The Actors Theater of Louisville, State Theater of Kentucky, is well named. During its adventurous festival of six new American plays, the acting level proved more than the equal of any you'll find west of Broadway. The core of the company is eight resident players with others brought in for two or three productions each, all recognized if not famous players.
During a break between plays, a genial, tweed-jacketed fellow in his still-boyish 30s observes: "Jon Jory's theater changed my life." He turns out to be D. L. Coburn, author of New York's reigning hit, "The Gin Game."
The Actors Theater actually is two theaters served by a common lobby, erected in sight of the wide Ohio River in 1837 as the Bank of Louisville, a handsome Greek Revival oval. The modern larger theater seating 641 was designed by Harry Weese, architect of Washington's Metro and Arena Stage. It's called the Pamela Brown, named not for the famed British star but for a Kentucky actress who lost her life attempting to cross the Atlantic in a balloon.
Atop the adjoining former warehouse is the 160-seat Victor Jory Theater, a three-quarter stage of some limitations and named for the veteran American actor whose sonbecame Louisville's producing director nine years ago.
Jon Jory seems to be the key to this exceptional theater, founded in 1963 in a 100-seat loft. Now 18,200 subscribers fill the theaters to 95 per cent capacity, a remarkable average. Of the annual $1,256,000 budger, 82 per cent comes from the box office, about the highest of American non-profit theaters, especially fro a metropolitan area populion of only 893,000. Large urban areas glean only from 40-odd to 70 per cent of their budgets from ticket sales. The rest comes from grants and gifts, also critical to ATL's financing.
On the plane, my seatmate talks of his life as an engineer for General Electric. He [WORD ILLEGIBLE] wife have been ATL subs [WORD ILLEGBILE] for six years, and in talking [WORD ILLEGIBLE] his hometown, it was he, not I, who brought up the Actors Theater. Clearly, it's part of the community.
After graduating from Yale School of Drama, Jory co-founded New Haven's Long Wharf Theater. His penchant for new plays brought the theater the Margo Jones Award.
ATL's plays are consciously chosen for audience interest and stimulus, to include a mix of family or popular plays, new works and experimental approaches to the old. The December program will repeat what could become a tradition, Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," a sellout last December, at a price scale from $3 to $6.80.
Coburn's "The Gin Game" is proving a triumph on Broadway for Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and "that experience is due solely to Jory," Coburn explains.
"This far from California, he is so well attuned that he heard of my play being done by non-professionals in a 49-seat room. He sent for a copy and decided to present it professionally. ATL actors created the parts; Jory sent Cronyn the script; they admired its production here and, with Mike Nichols directing, tried it at the Long Wharf. Offers have come in literally from around the world already. None of that would have happened without Jory."
Last year's new Louisville plays also included David Mamet's "Reunion," recently presented at Yale; John Orlock's "Indulgences in the Louisville Harem," now on view in Minneapolis; and Eric A. Brogger's "Tea With Dick and Jerry," introduced at the Edinburgh Festival. No longer do American audiences ignore plays without New York's cachet.
With that list of '76-'77 successes, Jory decided on his now closing festival. Through a contest and interested agents, he found six new plays he considered worth doing, and they've been playing in repertory in the two theaters. "Our subscribers never are sure which play they are going to see," laughs Jory, "but they do see the fun and catch the excitement of it. Some have seen all six."
His play choices are whollu diversified. Frederick Bailey's "The Bridgehead" concerns Marines in Vietnam. "Getting Out," Marsha Norman's first play, centers on a girl from Appalachia whose frustrations land her in jail. Both are co-winners in the contest and have 14 characters each. In "Does Anybody Here Do the Peabody?", experienced playwright Enid Rudd deals with a five-and-dime pianist of the late '30s and a vaudeville hoofer. Douglas Gower's "Daddies" has two characters, a man separated from his wife and children who makes a Christmas visit to the man with whom she and the kids now live. Daniel Stein's "An Independent Woman" is a one-character study of the forgotten 19th-century lecturer, Anna Dickinson. "Louisville Zoo" is a homegrown satirical revue.
"Getting Out" is most creative for its regional flavor and construction - two actresses as the same girl in present and past action. It benefits immensely from the performances, expecially those of Susan Kingsley, searing as the more mature side of the character, Denny Dillon as her earlier self, and Lynn Cohen.
"Streamers" had firmer meaning and construction than "Bridgehead," but here the character actors are immensely effective individually and as an ensemble. The performances by Thurman Scott, William McNulty, Bob Burrus, Jim Baker, Leo Burmester, Brian Lynner, Steven M. Hollow and their colleagues are stunning. (Jory sends out subscribers about raw language or actions.)
"Does Anybody Here Do the Peabody?" disappoints because, after a promising start, the paly's tone abruptly shifts several times. Again, the performances are strikingly good, especially those by Ann Hodapp (of the touring "Charlie Brown"), Lois Holmes and Harvey Evans.
After its expository first act, "Daddies" explodes with the responsibilities of men who inherit the children of women they live with, a not unusual American problem. Joe Morton and Stephen van Benschoten act them in exploratory depth.
Stein's "An Independent Woman" is gem of research resourcefully dramatized. He and his wife, actress Peggy Cowles, researched their material in the Libaray of Congress, opening an old trunk which Dickinson had jammed with American long before her death at 90 in 1932. Cowles recreates this forgotten dynamo with consuming intensity. What a feature it could make for the Library's Coolidge auditorium!
Though of purely local import, "Louisville Zoo" is staged and played with affectionately critical dash.
The festival's impact was reflected by the noted agents who steamed into all performances and coverage by critics from The New York Times Chicago Daily News and the nearer South.
What they thought of the new works seemed less important than the awe all felt for the acting. It was, throughout, so solid that the flaws in the new works became clearly the responsibilities of the writers, not of the production. With all respect for other companies, Louisville's Actors Theater has a performance level second to none. This must be one of American's major theaters.