidable Forecastle Festival almost doubles their attendance this year, with 65,000 over three days at Waterfront Park. What started as a little community festival more than ten years ago is now a major player on the national summer music festival circuit thanks to the strategic partnership founder (and captain) J.K. McKnight forged with notable production company AC (“Bonnaroo”) Entertainment.

Meanwhile, in the small-but-mighty category, the Slant Culture Theatre Festival (the quasi-fringe festival centered around Louisville’s independent theatre companies) grew exponentially this year, too, with intriguing programming like Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company’s two-handed salute to Paris’ Theatre du Grand-Guignol and Baby Horse Theatre Company’s riveting production of John Ford’s 17th century tragedy “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” re-imagined with a death metal soundtrack.

In the local music scene, the first annual Louisville Music Awards honored the year’s best recordings and artists, including Old Baby, Wax Fang and Cheyenne Mize.  The Community Foundation of Louisville awarded the first M.A. Hadley Prize in visual art to Louisville native printmaker Susanna Crum, who’s opening a studio in Smoketown with her partner, artist Rodolfo Salgado, Jr.

The Kentucky Opera grew its repertory this year with a brand-new production of Verdi’s infrequently-produced political tragedy “Simon Boccanegra.” Directed by David Lefkowich, the production was set in early-20th century Italy against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Fascist party. The company also helped American opera grow by producing the world premiere of Terry Teachout and Paul Moravec’s new opera “The King’s Man,” about Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with his estranged son.

And Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft continued to expand its reach with a diverse approach to craft-based art, with exhibits ranging from American celebrity photographer Gene Spatz to Louisville native Matthew Ronay’s solo show.

Stage One Family Theatre grew its audience beyond traditional borders with its first sensory-friendly performance, aimed at children with autism and other sensory-sensitive conditions, while the Jewish Community Center’s CenterStage made an ambitious play for the rights to stage “Les Miserables” and won with a nearly sold-out run.

Actors Theatre of Louisville involved an impressive number of community partners with its Humana Festival of New American Plays apprentice showcase “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” including the University of Louisville and its medical school and Louisville-based stage flight company ZFX Flying Effects. 

The University of Louisville approved a new studio art MFA program. The goal is to matriculate its first graduate class next fall.

Theatre [502] launched an ambitious serial new play project, “The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn,” while  The Bard’s Town Theatre expanded its programming with an ambitious season, and it looks like 2014 is going to continue the trend.

Did you know Louisville gained a new opera company this year? Thompson Street Opera Company is focused on new work by living composers, and has already staged one weekend of short world premieres.

And the month-long Louisville Photo Biennial exploded this year, with more than fifty galleries and institutions throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana celebrating the art of photography throughout October.

IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY

Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble has been devising and performing new and innovative ensemble theatre productions for ten years now. Their “On the Circuit,” a wacky and imaginative fantasy built on the peculiar friendship/vaudeville act of electricity pioneers Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison, debuted at this year’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival.

The University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program turned 20 this year. The program’s long-time director, theatre arts professor Lundeana Thomas, will retire at the end of the spring semester. It’s early yet for an announcement on who the university will hire to helm that program and fill other faculty lines vacated by early retirement buy-outs (including long-time theatre professor Rinda Frye).

The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts turned 30 and celebrated the milestone on stage with a visit by Lt. Governor Jerry Abramson to the Louisville opening of the Tony Award-winning play “War Horse,” which made a stop on its national tour through Broadway in Louisville.

Actors Theatre of Louisville kicked off its 50th anniversary year in August with a block party that drew around 10,000 people to Third and Main for a celebration of the arts and community in Louisville.

But the theatre’s most raved-about performance of the year came in the spring, when artistic director Les Waters directed “Girlfriend,” a musical about two teen boys falling in love built around Matthew Sweet’s Nineties power pop anthems. Louisville playwright and director Brian Walker called the show “the most incredible thing I saw all year.”

“It pulsed with an amazing energy and theatricality while telling a very small and easily accessible story,” says Walker.

LEO editor Sara Havens agrees.

“This play has been one of my all-time favorites I’ve ever seen in Louisville,” she says. “It was a simple love story put to the music of Matthew Sweet, and the two actors — Ryder Bach and Curt Hansen — made the story of young, first love so relatable and entertaining.” 

The Iroquois Amphitheater called past performers and crew home for its 75th anniversary this fall. The summer outdoor anniversary series included performances by high-profile entertainers ranging from Garrison Keillor to singer/songwriter Jason Isbell.  Louisville novelist Brian Leung says August’s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes concert was a highlight of his year.

“The combination of humidity and sweat were the essential and exquisite twelfth and thirteenth band members,” says Leung. “Folk Shaman Alex Ebert wrung every last electrolyte out of his lithe frame as he and the group’s all-in music journeyed the audience into a crescendo of ecstatic daze.”

And the city of New Albany wins the longevity award, celebrating its bicentennial by opening the final components of its public art project, including an outdoor video installation by Bellarmine University art professor Tiffany Carbonneau. 

YOU SAY GOODBYE, I SAY HELLO

It was a year of comings and goings in our major art institutions. Louisville Orchestra executive director Robert Birman rang in the New Year in January with a resignation letter, saying that the community needed to see a powerful symbol of change in the orchestra so the company could move forward with building its future. The orchestra named Andrew Kipe, then general manager of the Phoenix Symphony, to the post in October. One of Kipe’s areas of focus will be reaching younger adult audiences, rather than waiting until they retire to engage them. Newly-hired music director Teddy Abrams will likely help with that effort. At 26, he’s the youngest music director the LO has ever retained. Abrams has already relocated to Louisville as music director designate, and he will formally take the reins in September when long-time music director Jorge Mester transitions into an emeritus role.

