Many Louisvillians may have been curious about the growth of Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC), particularly its sprawling new building at the corner of 13th and Muhammad Ali. It’s part of a development plan set to revitalize that portion of the Russell neighborhood and become an economic engine in the West End.
Insider caught a glimpse of one program that’s been going on there and a preview of its future in the form of the Youth Repertory Theater Troupe of Louisville. For the next two weeks, they’ll be putting on their first production, “The Wiz,” under the guidance of artistic director Erica Denise Bledsaw.
“I wanted to create a company that would cater to the youth, and the youth would be responsible for the lights, the sound, the set and the acting and the singing,” says Bledsaw during a mid-rehearsal interview with Insider. While she spoke, she was observing a dance sequence featuring several teens and adolescents spinning and twirling to portray the tornado that picks up Dorothy and lands her in Oz.
Bledsaw has worked at the LCCC for three years. She’s been involved in the after-school program during the year and the summer camp while schools are out. But this is the first year the center has offered a performing arts camp.
“I pitched it to my bosses, and they thought it was a good idea,” she says. “They are giving me this pilot opportunity to do ‘The Wiz,’ and based on the success, we’ll be able to do a four-show season.”
But selling tickets isn’t the only goal, and the company still runs a lot like a summer camp.
“Half of the day is training in musical theater, and we teach them set design, lights, acting, dance and all that stuff, and the other half of the day they rehearse for ‘The Wiz,’” says Bledsaw.
That combination is key to training young artists. This year, the program has 30 kids, all of whom are performing in the show. But many of those students don’t have any formal training, according to the camp’s other staff member, assistant director Ashley Cathey.
“They’re new to theater and to the performing arts, and it’s excellent because you’re able to mold them, but also difficult when you forget that, no, they don’t know certain things,” says Cathey. “But we get to teach them that.”
The summer camp, which ends Friday, July 29, just before “The Wiz” opens, ran eight weeks. With the help of sponsors like Norton Healthcare, Metro United Way and Louisville Metro, LCCC was able to keep the cost per student down to just over $300 for the eight weeks, which frankly would be a steal at twice the price. The school-year program is even more impressive, offering free arts instruction to youth from the Russell neighborhood.
Bledsaw and Cathey are the full-time staff at the camp, but other area artists have come in to help, like John Keen, a local choreographer and dancer, who was on hand helping with the tornado dance when Insider visited.
If their season expands, the newly formed youth company will perform in a 350-seat theater that is being built as a part of LCCC’s ongoing expansion.
“Our CEO Sam Watkins has always had the vision of having a theater in this building,” says Bledsaw, and notes the portion of the building the camp is occurring in was just finished last year.
Her excitement was obvious when she talked about the theater, which is projected to be complete in time for next summer’s camp.
“I was actually at the table with the blueprint in front of me, with the architects, and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, this is really gonna happen.’”
That same excitement and hope for the future played into Bledsaw’s choice of play. While she acknowledges that the recent live television version helped put “The Wiz” back in the zeitgeist, she says it was the themes in the play that made up her mind.
“The Wiz and Glenda both have songs that talk about believing in yourself,” she explains. “Believe in yourself, know that you can do the impossible, know that you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
It seems like Bledsaw is right to believe in herself and her cast: A late-night post on Facebook Monday night announced all shows of “The Wiz” have sold out.
With their “pilot” having that kind of success, I strongly suspect you’ll get plenty of chances in the future to check out the Youth Repertory Theater Troupe of Louisville, and Insider will be sure to keep you updated.