Over the last ten years, Actors Theatre of Louisville has made educational outreach an institutional priority. The theater’s student matinees are a cornerstone of its education program. About 15,000 students, teachers and chaperones attend matinees at Actors Theatre every season.
“You could say that education is valuable because it’s growing future audiences, it’s an investment, it’s exposing young people to what the theater is and what it’s like, in the hopes that as adults, they’ll be buying tickets,” says director of education Steven Rahe. “But beyond that, we believe theater can happen anywhere. It can happen outside of this building. It can happen in classrooms.”
“Dracula” is by far the most popular student show—a third of the groups come to see Van Helsing and friends defeat Count Dracula. They’ll also fill the Pamela Brown Auditorium this fall to see “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Christmas Carol,” and experience a lesser-known narrative of the Civil War era with Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” in January. The program is underwritten by Yum! Brands, enabling the theater to offer deeply discounted tickets ($10 per student) for school groups.
“We send teaching artists out into schools who are coming to see a production here and we prepare them for the experience, to engage with the story, with the characters, themes, and get their heads wrapped around the theatergoing experience in advance,” says Rahe.
To prepare students to see “Dracula,” Actors’ teaching artists lead school workshops on the monologue, so students have the opportunity to create, too. Rahe calls it “waking the artist within.”
“They’re interactive, on-their-feet, fun experiences,” he says.
The matinees are interactive, too. Students silence their cell phones, but not their screams. At a recent “Dracula” performance for students from Mercy Academy and Highland Middle School, the opening scene—where the vampire chases his female victim around the cemetery before swooping in for a fatal bite—is met with howls of delight and fear.
The matinee program represents one half of a mantra Rahe says the education department lives by—young people see plays and make plays.
“We try to promote this idea that everyone is an artist, everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student. So we always have something to learn, we always have something to offer someone else, and we all have a creative capacity,” says Rahe.
To that end, Actors Theatre teaches playwriting workshops in schools for groups as young as fifth grade, and also leads programs in community centers and youth development organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters. The theater’s annual young playwrights festival accepts submissions of ten-minute plays from Kentucky and Southern Indiana high school writers and selects about ten for full productions in the Bingham Theatre. The plays are the final project of the apprentice/intern company, and each playwright is invited to be part of the rehearsal process, working with their dramaturg, director and cast, just like a professional playwright would in any new play festival.
“We do our best to create a sense of community and empower their voices,” says Rahe. “It can be a pretty intimidating thing to come into the building as a teenager. You don’t necessarily expect to be taken seriously as an artist. They are invited into the rehearsal process and are considered a major player in the shaping of their work.”
Last year, Actors received 450 ten-minute play submissions for the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival, which means the message the theater is sending is being received. Rahe says he sees students who go through their education programs returning to the theater after graduation, too.
“Young people belong at Actors Theatre of Louisville,” says Rahe. “They are welcome here. When kids around town think about the theater, we want them thinking about Actors Theatre of Louisville, that they’ve had fun, positive learning experiences here.”