Theatre in a Fly-over State
Mark Twain once said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky because everything there happens twenty years after it happens anywhere else." Interestingly, Louisville, KY is now being listed in national media as the next Austin, the next Portland, and even the next Brooklyn. This series focuses on theatre and film in a fly-over state like Kentucky that is struggling to not only join, but also lead in the twenty-first century.
It's an exciting time to be a playwright in Louisville. While the shadow of the Humana Festival of New American Plays has stretched over our landscape for decades, it hasn't generally translated to lots of support for Louisville or Kentucky playwrights. But suddenly there is a rising tide of playwriting support for aspiring scribes.
A leader in this upswell is Brian Walker, founder of Finnigan Productions and co-founder of The Derby City Playwrights. Walker began as an actor, attending Louisville's performing arts high school before college and then heading out to LA to make his mark. Because that's what artists from Kentucky did—they left. Many still do.
He got a job traveling to create small "pop-up" productions in towns all over the west. His success inspired him to try the same formula in his hometown. He remarks, “[this experience] taught me how that [formula] wasn't that hard, and if I could do it in cities where I don't know shit from shinola, I can do it at home."
Walker returned to Louisville in 2004 and wrote and produced his first full-length play The Time I was Kidnapped by The Church. He had originally planned to spend a summer in Louisville, and then return to LA, but he decided to stay in the Bluegrass State and write plays here; thus, Finnigan Productions was born.
In the ensuing decade, Finnigan produced Walker's work. Starting in 2007, Walker and a loose knit company of actors and directors started producing The Finnigan Festival of Funky Fresh Fun. Over the years, the production lost adjectives and became know as Finnigan Fest. It's a yearly collection of ten new ten-minute plays written by Louisvillians.
Perhaps inspired by Finnigan's success, and in response to Actors Theatre's ten minute play festival, other Louisville groups like The Bard's Town and Smoked Apple Theatre Group have their own ten-minute play festivals.
Last year, Walker and local playwright David Clark founded The Derby City Playwrights, a group loosely based on the model of The Welders and 13P. In its first year, the twelve-person group wrote a dozen new full-length plays, and each play had a public reading. DCP was also responsible for writing the plays in 2015's Finnigan Fest, which Walker announced would be the last.
Next year DCP will cut its numbers down to eight, and fully produce all eight plays during a three-week festival next June, which is bold, insane, and awesome. And I'm stoked to be a part of it.
New Voices, New Tools
Although the New Play Slam isn't a slam in the poetical sense, it's a place to show up with pages, which doesn’t require an official membership. On the second Monday of each month during the theatre season, playwrights, actors, and directors from across Louisville meet at The Vault, a mixed use performance space in the Old Louisville neighborhood.
Playwrights bring up to ten pages, and slam organizers Jon Huffman, Liz Fentress, and Amy Attaway help assign parts, drawing from the actors and playwrights in the room. I've seen, and contributed, ten-minute plays, but I've also seen playwrights bring full-length plays ten pages at a time throughout a year. It's an invaluable resource that requires zero dues or commitment.
The Kentucky playwriting scene is also interconnected in a way that supports its members rather than setting them against each other.
The Regional Approach
Louisville native Diana Grisanti met Steve Moulds in graduate school. Affectionately referred to by friends as The Grismoulds, they are a Louisville-based married couple with national street cred. Moulds is a Jerome Fellow who has created work for Chicago's The Hypocrites. Grisanti worked with The National New Plays Network and Actors Theatre of Louisville.
They also head up Theatre 's writers room, a group of five playwrights who are creating an ongoing series of original ten-minute plays. These plays are each given multiple performances in conjunction with a local art walk/trolley hop, and I'm proud to be a part of that group as well.
The couple moved to LA to pursue their dreams after they completed their MFAs, but then decided that Louisville was a better staging ground for their aspirations. While they live in Louisville and pursue opportunities in town, they also work across the region, and in many mid-sized cities within easy driving distance. It's similar to a regional approach that is becoming more prevalent in all fields: digital technology removes traditional materials-based entrance barriers for new artists.
While Walker has had some national success after moving home to Louisville, the Grismoulds are using Louisville as a base to continue growing their success.
The decade between 2004 and 2015 has made Louisville a viable place for aspiring playwrights to live and work. The playwriting scene is also interconnected in a way that supports its members rather than setting them against each other. For example, Brian Walker of Finnigan Productions is involved with ’s writers room, while  Co-artistic director Amy Attaway is one of the founders of The New Play Slam. My playwright friend Ben Gierhart is in DCP and has been featured as a playwright at The Bard's Town, both in their annual ten-minute play fest and in this year's first annual 24-Hour Play Festival, which saw the creation and performance of five new ten-minute plays in a little less than twenty-four hours.
With this upswell, it’s important to ask what's next. Walker and DCP have decided what they think is next: full-length plays. It's not enough for us to crank out ten-minute play fests, and to read scripts a few pages at a time.
When I spoke with the Grismoulds, they also mentioned a desire for more locally grown full-length plays with serious workshops. In addition, they think there is a need for committing resources to a real workshop process that includes multiple drafts, public readings, and a fully produced new play.
So how about it Louisville theatre companies? I'm looking at you Pandora Productions, Looking for Lilith, CenterStage, University of Louisville Theatre Department, Theatre , Alley Theatre, Bunbury Theatre and every company with the means and the will. Are you ready to throw your caps over the wall and help grow new playwrights?
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This is off topic, but geographically relevant. I've most often seen that apocryphal Mark Twain quote reference Cincinnati rather than Kentucky.
But he probably never said it anyway, so I guess that's moot.
A big shout to Stage One Family Theater