Commonwealth Theatre Center receives $225K grant to create programming aimed at Louisville’s Muslim population

Commonwealth Theatre Center

The Commonwealth Theatre Center formerly was Walden Theatre. | Courtesy of CTC

The Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC) shared exciting news Thursday, along with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), which is awarding CTC a whopping $225,000 to implement an ambitious three-year project aimed at serving youth and teens from Muslim communities in Louisville.

The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program awarded 15 organizations across the country a combined $2.49 million to “initiate arts and media projects designed to create powerful experiences that advance relationships among communities of U.S. Muslims and their neighbors,” according to a news release.

Insider spoke with ​Hallie Dizdarevic, the associate artistic director of CTC, who is heading up this initiative. (She also is an actor in town.)

Insider Louisville: How did the idea for this programming start?

Hallie Dizdarevic

Hallie Dizdarevic | Courtesy

Hallie Dizdarevic: We were approached by our fabulous grants manager, Margaret Phillips. She discovered a grant opportunity through DDCF that was intended to increase understanding and compassion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

It didn’t take very long at all until Heather Burns (CTC’s outreach director) and I dreamed up a plan.

We’ve both been working in youth theater for many years in Louisville, and neither of us could remember ever seeing a play for young audiences that featured Muslim characters and stories — but we sure did remember working with plenty of Muslim students in the Louisville community through our Outreach Department.  

Upon further thought, we realized we didn’t know of any Muslim actors in town, and we have had very few in our conservatory. It seemed like a chicken or the egg situation — are there so few Muslim theater artists in Louisville because there is so little representation of the Muslim community on our stages?

So we saw a clear opportunity to increase representation and hopefully to empower some Muslim youth to create new works through some already existing programs and relationships.  

IL: What will creating those new works entail?

Dathan Hooper and Hallie Dizdarevic in "Othello"

Dathan Hooper and Hallie Dizdarevic in Kentucky Shakespeare’s “Othello” | Photo by Bill Brymer

HD: We knew we wanted to create two new plays featuring Muslim characters and stories which will be inspired by experiences shared from our local community. One script will be for our touring musical, which serves more than 20,000 elementary-age students annually, and another will be performed during our conservatory season.  

Plays performed in the conservatory tend to be more mature and can be more edgy/hard-hitting. Obviously, a couple of white ladies from protestant families were not the ones to write these plays, so we made a plan to commission a playwright through a national search.

Actors Theatre will be helping us with that.

The more we thought about the project, we realized that in order to make it truly excellent, we needed to make a couple of tweaks. It was important to us to avoid tokenism. We want to truly build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim communities by making the project more broadly focused on perception.  

How does where we come from affect our perception of the world around us? And what is it like to be perceived as “other”? For this reason, we will be conducting residencies and gathering stories as inspiration for the project not only from majority Muslim communities, but also from LGBTQIA youth, the Jewish community and people who are blind.

Finally, if we wanted this project to have lasting impact, we knew we would need to work hard to provide theatrical training to Muslim and immigrant youth in our community and ultimately empower them to create and perform their own new works so we can continue to hear diverse stories on Louisville stages.

IL: Why does CTC think it’s important to start working with Muslim youth?

HD: We’ve already been doing it for years, but now we want to empower them to become the makers and to share their stories more actively. We believe providing representation will be an important first step in that process.

IL: This program is connected to some earlier programming, right? Do you foresee challenges with this iteration?

HD: This project has roots in our Connecting Cultures program but will be different because the focus of these residencies will shift from a sort of docu-drama format into more of a Theater of the Oppressed curriculum. The goal will be to create dialogue and experiment with social change using drama rather than tell individual stories word for word in a theatrical setting.

IL: How many people will be working on the program?

HD: So many. CTC staff — at least 14, plus a new project manager, playwright and actors coming on for this program.

• • •

Commonwealth Theatre Center’s annual fundraiser, Acting Up (with a Twist), is Saturday, June 1, from 7 to 10 p.m. The $40 ticket price helps support scholarship programs but also gets you short plays with surprise endings, Flying Axes, inflatables, a twist dancing contest, food and booze from the likes of Gravely Brewing, Holi Gin, The Fat Lamb, Volare, Flora Kitchenette, Ciao and others.

Proceeds also go toward providing financial aid to the conservatory.

Dizdarevic provided a comprehensive breakdown of how CTC is going to use the $225,000 in grant money:

Year 1:

  • Build on existing relationship with Newcomer Academy to provide in- and out-of-school theater opportunities, including a new drama club that will span the full three years of the grant cycle and become a sustainable part of their school culture.
  • Community building and story collecting residencies with: Newcomer Academy, Nor Islamic School, Guiding Light Islamic Center, Jewish Community Center, Louisville Youth Group, Imagine Blind Players.
  • Secure playwright through national search.
  • Summer Intensive with youth from Walden Conservatory and youth from Newcomer Drama Club collaborating alongside CTC staff and the playwright to explore the stories collected throughout the year and find the most meaningful connections to be used as inspiration for the two new plays.

Year 2:

  • Drama Club continues at Newcomer.  
  • Veteran Drama Club members will be provided transportation and scholarships to attend the Walden Conservatory.
  • Playwright begins crafting two original plays.
  • Actors Theatre will assist CTC in finding and hiring at least two professional actors with Muslim roots to perform in professional touring musical.
  • Conservatory play will be performed in the spring.

Year 3:

  • Drama Club continues at Newcomer Academy.
  • Professional touring musical will rehearse and tour regionally.