Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spirits at the Heart of American Theatre--Actors Theatre of Louisville


316 West Main Street
Louisville

The two buildings at this address are at the heart of modern American Theatre. The theatre company here, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, has striven to become one of the premier theatre companies in the nation and they have succeeded. From humble beginnings in a former tea-room, the company moved to an old train station which was renovated to house a 350-seat theatre. At that time, Jon Jory, son of Hollywood actor Victor Jory, joined the company as an artistic director. He expanded the horizons of the company and oversaw their move to this current space after the train station was demolished in 1972.

With the company, Jory envisioned and created the Humana Festival of New American Plays, now considered the “preeminent annual showcase of new theatrical work.” The festival has introduced new American plays such as David Margulies’ Dinner with Friends and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart to the American theatrical consciousness; both of which garnered Pulitzer Prizes for drama.

Western theatre’s deepest roots lie in Ancient Greece, thus it’s appropriate that the entrance and lobby for this venerable theatrical institution is a remarkable Greek Revival structure. Built in the mid-1830s, for the Bank of Louisville, this building’s marvelous architecture and the participation of noted architect Gideon Shryock in its construction have led it to be named a National Historic Landmark. The adjoining late-19th century commercial building also belongs to the theatre.

Bank of Louisville Building, now the lobby of the Actors Theatre.
Photograph taken in 1987 by William G. Johnson for the Historic
American Buildings Survey. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Part of the ghost story of this venerable institution begins in a field in the Hamptons in 1970. Rodney Anderson and his wife, Pamela Brown—an actress and scion of Kentucky’s prominent Brown family—were setting off on a journey with pilot Malcolm Brighton to cross the Atlantic in a Roziere balloon (a hybrid between a hot-air balloon and one held aloft by gases like helium or hydrogen). Friends and family gathered to fete the trio and watch as the intrepid voyagers headed into the horizon aboard The Free Life. One of the friends in attendance recalled that the event was “kind of a last hurrah.” She continued, describing the atmosphere as “all that hope and joy of the 60s that seems to have gone so sour, a last little flickering flame before everybody got serious again.” Grasping the euphoric hopes of a libertine decade the balloon ascended heavenwards into a perfect sky. Some thirty hours later, those hopes were dashed when fate caught up with them off the rocky coast of Newfoundland.

In the Brown family’s grief, the Actors Theatre was granted a substantial sum to build a theatre in Pamela’s honor. Built directly behind the antique buildings fronting the street, the 643-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium stands as a memento mori to the idealism of youth. The young, promising actress who was lost so young is still glimpsed in the theatre bearing her name while another specter is seen as well: the shade of an African-American male, possibly from the 19th century. He quietly goes about his business and disappears when he detects he has been spotted by the living.

Sources
Actors Theatre of Louisville. “The History of the Actors Theatre.” Accessed 15
     March 2013.
Cummings, Mary. “The Day a Dream From Springs Crashed.” New York Times. 22
     January 1995.
The Free Life. Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Accessed 15 March 2013.
Parker, Robert W. Haunted Louisville. Alton, IL: Whitechapel Productions, 2007. 

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