July 3, 2006

An ally, an ally, my kingdom for an ally

THEATRE ALLIANCE OF LOUISVILLE WANTS TO BE MORE THAN JUST A ‘BUNCH OF PEOPLE RANDOMLY This view, a slip of a young woman demurely nibbling at a portabella sandwich, does not scream “Theater!” And yet, as Amy Attaway begins to tell me about the Theatre Alliance of Louisville, her rapid-fire speech lets me know she is enthusiastic about the theater. Make that really enthusiastic. I can nearly feel waves of boundless energy radiating from her.photo by Angela Shoemaker: (photos 1-3)Linda L. Lindsey auditions for Raquel Robbins Cecil during the Theatre Alliance of Louisville’s open auditions on June 24. Cecil, of the Louisville Repertory Company, was casting for “The Perfect Party” by A.R. Gurney.Like a proud parent passing out baby pictures, Attaway, a 27-year-old independent professional thespian, director and producer, is positively ebullient about the alliance, which she and five or so other theater professionals began contemplating a year ago.Until then, the Louisville native worked primarily with the Necessary Theater. Before that she had moved to New York City after obtaining a degree in theater arts from the University of Evansville. She went to the Big Apple to tread the boards before getting the urge to return home, as so many other natives seem to do.Attaway glows as she describes the alliance’s genesis. While hanging out at the Rudyard Kipling last July, she and friends talked about the need for local troupes, which are often strapped for cash, to band together and help each other out. While they recognized that Louisville has a thriving theater scene, the group also longed for a stronger sense of community. They wanted Louisville to be more than just a “bunch of people randomly putting on plays.”photo by Angela ShoemakerThus, the Theatre Alliance of Louisville was born with a mission to unite and strengthen the local theatrical scene. By promoting each other’s shows, sharing resources and joining for projects such as unified auditions and joint performances, members benefit. The audience also benefits from gaining easier access to a varied group of performances in the community.Theater coalitions are common in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Sacramento, but those are more formal, with staffs and budgets. The Louisville group lacks such luxuries, at least for now.Still, the Theatre Alliance consists of members who know the history of the city’s arts scene and what can be learned from it. From 1995-1996, Louisville had the Performing Arts League, which included many performance art organizations, including theater groups. Veteran thespians tell me that group ended because of mistrust among member organizations. Megan Burnett, who worked with the now-defunct Performing Arts League, is now supporting the alliance and advising Attaway about how to keep it open and build trust among members by sharing information.photo by Angela ShoemakerMembers insist the new alliance is based on trust.“Everyone benefits. There’s enough to go around for everyone,” says acting instructor Lee Kitts, who teaches acting at her own studio at the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center.Still, I wondered how such an organization could succeed — there is, after all, intense competition for audiences and performance space in a city of this size. I also wondered if the group saw itself as an antidote to the big dog — Actors Theatre of Louisville. Attaway dismisses that notion.“There is no ‘them.’ It’s ‘us,’” she says, and stresses that competition is actually minimal because the 21 alliance member groups are diverse and often have distinct core audiences. For example, Project Improv performs improvisational theater every Friday at the Kentucky Theater. The Squallis Puppeteers are dedicated to promoting puppetry and appeal to families with children. Pandora Productions focuses on plays by and for gay men and women.The Theatre Alliance’s mission statement — “unite and strengthen” — was precisely what Attaway envisioned for the group. Anyone involved in theater is welcome to join, whether affiliated with a company or working as an independent director, producer or actor. Membership requirements are simple: You must show an interest in the alliance and promote it and other members in your marketing materials.Photo by Jeffrey Scott Holland: Gil Reyes (front left) offers his opinion about membership qualifications during the Theatre Alliance of Louisvillle’s June meeting. Reyes is an independent director.So far, money isn’t part of the equation, but establishing a membership fee is under discussion. Much like a bunco club, each member takes a turn hosting the monthly meetings, which allows members to have input into the decision-making process as the alliance further defines itself.Cattle callUp and down the halls of the Jefferson Community College’s Chestnut Street campus, about 20 people mass outside eight classrooms. Some pace the halls, repeating lines such as, “To sleep, perchance to dream …” Others slouch on the slick linoleum floor, waiting to be