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Moving the Field Forward Faster at American Regional Theatres

Robert Barry Fleming: First of all, a belated congratulations on your appointment as the first female artistic director of Lowell, Massachusetts’ Merrimack Repertory Theatre. It’s so cool to have you, with your breadth of experience as an educator, artist, and practitioner, at the center of a place that really focuses on new work like that.

Courtney Sale: Congratulations to you too on your appointment as executive artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. I got so excited the day I saw the Times article that featured you and other new leadership. I was like, “We get to move the field forward faster with these leaders! Our stages and stories are gonna be more radically inclusive because of this cohort of leaders.”

Robert: It really is an exciting moment. I think we have an even better snapshot of the American regional theatre now because of the pandemic, because we’re all in Zoom meetings together and we can see there’s been a lot of change—there are multiple generations, multiple ethoses about how the theatre works, multiple aspirations of how we want to see evolution and change. It’s a really diverse group with a lot of diverse opinions. I don’t know that the theatre has ever been scaled with this diversity.

Theatres like Actors Theatre and Merrimack are part of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), but given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how that has intersected with the killing of Breonna Taylor—not only in Louisville but across the globe—the socioeconomic landscape has a unique influence on how the theatre I serve goes about our business. Some of our strategies I would never recommend to anybody at another theatre. All of these ecosystems have very specific and particular cultures, and leaders of an institution such as mine have to be pretty flexible with our strategies and recognize that mission-based tentpoles, like Actors Theatre’s statement to “unlock human potential,” means discerning when that is not evidenced in action by our constituents.

actors theatre of louisville flyer

For more about Actors Theatre of Louisville and to begin streaming, visit ActorsTheatre.org. *See full caption below.

Courtney: What were the culture pieces that brought you to Louisville?

Robert: I grew up in Frankfort, fifty-five minutes from Louisville, but I didn’t have much engagement with Actors Theatre until I was the director of artistic programming at Arena Stage—that was the very first time I came to the Humana Festival, Actors Theatre’s annual new play festival. Actors Theatre hadn’t really been part of my narrative, part of how I fell in love with theatre and got involved as a practitioner and artist. I had to ask, “Why haven’t I been here?”

Some of the answers that have emerged are very rooted in many of the things that are informing two public health crises: COVID-19 and systemic racism, and how we have very segmented and siloed communities, both throughout the nation and in Kentucky with our history of plantation capitalism. We have a state song that is ostensibly about sending people who look like me down river. That informed the way I grew up before I left.

Being able to really investigate that now made me eager to come home, because I have incredible love and incredible conflict, like anybody, about the place I grew up. It was surreal to know I could do what I do in my home state, and there was something about it that felt fated about how it came to pass. It lined up so practically like: there’s no other place I’m supposed to be and there isn’t any place I’d rather be.

Everyone’s having the conversation about structural racism and systems of oppression in a much different way than last year, and as tragic and difficult and challenging as it’s been, I have been trying to have these conversations for a very extended period of time. Right now people are eager to have it because the house is on fire.

Courtney: It used to be this strategy of rallying your special unicorn team and the folks who share those same values. It’s actually a silver lining of this year. We’re not going to take any of this for granted anymore.

The veil has been lifted. We have the results from the X-ray, there are a lot of things that need to be addressed and we can’t wait to fix what is broken.

Robert: Yes. What does that look like for you and your organization, Courtney?

Courtney: I don’t want theatre to be a passive habit, I want people—artists, staff, and audience—to show up intentionally. The veil has been lifted. We have the results from the X-ray, there are a lot of things that need to be addressed and we can’t wait to fix what is broken.

Like you said, the labor is different for every theatre across the nation but the evidence is here and the work is needed. Specifically toward systemic racism and the incredible work of We See You White American Theater and folks speaking their truth—if you choose to not act, if you choose to ignore it, that will be very clear too. And it needs attention from every level of the institution. That focus gets us out of a place of passive habit. We cannot be in cruise control anymore.

Robert: I was really intrigued to see the Seattle Children’s Theatre in your bio because a lot of my early acting work was on the Disney Channel’s Adventures in Wonderland back in the day. I had the privilege of working with educators in an artistic context, watching them create stories that were also about learning. The hallmarks of young audience work, like inclusivity and openness to lifetime learning, have always threaded through my trajectory in a substantive way—they’ve really impacted the way I think about the work.

