Arts and Culture

Actors Theatre of Louisville has been undergoing some major changes in the past two years. 

Some of them have been in response to the pandemic, like pivoting from in-person shows to digital streamed work. 

Executive artistic director Robert Barry Fleming told WFPL that other shifts are due to financial and industry realities. 

Actors recently moved away from a traditional subscription model, had another restructuring and won’t have an apprentice company in the 2021-2022, at least not in the format it has existed in previous years. 

Last month, the company put out a news release announcing upcoming shows, including continued virtual offerings streamed online, a radio play of the popular show “Dracula,” a newly developed video game called “Plague Doctor: Contagion 430 BCE–2020 AD,” which became available Friday, and some in-person productions for the winter and spring. 

Additionally, the Humana Festival of New American Plays lineup doesn’t typically come out until later in the year. But it’s always been a big part of the story the company tells about itself. The September release had no mention of what’s in store for the event in 2022, which was offered as a “virtual exhibition of new work and emergent technologies” this calendar year.

Fleming said this is all a reflection of the direction, or “evolution,” of the organization “as a transmedia, hybrid company [operating] on multiple platforms as opposed to simply a regional theater that does shows on a transactional basis.”

He also explained that the organization had to address issues with the HVAC systems in its theaters before they could safely bring audiences and artists back into them for live performances and be in compliance with the unions, such as Actors Equity Association’s ventilation guidance. Some of the more than $3 million Actors Theatre received in Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funding will go toward those repairs. 

Listen to this digital-only extended interview: 

Below are excerpts from Fleming’s conversation with WFPL. They’ve been edited for accuracy and clarity.

On Actor’s forthcoming in-person, “exploratory lab production” of “A Christmas Carol”:

“In our fall update, we really wanted to just kind of clue people in that we continue to offer programming both on the digital, as well as the in-person, platforms… And ‘A Christmas Carol,’ which will be this exploratory lab production, gets the chance to have a Dickensian recital, kind of evoked with old media, just like Dickens went around and told his story. But it also intersects with a ghost world that’s done with motion-capture actors. And so it gives us a chance to explore a central question, is there a way that this technology helps bring us closer to this story, closer to the experience of Scrooge and closer to this possibility of redemption?”

On the balance of digital vs. in-person productions going forward:

“The emergent technology piece is something that has afforded us to kind of move forward on our long-term artistic plan. I think many companies and many artists around the world… are very interested in exploring AI, VR spaces. What does this new technology mean to the evolution of theater? … Given the pandemic, a lot of clarity is already given to us about what is safe to do in-person and what isn’t. And we recognize that one size doesn’t fit all. It depends on your vaccine hesitancy rate, your numbers, how the unions and our collective bargaining agreements respond to allowing that. We’ve got work to do on our infrastructure, literally our facilities, that assure that we’re in compliance with those regulations. And we expect that we’ll be gradually and incrementally reincorporating in-person gathering… continuing to scaffold up and scale up in the coming months and years. As you know, the situation continues to evolve and we hope to go in the right direction.”

On fixing the HVAC systems to make Actors’ theaters pandemic ready:

“All around most downtowns in the country, just like every system, the HVAC is not really set up for a global pandemic. So everybody’s having to reevaluate, are we in compliance? Do we have what we need to make sure that people are safe and comfortable and are able to be welcomed back in those spaces? So we have work to do with our HVAC in our Pamela Brown Theatre and in our Bingham Theatre, which is underway.”

On how Actors will use its $3 million-plus Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funds:

“As a professional theatre with certain kinds of hallmarks of how we are able to produce that is a really expensive enterprise. So while it sounds like a large number, in some respects, it gives us a large runway to actually continue to be of service and sustainable and build for the next five to 10 years in a different way. That money is pretty much accounted for. The loss of revenue was so enormous in our field… But it does give us enough runway to kind of do these really fundamental safety things that we need to do with our HVAC system to have appropriate filtration.”