The most surprising transition happened over the summer, when Kentucky Shakespeare’s artistic director and CEO Brantley Dunaway resigned following allegations of professional misconduct. The organization canceled their single professional Shakespeare in the Park production, “Twelfth Night,” in July, after lead actress Madison Dunaway obtained an emergency protective order against show director Dunaway (the two were married). Former company member Matt Wallace, who left the organization three years ago to helm Shakespeare Behind Bars, returned in July as the new artistic director. Wallace has planned an ambitious, community-minded expansion of the outdoor Shakespeare season for 2014.  

This summer also saw the resignation of Kentucky Center executive director Stephen Klein, who cited ongoing health concerns. The Center hasn’t announced a replacement yet.

And replacing former Speed Art Museum CEO Charles Venable (who departed last year as the museum closed to begin its $50 million three-year expansion and renovation project) is Ghislain d’Humières, who joins Louisville from University of Oklahama, where he has been director of the Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum since 2007. D’Humières says he’s already in the ramp-up phase to the museum’s re-opening in two years, and looks forward to working to more closely integrate the museum with the surrounding University of Louisville Belknap campus. In May, the museum received an $18 million gift from the family of Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown, which will enable the institution to complete all three phases of the proposed renovation project at once. The museum has been running public programming and exhibits in their Nulu satellite space, Local Speed, since June.

Another downtown gallery opened this year. The Louisville Visual Art Association launched Public, a gallery in Whiskey Row, after losing their long-time home at the historic Water Tower property on River Road last year. 

City government rounded out the year of hires by filling a new post. Sarah Lindgren, most recently of the Speed Art Museum, has been appointed Louisville’s public art administrator. The new position, which was created in this year’s city budget, is charged with working with the Commission on Public Art (COPA) to oversee and expand the city’s public art offerings.

And the Louisville Ballet ended their year with notice that artistic director Bruce Simpson will retire after this season. The news came as the company prepared to open “The Brown-Forman Nutcrackeraccompanied by the Louisville Orchestra during all public performances thanks to a gift from Brown-Forman. WFPL added dance criticism to our arts coverage, starting with this production of The Nutcracker.

But Kentucky Center programming manager Nick Couvalt says the ending number of the spring production of “Romeo and Juliet” was his favorite arts moment of 2013.

“Obviously, I saw it coming: the happy dagger, a bottle of poison, and the death of our title characters,” says Couvalt. “ I was totally caught off guard, though, by the lovers’ final moments together – between the choreography by Alun Jones and Helen Starr and the devastatingly beautiful performance of the dancers themselves, a well-known and unfortunate ending was turned into something much more relatable – more about the character’s love and devotion, and less about their overwhelming fate.”  

READY FOR MY CLOSE-UP

Yes, yes, we all know what Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence has been up to in 2013 … winning an Academy Award and the official title of America’s Favorite and opening two hot feature films with screenings that benefit local charities, but she’s not the only big-screen presence in town.

Louisville filmmaker Archie Borders has started screening his made-in-Louisville rock and roll feature film “Pleased to Meet Me” at festivals around the country this year, while local high school filmmaking duo Matt Rivera and Evan Sennett have quickly gained a reputation for their quirky, energetic work.

Late last year, the Louisville Film Society’s renovated Dreamland Film Center kicked back into gear with its own approach to innovative film programming, and several of this year’s hottest indie films, like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Our Nixon,” screened over the summer at the film society’s annual Flyover Film Festival.

Keep up with your film news with WFPL’s new podcast, Sound on Film, hosted by Chris Ritter and Robert Kahne. Each week, hosts Chris Ritter and Robert Kahne discuss the latest film releases and critique interesting movies in Louisville theaters.

Every Day I Write the Book

Kentucky’s literary community celebrated a milestone this year with the appointment of poet Frank X Walker as Kentucky’s first African American poet laureate. Walker is also the commonwealth’s youngest poet laureate. His new book, “Turn Me Loose: the Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” commemorates in poems the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights pioneer’s murder by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Here’s an interview with Walker from February, after Gov. Steve Beshear announced his appointment. 

The Writer’s Block Festival returned to Nulu for a third year of workshops, readings, literary panels and print exhibits, with most of the events free and open to the public. 

Hotly anticipated books came out this year from: Corydon-based fiction writer Frank Bill, who followed his acclaimed short fiction debut “Crimes in Southern Indiana” with the novel “Donnybrook;” Louisville novelist Sena Jeter Naslund’s new close-to-home novel “The Fountain at St. James Court,” set in the writer’s own Old Louisville home; brothers David and Joe Henry (David lives in Louisville, Joe is an award-winning producer and songwriter based in Los Angeles), who launched their biography of legendary comedian Richard Pryor, “Furious Cool”; University of Louisville creative writing professor Kiki Petrosino, whose sophomore collection “Hymn for the Black Terrific(published by Louisville’s own Sarabande Books) is heating up the national poetry circuit; and Kentucky native Holly Goddard Jones (author of the story collection “Girl Trouble”), whose debut  novel “The Next Time You See Me”  dropped to rave reviews

Say, WFPL debuted its own short fiction show Unbound this summer, too. We posted all of the audio, so make a 2014 reading resolution list with Unbound authors and listen to all of the first season’s stories on the treadmill.

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