Because you’ve worked at a theatre for young audience (TYA) organization, as well as nonprofits that are not focused exclusively on TYA, how does that inform how you’re responding at this moment and thinking about the work and about leadership?

Courtney: I think we owe a lot of gratitude to TYA theatres and what they’re doing in terms of growing audience. In the American theatre, TYA audiences are the only audiences that are increasing. We actually need more of them—LORT theatre would profoundly benefit from more TYA theatres being founded and built, to foster the next generation of artists and audience. I’ve always held both adult-serving and youth-serving work hand in hand. Like you, I grew up in a tiny rural town, and I had great teachers who would teach algebra and then take us through a play process after school. Those were the people who showed me that a theatre can be a space of belonging.

There are many things youth-serving and adult-serving theatres can learn from one another. For example, the TYA canon is relatively young, thus it is small. That was one of the great things about being at Seattle Children’s Theatre. I came in with a clear set of goals of commissioning work by playwrights who were representative of our audiences. One of Seattle Children’s Theatre’s largest audiences is Seattle Public Schools, which includes a student body where twenty languages are spoken. I really wanted the writers who we commissioned to reflect the global majority. That’s something I am excited to do at Merrimack.

TYA theatres have also been in a rich conversation—for a wee bit longer than LORT theatres—about how to make the theatrical experience more inclusive and make audiences feel a sense of belonging. For example, for many TYA theatres, sensory-friendly performances are embedded in the ecosystem. TYA theatres are often thinking about family dynamics: there’s stroller parking, there’s a place to nurse your baby…. There’s a basic compassionate level of care in response to how humans need to be humans. I think a lot about how we carry those values into the adult-serving theatre.

We owe a lot of gratitude to TYA theatres and what they’re doing in terms of growing audience.

Robert: Why is that, as a value proposition, so present and legible in TYA work and spaces but seems to be more alien when we’re working in LORT theatres? Why do you think there’s the thought, This work is for developing young people who are growing up and have very specific needs, but we don’t recognize the reality that lots of people have those needs?

I mean, as LORT leaders we’re watching generations of people who have been with us for years as theatregoers say, “Now I have kids. I’ll see you in about twenty years because I don’t have time and you don’t have means for me to participate as a parent—no childcare or understanding of the demands on my time and wallet.” And we accept that we’ll see them in twenty years as opposed to making meaningful adjustments. But why do we accept that? Why do we accept empty mezzanines? Why are those things normalized as opposed to red flags that should not be givens? Why don’t we start with the thought that there must be a solution in another sector or even a sector closely adjacent to us that we could learn from?

Courtney: Yes. The “why” is the really big question. Practices and policies can signal humans aren’t changing or humans aren’t developing their lives, and that’s absolutely antithetical to our artistry and space we want to make.

Robert: At Actors Theatre of Louisville, we want to do substantive meaningful work in an inclusive cultural space. In the nineties, it was The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America. In 2015, it was Sweat. It’s the stories that now feel like they have the weight and import of August Wilson’s work. There are certain artists we go to who are the substantive markers of doing meaningful, impactful theatre, yet you also want to identify the group that’s creatively emerging, that’s demographically growing. What group appears to be the most inclusive and globally populated? Who is going to be there for your niche programming and initiatives?

Simultaneously, the thing that’s really resonating for me now is my generation’s aging parents and the navigation of the accompanying disabilities that population is prone to grow into. There are clear issues of isolation, even if these people have friends. What are the ways we create access to the theatre for our seniors who are living much longer? While some of them are growing into disability, many of them are very, very functional. And if their brains are still well, their bodies might not able to do what they did before. They’re in this precarious and socially isolating space, like any disability. In addition to the racial and gender equity work, challenging bias around sexual orientation, and understanding that social location is more complex and layered, there needs to be stories and spaces for people to engage in art and culture, and be in conversation and in community.

There’s all this opportunity before us and all the typical challenges, like, “Do I have a space that can accommodate that?” That was what we were really wrestling with prior to the pandemic. Engaging with our audiences on a virtual platform now has opened up a whole other understanding of the ways to overcome some of these barriers. And while we’re not doing live in-person engagement, there is emergent technology that is making this a very intriguing space to continue to expand what we do, to understand ways we can serve and be connected, and to have our audience not be one monolithic economic or racially hegemonic or ability group, but people who have to engage in different ways.

