Arts organizations across genres and disciplines frequently find themselves competing for resources. Maybe it’s funding or grants, maybe it’s audiences, maybe it’s artists. But does hoarding your resources make your arts group stronger?
For almost a decade, the Theatre Alliance of Louisville (TAL), a group of artists from Louisville’s independent theater scene, have answered the question with an emphatic no.
Here’s their mission statement: “The mission of the Theatre Alliance of Louisville is to unite and strengthen the local theatre community.”
But after many successful years, the Alliance has fallen dormant. Its last remnants are extending an open invitation to everyone in Louisville’s theater scene to join them at a meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 29, at The Bard’s Town.
TAL will give a brief history of the organization and its goals, and then ask the community, “Do you still want this?” If the answer is “Yes,” TAL will live on, handed over to those who answered in the affirmative. If the answer is “No,” the organization will exit stage left.
Amy Attaway, a founding member of the Alliance, remembers its beginning in 2004 with a conversation at a cast party. “We started talking about it at a party at the pool,” she tells Insider. “It was a Necessary Theatre-related gathering, and we started chatting about it.”
Any artist can tell you if you get a bunch of creators together, some of them are going to start spitballing, and pretty frequently they’ll be dreaming of a bigger, better future. Often it comes to nothing. But this conversation led to the formation of a small group made of Louisville theater enthusiasts.
The pool partiers put out an open call, contacting everyone they knew in the scene and asking them to show up if they were interested.
“The first time we met together was in a basement room at the library,” says Attaway. “We reached out to everyone we could think of.”
They met once a month. Early on there were many decisions to make, and there was a lot of excitement. The group picked the name Theatre Alliance of Louisville, designed a logo, defined membership and came up with a mission statement.
Founding member Tad Chitwood restated the mission in a slightly less aspirational tone in a recent interview. “What we wanted was to publicize each other’s work and to share resources,” he says. “Like, if somebody had five costumes that were just laying around that would be helpful to another company, we’d share.”
When the group officially formed, it included about 20 member companies. It was easy to become a member. You just showed up to meetings once a month.
In addition to attending the meetings, you also included the TAL logo on your posters and programs, and added an insert to your programs that advertised upcoming shows from other members.
In our current age of social media, it seems weird to think that not too long ago it was difficult for members of the theatrical community to find each other. Actors couldn’t find directors, directors couldn’t find actors, and nobody could find audiences. There also was that idea of competition, which sometimes kept groups divided.
Pandora Productions‘ artistic director Michael Drury was one of the first to join TAL. “If we’re growing our individual audiences and we’re sharing that with the Alliance, then we’re growing the broader audience within the Louisville community,” he explains. “We are not each other’s competition — Netflix is our competition. I have been saying that for years.”
One of the organization’s biggest projects was a unified audition. Member companies would come together in May and open their doors to anyone with a hankering to perform. Chitwood speaks to the value of unified auditions: “The value of it, to me, was to be in a room with people I didn’t know.”
Drury also found the auditions rewarding. “A lot of folks who are now regulars on (Pandora’s) stage, that’s where I met them,” he says.
There is no way to directly measure the Alliance’s success, but Louisville’s independent theater scene is flourishing. Almost any weekend of the year, theater fans can see great local companies performing everything from the classics to musicals to recent and relevant plays.
The connectivity of the scene is undoubtably part of the vibrancy. It is not uncommon to see actors, directors or even artistic directors working with multiple companies. Most shows have industry nights with cheaper tickets so actors, directors and other community members can afford to come see a show.
A great place to get a sense of the scene is at The Bard’s Town. It’s a restaurant, a bar, a stand-up comedy club and a place you can go almost every weekend to see theater. Co-owner Doug Schutte says they have more theater bookings this year than ever before.
“This next year, we’ll have maybe 50 weeks of theater,” he says. “There are a lot of companies that want to do things.”
Schutte is executive artistic director of the The Bard’s Town’s in-house theater company, which put up nine shows last year. It’s one of the last member companies listed on TAL’s website, and Schutte is happy to host Sunday’s meeting.
“I personally would like to see something like TAL continue,” he says. “I know there is a lot of informal collaboration between people. We see clusters of folks all the time, but it’s not the same as a bit of a structure.”
If everyone has such great things to say about the Theatre Alliance of Louisville and they want it to continue, why has it been dormant? Regular meetings ceased, unified auditions haven’t happened since 2013, and most companies no longer help each other advertise.
Chitwood says it’s a matter of time and energy. “All of us had jobs, responsibilities during the day, then a personal life, then on top of that, you have the theater work. It was just a time factor — it wasn’t that anyone was angry. It just became difficult to manage in terms of time.”
Attaway puts it in simpler terms, perhaps influenced by the recent birth of her daughter: “I need a nap.”
Maybe with the advent of social media and the many changes the digital revolution has brought to the arts, we just don’t need a theater association anymore.
But this reporter, who moonlights as an actor and a playwright, still believes we are stronger when we stand together. Live theater is a unique and beautiful art form, and if Louisville’s scene wants to grow as much in the next 10 years as it did in the last 10, we need to continue to work to unite and strengthen our theatrical community. I’ll be at the meeting on Sunday, and I hope all you theater artists will join me.
Perhaps Attaway says it best when I asked her about the upcoming meeting: “I hope something great happens.”
Author’s Note: As a theater artist, I have worked with many members of the Alliance over its 10-year lifespan, including Tad Chitwood and Amy Attaway, both of whom are quoted in this article.