Theatre  pulls back the curtain on Louisville’s rich magic history tonight with the launch of a new play project, “The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn.” Directed by co-artistic director Amy Attaway, the play is the first entry in this season’s Small Batch Series of the company’s innovative side projects.
Attaway and her fellow co-artistic directors, Gil Reyes and Mike Brooks, wanted to experiment with serial theater — a play revealed in a series of short installments over a period of time. At the same time, Baron’s Theater — the former Squirrely’s Tea Room upstairs in Whiskey Row Lofts — approached  as a partner venue. The theater was originally designed by Louisville magician Baron LaValle for his act and has recently been restored. The idea to commission a site-specific new play about magicians was born.
“One of the exciting things we’re able to do with this commissioned work is make this play specifically about Louisville and specifically about the place we are in,” says Attaway.
They commissioned playwriting team Diana Grisanti and Steve Moulds to write a play in twelve small acts, with each episode to be performed every first Friday during the downtown trolley hop. At the end of the year, the play will be performed in its entirety.
“The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn” borrows its name from an in-joke the playwrights discovered while interviewing local magicians. Quinn isn’t a real person, Grisanti says, but his name is frequently invoked as a sort of folk hero/icon/villain in Louisville’s magic community.
“Steve and I were really taken with the name, because it’s a really great name, and then with the notion that there’s this whole world of magic that we had never really thought about,” says Grisanti.
Bonnie, a 15-year-old Louisville teenager, finds an ancient book in her great-great-great grandmother’s attic that belonged to the mysterious Ludlow Quinn. The play goes back and forth in time between Bonnie’s discoveries and Quinn’s rise to prominence in the early 1900s. Grisanti says she and Moulds learned much about Louisville lore and legend from local practitioners, who helped explain, for example, why magicians are so secretive about their illusions.
“Every magician is carrying all of magic history in them at all times, which is really lovely and expansive. As theater artists, we can obviously relate to that because we’re doing that as well — always trying to reinvent the form with nods to our predecessors,” says Grisanti.
Grisanti is a Louisville native whose plays have been produced by the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Walden Theatre. She was the inaugural recipient of the Marsha Norman Spirit of Achievement Lilly Award (2011) and her play “Semantics” was a finalist for the Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Award. Moulds is a Jefferson Award-nominated playwright whose work has been produced in the Humana Festival (most recently, the writing team for the 2012 apprentice anthology “Oh, Gastronomy!”), The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and History Theatre in Saint Paul. He is also a former National New Play Network Playwright in Residence at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company.
Grisanti and Moulds didn’t simply write a play and carve it up into twelve short installments. They’ve been developing the piece with their actors, an opportunity that most dramatic writers only get in television.
“It’s been really exciting to actually be in a rehearsal room, working with actors and getting to know their strengths, so we can write to them,” says Grisanti.
“The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn” features Louisville actors Scott Anthony, Eli Keel, Leah Roberts, Douglas Scott Sorenson and Walden Theatre’s Becca Willenbrink. They’ve been learning illusions and aren’t afraid to use them. If you miss an episode, don’t worry — like on TV shows, there will be a brief “last month on ‘The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn’” recap at the top of each month’s show.
The first installment of “The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn” opens tonight in Baron’s Theater (131 W. Main St.), with shows on the hour at 7, 8, 9 and 10 p.m. The show is free, runs about 15 minutes, and there’s a magic pre-show before each performance. The series will run through April 2014.