Courtney: That’s something I’ve been admiring about you from afar. Immediately after George Floyd’s murder, you brought together the Louisville community in conversation, which was deeply important and necessary.

There are certain artists we go to who are the substantive markers of doing meaningful, impactful theatre, yet you also want to identify the group that’s creatively emerging, that’s demographically growing.

Robert: I was gobsmacked at the incredible expertise, knowledge base, and brilliance that’s in the Louisville community. I knew of a couple superstars, but my staff and the board were very intentional about making sure I would be engaged in the community right from the start, meeting people in educational spaces and other business sectors, understanding what the historical connections and partnerships look like and where other opportunities may be.

After days of meeting so many different people, I thought, We have to find a way we can engage this brain trust and incredible level of commitment to assure that Greater Louisville, Kentuckiana, and the contribution we’re making here in this region is meaningful to those we serve. We knew if we could get the right people in the same room, the possibilities were unlimited in terms of the wellness and health impact our arts and culture organization as social enterprise could have in the whole community.

I soon joined a really great group called Leadership Louisville, which focuses on supporting local leaders. You can do a year-long program or a six-week program, you can do weekends or just to dip your toe in, to learn about Greater Louisville. I did one of those programs, and around the same time did a meet and greet at one of our board members’ houses. Learning from experts in other sectors has been such a great inspiration for me. I have an understanding of how regional theatres work. I understand how education intersects with theatremaking. I knew my growing edge was going to be understanding what kind of partnerships outside of our discipline could help us be more meaningfully impactful.

It’s been a year and a half of exploring the intersectionality of our work with that of our many partners. By the time the pandemic came, we were already very much in a space of being energized by that and really continuing to look at those multidisciplinary connections. The pandemic just gave us an immediate path to activate it in real time and in a way that is responsive to the moment. It’s not what we usually do when conceiving a season.

Our “Borrowed Wisdom” podcast, our “Unscripted” panelist series, and our spoken-word Facebook Live events had the immediacy and the sense of interdisciplinary conversation around what was happening across the globe and in our communities with the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Those program initiatives established how we were navigating those events during this pandemic. It was such a unique moment and continues to unfold and reveal and illuminate so many things about who we are as community, a nation, and how we are navigating our polarizing circumstances. Not being in conversation with that didn’t feel like an option because we were already touching on so many of those topics.

The accumulation of all these conversations is giving us a chance to reckon with biases and racialized disparities in the social fabric, economics, laws, and policies we collectively often disassociate from or compartmentalize in order to keep moving forward. But disassociating and compartmentalizing comes at an enormous cost: violence and the incredible disparities between communities. Now we have an opportunity to make different choices because the matrix of oppression has been punctured and momentarily disrupted in such a dramatic way that the option not to do much would be to underestimate the impact of how things have changed.

That’s part of the debate we’re collectively having. In each of our ecosystems, there’s a deeper and larger appetite for real meaningful sociocultural and business practice evolution. And in other sectors the question is, “Can we go back to normal?,” which in some cases is really, “I don’t have a real appetite for meaningful social, business model, or operational change.” The Monitor Institute by Deloitte explored these questions in their July 2020 report, “An event or an era? Resources for social sector decision-making in the context of COVID-19,” and I found it really illuminating.

There is emergent technology that is making this a very intriguing space to continue to expand what we do, to understand ways we can serve and be connected, and to have our audience not be one monolithic economic or racially hegemonic or ability group.

Courtney: Yeah, there’s so much you have said in there. It’s making my tuning fork ring. For both of our theatres, new work is core: core identity, core value. Evolution is inherit in what we do. The process can be messy and can have missteps but also it can be glorious and cause for celebration. There’s something about that process that gives us the ability to have conversations like this. We can allow our ideas to speak in draft to get closer to what these real changes are.

Robert: What’s your big takeaway from what you’ve learned over the last nine months in your leadership, besides that Zoom is both essential and its own little circle of hell simultaneously?

Courtney: I’m here to steward this organization. I’m responsible for not only this moment but also for its past and its future. I started 23 March, and I still haven’t been in a room with the full board or full staff. I’ve seen one show at Merrimack with our audience. As I was meeting people via Zoom at the start of COVID, our first conversations were simply checking on health and well-being. I really hope I don’t let go of that, of prioritizing people’s health, safety, and well-being in every moment. In terms of racial equity, people’s psychological safety, the ability to make more human what we do—that feels like the biggest part of my role right now.