called. Still others stand by reading pamphlets about the groups inside the classrooms. By the end of the day, some are bouncing off walls, while others are so exhausted they can barely speak.Sixty actors all told, ranging from age 15 through 60, have registered in the lobby, then gone upstairs where auditions are held in separate classrooms. Once there, the actors coordinate their schedules by signing up for five-minute slots for each group.The action takes place during the Theatre Alliance’s mass audition on a Saturday in late June at JCC. Six member groups participate in this, the second unified audition event. Most are holding auditions for specific shows, but the Wayward Actors Company, for example, is on a fishing expedition with no particular show in mind, while Pandora Productions is casting for its entire season. I go in expecting chaos and confusion and jittery nerves. Surprisingly, six hours (including the registration period) go smoothly despite the large crowd.Photo by Angela Shoemaker: Madison Cyr (front) and Cara Murray (back) wait to audition during the Theatre Alliance’s open auditions last month.These semi-annual unified auditions are a major rationale of membership in the alliance. At the first, in December, more than 70 actors showed up to try out for several shows. Many troupes tell me that a company holding auditions for its own productions is fortunate to have 20 actors show up. But at these collective events, actors are drawn from around the region (some as far as Berea) because they can try out for many roles on the same day. It’s a sort of one-stop shopping.Attaway says the group spent only $5 to organize the first group auditions, thanks to donated space and time. The June audition cost about $75 for publicizing the event, with the same donations. The group wants to build a slush fund for future events, when the favors run out.    I pop in on the Necessary Theater’s auditions for an upcoming performance of “By the Sea By the Sea By the Beautiful Sea,” directed by Laurene Scalf. Tad Chitwood, artistic director, helps the actors with cold readings.I don’t envy them in having to weed out the hopefuls.“You can tell right away if the person is right for the part; if they interact well with the other actor and understand the meaning of the script,” Scalf says.Photo by Jeffrey Scott Holland: Michael Drury (left), of Pandora Productions, and John Hetzel, of Sight & Sound Productions, at the Theatre Alliance’s June meeting.She takes note of the actors’ ability to project, since “they may read well, but can’t be heard.” She confides that many will get a callback.Next, I insinuate myself into Nate Terracio’s room, where he is conducting auditions for “Hamlet.” Terracio, an independent director, puts the actors through their paces. He offers them a cold reading of the “To Be or Not To Be” monologue, hoping its difficulty will frighten them into doing a prepared piece. Of 19 auditions he’s seen so far, he tells me, only four have opted for the cold reading. The performances make Terracio’s job challenging.“Usually, you can tell when a person is wrong for a part and you can scratch them off the list,” he says. “But with this group, it’s going to be hard.”Terracio has the actors perform first while standing, then while sitting. He coaches them to take time and “be as contemplative as you like.”During my time with Terracio, I get to watch Jacob Newton’s moving performance of “Oh What a Rogue,” which brings tears to my eyes. It would have been easy to ham up this “Hamlet” soliloquy, but Newton keeps the cold cuts in the fridge.Newton, 22, is auditioning for four groups. He’s been studying acting for three years, and his lifelong dream is to play Hamlet.Next, I slide into the Wayward Actors’ auditions. This group of five judges seems to have the most fun, yucking it up even though their room is freezing. They aren’t casting for a particular show but hope to find actors who can perform in plays the group dreams of performing. For example, one woman is instructed to read in a full brogue from “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which is set in Ireland’s County Donegal. (Coincidentally, during the reading, her cell phone rings in a sort of Irish jig.) Finding someone who can handle the convincing accent, the Wayward Actors troupe now may decide to cast this play.Raquel Robbins Cecil, of the Louisville Repertory Company, is casting for “The Perfect Party,” by A.R. Gurney.“It’s exciting to see so many fresh faces,” Cecil tells me.She has seen 22 people before lunch, the youngest being Otis Crawford and Talia Girton, theater students at the Youth Performing Arts School. Cecil let them audition but tactfully told them the roles are for older actors. She may be able to use them in other plays, however, so their time has not been wasted.Photo by Angela Shoemaker: Nate Terracio and Kathi E.B. Ellis watch actors as they cast for “Hamlet” during the Theatre Alliance’s open auditions last month.Brian West, an obviously experienced actor, interacts with Cecil as if they have performed together a thousand times, despite the pressure of the cold reading. Thea Browning dives right into her part as well.I take a quick lunch break and sneak into Pandora Productions’ auditions. Bo Cecil has already seen 30 actors at that point, from novices to professionals from Actors Theatre. He plans to call them all back for a second audition. “We’re unique here in that we are casting for a whole season instead of one show,” Cecil says.He relies on highly developed instincts when deciding if an actor has potential. After one particularly cold reading, I am unimpressed.