The founder of Louisville’s Savage Rose Classical Theatre is moving on. Although actor/director/educator J. Barrett Cooper once believed “I was going to die here,” he’s actually moving to California next week to lead the theater department at Idyllwild Arts Academy, the prestigious boarding school where he’s taught in the summer program for several years. It’s an undeniable opportunity for an actor and director who’s also dedicated his career to classical theater education through his work as curator of historic interpretation at the Frazier History Museum and as a teaching artist with Walden Theatre, and also through Savage Rose, his own independent classical theater company.
Small companies are often at risk when their founder moves on, but Savage Rose will continue under the leadership of Kelly Moore, who directed last season’s closer “The Tempest” and has led the company’s marketing efforts. Moore will step into the interim artistic director role while the company’s board of directors considers leadership options moving forward.
“I wanted there to be an idea of a company,” said Cooper of the company’s philosophy. “The idea that there were people who did invest in it. Not financially – financially would be great – but at least spiritually, with their hearts and their minds, and they took a responsibility with it, they took ownership of it.”
“Kelly has literally been there since the first day,” he added.
Because Cooper built a company with an artistic structure out of a loose confederacy of classically-minded local actors and directors, Savage Rose’s board of directors had that well of dedicated members to turn to.
“I think Barrett has done a wonderful job of giving us a good foundation and building up a company and a philosophy that people want to be a part of,” Moore said.
Cooper founded Savage Rose in 2008 in response to a call for more classical theatre in Louisville, and since the company’s first show, John Ford’s “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” he’s staged a wide variety of classical texts, from Elizabethan-style traditional Shakespeare to the naturalistic horror of Theatre du Grand-Guignol, and ran regular play readings of obscure texts in the “Words, Words, Words” series. The company prefers classical productions with an emphasis on the text, not added bells and whistles.
“‘All’s Well that Ends Well,’ ’The Knight of the Burning Pestle,’ we’re doing plays that people don’t do around here,” Moore said. “Yes, we do Shakespeare, but hopefully in a way you’ve never seen or heard before. What we hope to continue is that same mission, the focus on the words and producing great productions of great plays that you may have heard of, perhaps, but maybe didn’t actually see or hear in a clear way before.”
The company’s next season is already set. Tad Chitwood will reprise his new translation of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy “The Bald Soprano” on September 5-6 at The Bard’s Town (the company staged it in one marathon night last August) and Jean Genet’s “The Maids” in the Slant Culture Theatre Festival (Nov. 13-23) at Walden Theatre.
Cooper closes out his tenure by reprising the title role of “King Lear” for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s final week of community partner repertory this week. The production opens tonight (8 p.m.), with performances also Friday and Sunday in Old Louisville’s Central Park.
Small companies like Savage Rose – those who are likely to be partners in or guests of the Slant Culture Theatre Festival, for example, who don’t operate under agreements with Actors Equity, who lack endowments and operating budgets that break the six-figure mark, those passion projects fueled by the tireless energy of one or two artistic leaders – can end up diminished or even shuttered when the founders are no longer around. People do move on – they get job offers they can’t refuse, they move away for better opportunities, or they just need to reclaim all of those unpaid evenings and weekends for more lucrative theater work (that is, work that pays at all). But those who have the passion remain dedicated to the work that attracted them in the first place as long as they can hold on.
“I, like a lot of people involved and a lot of people in the community in general, do it for the love of doing it and putting up a good production, the joy of the performance and the audience getting to see something they wouldn’t normally see,” said Moore.