On the fate of the Humana Festival:

Despite repeated attempts to clarify, Fleming did not share specific details of what a 2022 Humana Festival would look like or whether it would be in-person. Rather he said they are monitoring the ever-changing situation with the pandemic. The annual event has gone through an “evolution” that Fleming feels is on par with the direction of the organization and broader changes that are occurring within the industry. 

“Our 2021 version of the Humana Festival, which due to the pandemic was new work with emergent technology exhibition, we’ve continued to communicate [about] that just like all new work. That’s the kind of thing that we’ve done over 30 different projects throughout the year, with the meaningful support of Humana. 

Doing it in a six-week kind of window, in a specific way of implementing it, is less important to actually doing the work and contributing to the canon, and continuing to innovate. So we’ve talked about it on the terms in which we are actually doing it, as opposed to perhaps through the lens of where’s the announcement about the six-week in-person festival… I’m not a fortune teller. So I couldn’t offer a vision of what’s going to happen in the future any more than any economist, social scientist or historian… So we’re going to continue to explore the stories, we’re going to continue to be adaptable, we’re going to continue to do that in a sustainable way that assures that Actors Theatre is here for another 57 years.”

On the shift away from a more traditional subscription season ticket model to a membership system, with four different levels of participation; each level has different access to streaming content, pre-sales on tickets to in-person shows & discounts:

“That subscription model has been failing… So this is a way to respond to something that has probably needed to be responded to for decades. And the pandemic has certainly amplified that. The digital content, to frame it as if that is the piece would be to misapprehend the nature of how these trends have been ongoing… And we’re still seeing folks lagging and still trying to return to certain models that have a pretty good historical antecedent of not being consonant with the economics and the trends of how we engage today.”

On more recent restructuring at the organization:

Fleming said they had more than 100 employees pre-pandemic, and after several “organizational restructures,” they are at 34 staffers.

Over the summer, Actors Theatre listed four director-type positions on its employment page, including a head of costume and wardrobe and a technical director. People would have to apply for those roles, and were invited to do so according to Fleming.

“We had a major restructure [in March 2020] when we shut down the Humana Festival. We had one Jan. 20, 2020 that was very intentional in order to restructure and make sure that we were addressing the structural deficit. When everything shut down, there wasn’t work for people to do because we didn’t have the shows. So as we’re reincorporating in-person gatherings, what we’re doing is bringing back staff to help us execute that. … They are working in the hybrid form that all of us have continued to work through the pandemic, recognizing that we work better with probably less siloing, when you have a small staff, more overlap, more hyphenated engagement… a hybrid situation that is actually sustainable and keeps us in the black and allows us to still innovate and create.”

On why Actors does not have a Professional Training Company, a group of young theater professionals often referred to as the apprentice company, listed for its 2021-2022 season: 

Fleming said the key things are a lack of adequate staffing to support as many as 40 apprentices, communicating clear expectations and outcomes, and, a big thing, the compensation.

“It would be hard to say that any of the compensation and the experience was mutually beneficial. I think in any kind of apprentice model in the regional theater across the country, you need folks to get a holistic opportunity to learn all the areas and understand all the areas. But in a time of specialization, if someone comes in and says, Hey, I really want to be an actor, and they find themselves primarily doing crew for an entire season… then I have to be a little more clear what the value proposition is for that party. If they don’t have enough money to have safe living situations or any of the things, it just puts them in a vulnerable position.

So we wanted to make sure that whatever we were creating was structurally and systemically matched, being able to understand the realities and make it accessible. Some people just can’t afford to do this kind of apprenticeship because it needs a certain kind of financial augmentation. So then it’s not as inclusive of an environment by its structural design. So that’s not exclusively an Actors Theater issue. But it is a field wide and industry wide concern.”

Disclosure: Louisville Public Media president Stephen George is a member of the Actors Theatre of Louisville board. 

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.