“Many people might not see his potential,” Cecil says, “but I can tell that he has it. He understood what he was reading. I’m not looking for a stellar performance today. You just can’t expect that from a cold reading.”As Cecil explains, during the second callback the director will spend up to 30 minutes working with an actor and judge how well he or she performs with others.Cecil is particularly impressed with Tiffany LaVoie’s rendition of Lady Macbeth, using modern-day phrasing. LaVoie is a regular with Project Improv. John Hetzel leads Sight & Sound Productions’ auditions for a new version of “Frankenstein,” which emphasizes the human side of the good doctor.Alexander Raspberry, who performed in “Middle Passage” for Juneteenth Legacy Theater, delivers a seemingly polished monologue about two friends. Unfamiliar with the piece, I ask him what it’s from.“I wrote it myself this morning,” he says. “It’s called ‘Hard Choices for Friends.’”I would have assumed he’d spent weeks perfecting it.Another hopeful, Rick O’Daniel Munger, says that while in Chicago, he attended similar group auditions. He’s pleased to learn that Louisville now offers them.“Everyone benefits,” he says, “and I’d be willing to contribute to defray the cost of holding them.”Most of the actors learned of the auditions through their affiliations with group members. Interestingly, Hayward Boyce, a stand-up comic who recently moved back to Louisville, heard about it from his grandmother. She clipped the LEO listing and handed it to Boyce, making him promise to do at least one cold reading. As he tells me, his first reading (for “Hamlet”) was a “disaster,” so he went home. Not wanting to break his promise, he came back in the afternoon and had a blast auditioning for the Wayward Actors.Spotlight on the futureThe Theatre Alliance is working on further defining the benefits and consequences of membership, which continues to grow, mostly by word of mouth. In fact, a new group, simply called Freewheelin’, joined at the June meeting.Currently, the members are building a Web site, designing a logo and compiling a list of props that can be shared among members. While it has yet to file for non-profit status, Attaway says the alliance will probably become a non-profit in the future. The next goal is mount a joint performance like last year’s “Taste of Louisville Theater,” held in conjunction with the University of Louisville. At the event, seven groups staged 10-minute plays, with U of L providing the space. In return, the group used two U of L students in each performance. The show was free to the public and brought in about 250 people over its four-night run. That audience got to see many different aspects of Louisville’s theater scene under one roof, and the theater groups gained an impressive mailing list in return.Photo by Angela Shoemaker: On the cover: Various members of the Theatre Alliance of Louisville. Top row — Nate Terracio (independent director), Gil Reyes (independent director) and Gregory Maupin (Le Petomane); bottom row — Raquel Robbins Cecil (Louisville Repertory Company), Lee KNaturally, the alliance is not without conflict, as with any organization with a large and diverse group of people, especially when it comes to money. I attended two meetings and witnessed the group’s consensus-building exercise, in which members use a show of fingers to demonstrate their level of agreement with a given proposal. (A closed fist means, “I’m outta here.”) A sticking point at the last meeting had been enforcement of the admittedly lenient membership duties, which include attending meetings, using or displaying the alliance calendar, using the logo on all print material and mentioning the alliance on all press releases. There were no closed fists in sight regarding the duties, but there was less support for suggested procedures for ensuring compliance, a hotly debated topic among meeting attendees. At last, they agreed on handling infractions on a case-by-case basis and confronting the offender individually before bringing the charge to the full group. The subject of money, especially regarding membership dues, is still unresolved, but at least they managed to broach the subject without too much pain at the last meeting.As Michael Drury of Pandora Productions notes in a discussion of the consequences of membership, “We need to remember that the alliance is here to serve, and should not become an entity unto itself. That’s the challenge, isn’t it?”Aye, there’s the rub. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com


By madc91