The Louisville Metro Council has designated $35,000 in public funds toward the development of a theater space in the Highview area of southeastern Louisville.
The new venue will be located in a 6,000 square foot space, most recently a video store, in the Outer Loop Plaza shopping center.
“Things like the arts and other cultural programs are generally lacking in the suburbs,” Councilman James Peden said. “It’s something that’s usually been strictly for downtown.”
Peden represents District 23, which includes Highview, Okolona and Fern Creek, as well as the suburbs of Hollow Creek, Spring Mill and Heritage Creek.
He said the community has responded enthusiastically to a concert series in the park that began about a decade ago and a performance space “seemed to be a nice next step to bring actual theater out here.”
“Are more people asking for this than, say, asking for sidewalks? Probably not,” Peden said. “My government philosophy is to provide what the people either won’t or can’t economically provide for themselves. This fits that category, just like a sidewalk.”
Project organizers are very early in the design process, but are looking at a 100- to 200-seat theater that can also be a place for arts education programming.
Director, casting agent and playwright Vin Morreale, who is a part of the creative team on this project, hopes the community will feel some ownership with the space because “communities define themselves by culture.”
“We’re going to definitely rely on people in the area to bring their own creative experience to it… fostering local playwrights, local actors, local volunteers who want to be part of the crew,” he said.
Jeanne-Marie Rogers is artistic director of Louisville’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society and part of the team on this project as well. She feels this “brand new theater on the Outer Loop… is a great way to expand the mission of making theater accessible to everyone.”
While the initial focus has been on theater, the organizers have had conversations about how the new venue can be a place for artists of all disciplines.
“We’d like to have it as busy as possible,” Rogers said.
The coronavirus pandemic has, however, set back the construction time table.
“We need to be able to get into the space to determine what are the true construction costs, if there are any other engineering costs that we have to potentially cover,” said Kat Abner, Fund for the Arts’ Vice President of Community Impact. “So that’s where the biggest delay is.”
Because none of the project’s creative partners had not-for-profit statuses, Fund for the Arts submitted the initial grant application to the Metro Council to receive the $35,000 in seed money, Abner explained.
“We’re also providing some administrative support and then guidance on best practices for setting up a nonprofit and how you manage a community project like this,” Abner said.
She envisions that, when the venue opens, Fund for the Arts “will step away” from the project other than to provide some consultation. Abner said the venue could then be eligible to apply for grants from Fund for the Arts.
Organizers did not disclose how much additional funds they would need to build and sustain the venue, in part because of the construction-cost unknowns. But they said they’re seeking additional funding sources, as well as asking for donated equipment and materials that the local theater community feels they can spare.
For the very same reasons that make it unsafe for construction crews to be in the space, it’s made it difficult for organizers to nail down when their first production will be. Optimistically, they’re hoping for November, but said they’ll have to wait to see what public gathering guidance will be in the next several months.
Morreale thinks this space will be “even more vital after this isolation period caused by the coronavirus crisis.”
“There’s something about live theater that really brings people together,” Morreale said. “It’s an experience that people can’t create while sitting in front of their TV alone… because every live performance is unique.”
Project organizers also believe the venue could help Louisville theater groups struggling financially because of the pandemic, especially when there were already concerns about a lack of affordable small- to medium-sized performance and rehearsal spaces in the area before the outbreak.
Martin French, co-artistic director at The Chamber Theatre and another partner on this project, said he’s been working with Rogers for years “towards building a broader capacity for theater in Louisville.”
“Which is to say, we have been concerned at the decreasing numbers of theater spaces in the city, along with the increasing cost to rent some of these spaces, and have been trying to locate potential new spaces with a view to hopefully developing them,” French said.
“When I first started this, I was providing a need for the community,” Peden said. “Now, I feel like we’re providing a need for both [the community and arts groups].”
Peden said he’d like to continue to put aside some of his district’s funds each year for the next few years to support this effort. He’s hoping the space will bring people to the area to spend money, as well as being an outlet for community engagement.
“I really am hoping that the community gets involved,” he said. “I’m hoping that they will come out and participate, not just to watch the plays, but actually audition and get involved.”