Arts and Culture

Louisville’s Walden Theatre and the Blue Apple Players are merging into one nonprofit theater education provider. The boards of directors of both organizations voted Monday to combine the two entities by the end of the year.

Walden Theatre is an independent conservatory theater program offering hands-on theater training for Louisville-area students. Walden also offers outreach programming that is similar to the work of Blue Apple Players, which produces educational plays in area schools and offers theater education training to elementary school teachers. Both were founded in 1976.

The two organizations reach 42,000 area youth each year, and through educational outreach, they service 75 percent of Jefferson County’s Title I schools. 

Blue Apple’s target audience is younger elementary students, while Walden’s focus is on older elementary through high school, so Walden board chair Michele Koch says the merger will create a more intentional “end-to-end” theater education experience for area students. 

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to bring these two entities together to make a stronger entity all focused on the children, their families and teachers,” says Koch. “And there’s also the financial strength that we have together, where we will be a combined entity of a budget of about a million dollars, which will then allow us to attract broader local and national financial support.”

Walden currently operates with a $720,000 annual budget, and Blue Apple Players works with $406,000 per year. Walden receives funding from the Kentucky Arts Council and is a funding cultural partner of the Fund for the Arts, and Blue Apple Players has received grants from the Fund for the Arts for educational programming in schools and community centers. Both organizations receive financial support from Metro Louisville’s External Agency Fund.

Blue Apple board chair Tanner Watkins says combining their budgets will allow their educational programming to scale up considerably.

“Once you’re over the million-dollar threshold, you can apply for some serious grants that aren’t available to arts organizations with budgets under one-million,” he says. 

Details of what the new organization will look like, including leadership and even the name, are still being determined. Watkins says figuring out the identity of the new entity will be a welcome challenge. 

“Walden is a top-notch conservatory for serious actors and children who want to be serious actors, and Blue Apple [serves] younger kids. We want to find an identity that encapsulates all of that. I think we have our work cut out for us, but that’s going to be one of the most fun parts of this process,” says Watkins. 

Koch says the foundations of this merger have been in place for years, as the two organizations have shared part-time teaching staff and collaborated on a number of areas since the 1970s. 

“We know each other very well and we can focus on each other’s strengths and capitalize on each other’s strengths [as we merge],” says Koch.

“Over the course of decades we have worked with each other on programming, and fundraising, and different activities in a very collaborative nature,” she adds.

One of those collaborations – intentional or not – is shared staff. Both organizations operate with lean full-time staffs (Walden has eight full-time employees, Blue Apple has four) and rely heavily on dozens of part-time teaching artists, many of whom work or have worked for both organizations.

“When you’re in a smaller entity, you end up wearing multiple hats, some of which fit you a little better than others,” says Koch. “Now that we can have a larger staff and collection of teaching artists together, we’ll be able to apply their skill sets in a thoughtful way.”

Koch says they have no plans at this time to downsize staff on either side. Planned outreach programs in schools will not change for the fall, and Walden’s conservatory program will remain largely unchanged at this time.