Arts and Culture

When the three artistic directors of Theatre [502] launched their first season in 2011, they weren’t sure if Louisville would buy what they were selling—newer plays by buzz-worthy playwrights whose work speaks to theater-goers hungry for recent, relevant work, like Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “Hunter Gatherers” (season one) and Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” (season two).

With two seasons under the company’s belt and a third planned, Amy Attaway, Mike Brooks and Gil Reyes have found that not only does [502] have an enthusiastic audience, it’s built strong and necessary relationships in the artistic community, too.  

“Rolling out this season is part of a bigger next step. A couple of these shows are some that have been with us since we started planning for season one,” says Brooks. “Now that we’ve introduced ourselves to the audience, we’ve gone on a few dates, we feel we can open up a bit more.”

As in previous seasons, each artistic director will direct one mainstage production. Brooks will open the season with Eliza Clark’s “Edgewise,” a thriller set in a fast food restaurant during a near-future dystopian war raging through the United States. (“It’s also incredibly funny,” says Brooks.) Attaway will stage Laura Schellhardt’s dark comedy  “Auctioning the Ainsleys” and Reyes will close the season with Sarah Ruhl’s surreal exploration of technology and disconnect, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

Attaway points out that while they didn’t select plays with a prescribed theme in mind, all three plays deal with a disintegration of reality.

“Understanding what is natural and real, and busting it apart, is something I think we have done in our play selection often, and I think that even more literally and substantially, it’s what we’re doing in this season,” she says.

The selection process begins with a pool of about 100 plays and involved a play selection committee of actors, designers and members, who helped narrow the pool down to a handful, from which the directors made the final selections. A more formal selection process (in years past, all the reading and discussion fell on leadership’s shoulders) is one more way the company’s foundation has become more solid.

Building a solid network of technical artists who have become frequent collaborators, like sound designer Scott Anthony and lighting designer Jesse AlFord, has also been key in choosing plays with more ambitious production demands. “Auctioning the Ainsleys,” for example, requires a significant amount of actual magic to tell its story.

“As the memories of the play materialize and disappear, actual objects that are those memories and are those attributes of the people in the play also physically disappear,” says Attaway. “How do we do that? I don’t know yet, but the designers will figure it out.”

The 2013 season begins in July and runs through November, though dates and the order of shows are still tentative depending on venue availability (the company selects the stage that will best fit the production, not the other way around). Reyes also says the company plans to ramp up its Small Batch Series with more smaller productions and performances, including artistic “microcosms” produced around the mainstage plays.

Here’s a look at the plays in Theatre [502]’s third season.

“Edgewise” by Eliza Clark

Directed by Mike Brooks. In a fast food restaurant in war-torn New Jersey, three teenaged employees prepare for the morning shift when explosions start and a mysterious wounded man stumbles into their store. The employees must make a series of difficult choices with little reliable information and shifting allegiances in a violent political climate when the wrong decision could cost them everything.

“In a time and zone of conflict, you don’t know where anyone’s allegiances or motivations lie,” says Brooks. “This is a really important show because it’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that wars happen in real places to real people. By bringing this story of conflict and brutality to an American setting, it allows us to remember that no matter where war takes place, that place is someone’s home.” 

“Edgewise” premiered at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 2008. The production was directed by Lila Neugebauer, a former Actors Theatre of Louisville intern who returns to Actors in 2013 to direct Mallery Avidon’s “O Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga with you” in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Clark was a member of the writing team on AMC’s Emmy-nominated conspiracy thriller “Rubicon” and received the P73 Playwriting Fellowship from Page 73 in 2010.

“Auctioning the Ainsleys” by Laura Schellhardt

Directed by Amy Attaway. A play for people and the objects that own them, “Auctioning the Ainsleys” is the story of a family of auctioneers and what happens when the matriarch decides it’s time to die and sell the family house (also the business) out from under her emotionally fragile adult children. She hires a scribe to write down her memories, which are intrinsically tied to the objects in the house, and calls home her long-gone eldest child to close the sale.

“The bringing home of the eldest sister, whom everyone hates, and the bringing in of this stranger to observe and reflect their lives to them forces the three other siblings to realize they’ve been existing in the cage, in the box, of this auction house and what that might mean if the house disappears,” says Attaway, who—by coincidence?—shares the initials “AA” with the play’s characters.

“The way that the story is told is really theatrical and strange and magical, so I’m really excited to figure out how we’re going to do all of those magic things, and how that helps tell the emotional story to the audience as well,” she adds.

“Auctioning the Ainsleys” made its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in 2010. The production was directed by Meredith McDonough, now associate artistic director at Actors Theatre. Schellhardt teaches playwriting at Northwestern University, and is the recipient of the TCG National Playwriting Residency, the Jerome Fellowship, the New Play Award from ACT in Seattle and a Dramatist Guild Playwriting Fellowship.

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Gil Reyes. A woman answers the phone of a dead stranger, an act that takes her into the grieving family’s home, the dark world of black market organ trafficking and even into the afterlife.

“It’s far more surreal than anything we’ve approached up to this point but I think that’s a good place for us to go,” says Reyes. “We’ve always been interested in and had a passion for magical realism and stories that can only be produced in a theatrical context, on a stage with live audience to make that magic work.”  

“‘Cell Phone’ also explores death and the afterlife, and that surrealism is a real benefit to safely sitting in that space and observing it,” he adds.  

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” made its world premiere in 2007 at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman) and opened in New York at Playwrights Horizon in a 2008 production directed by Anne Bogart, leader of the acclaimed SITI Company. Ruhl is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Her play “The Clean House” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.