What about you?

a person posing for a photo outside a large theatre

Courtney Sale outside Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Robert: The big takeaway for me is learning that the core of us who are working non-stop in hyphenated roles are a mighty force. We’re significantly smaller and are filled with tremendous gratitude to still be able to tell stories. Even though we’re firing on all cylinders, all the time. We want to begin the process of rebuilding something with a relentless incrementalism that leads to health and wellness in our communities and our organization through a comprehensive and holistic approach. We understand where our values live, we understand the importance of how our mission informs the choices we make in our stewardship, and we want to stay in that servant-leader space.

This is not a space that functions best as a vessel for personal aggrandizement as much as for service. We want to be clear about who and how we serve; how Actors Theatre of Louisville engages in storytelling for its aesthetic beauty and as social action. We aspire to program for our extremely diverse community of stakeholders and constituents. In the promise of being attentive to that is a promise of a future for the twenty-first century. We are planting seeds for the sustenance of Actors Theatre of Louisville for the next fifty-seven years. Without that values-based, mission-centered framework being core to what we do, we assure our lack of resonance, our lack of relevance, and our lack of being consonant with what is being asked of us very clearly at this moment. For the future of our institution: a clear sober-eyed understanding of where we’ve been, where we really are, and where we hope to go is necessary.

That’s tied to emergent technologies in a meaningful way because of our circumstances. We’re in a historical institution physically housed within a historic landmark in a historical geographic location. Our beautiful building has many needs to be able to meet a post-COVID world. And we know for the foreseeable future the virtual platform is going to continue to be our primary platform for engagement with our stakeholders. That transmedia approach will stay with us, and reincorporating live event gatherings into a diversified portfolio of how we share stories is the best framework for understanding our strategic paradigm for the future.

The protests, the incredible numbers of COVID-19 infections we’ve seen that, in spite of the vaccines, still might spike, the challenges of compliance with health recommendations with our governor—all of those things remind us that we are an incredibly diverse community with divergent and often polarized perspectives. And none of us are going anywhere. I can’t wait to root myself even more deeply into such a rich, committed culture and see where we go. It’s going to be challenging, but I think knowing we’re in a space that is compromising, as these last many months have been, doesn’t compare to the four-hundred-plus years of how we got here. Recognizing how deeply important and informative that is key to where we’re going.

*Full photo caption:

Top Row (left to right)

  • Still from Guillaume Apollinaire's The Breasts of Tiresias, part of COVID-Classics, directed by Robert Barry Fleming with animation by Yehudah Jai Husband.
  • Justin Jackson (Romeo) and Alexander Stuart (Tybalt) in Romeo & Juliet: Louisville 2020. directed by Robert Barry Fleming.

Second Row (left to right)

  • Jessica Wortham in Erma Bombeck At Wit’s End by by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, directed by Robert Barry Fleming.
  • COVID-Classics by Guillaume Apollinaire, Anton Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello, August Strindberg and Thucydides, directed by Robert Barry Fleming
  • The Keep Going Song created and performed by The Bengsons.
  • Fix It, Black Girl by Hannah L. Drake.

Third Row (left to right)

  • Chanson Calhoun in Louisville Sessions.
  • Still from When I Read my Daughter Rudyard Kipling, by Manik Choksi, adapted from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling.
  • Artwork for new video game PLAGUE DOCTOR: CONTAGION 430 BCE - 2020 AD.
  • Okolona Habla (Okolona Speaks) by Marcos Morales

Bottom Row (left to right)

  • Satya Chavez in Where Did We Sit on the Bus by Brian Quijada, directed by Matt Dickson, a digital creation by Satya Chávez and Matt Dickson.
  • Christina Acosta Robinson and Ken Robison.
  • Devin E. Haqq (Reverend Laurence) in Romeo & Juliet: Louisville 2020. directed by Robert Barry Fleming.
  • Sarah Flanagan in The Yellow Wallpaper, based on the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, cinematographer and editor Christopher Gerson, starring / associate producer Tarah Flanagan, costume coordinator Margaret E Weedon.

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Thoughts from the curators

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover


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