Louisville has a strong theater culture, one that grows yearly. But while the younger companies sometimes come and go, the city still has some stalwarts with some longevity. The Bunbury Theatre Company, for example, is celebrating 30 years with this coming season.
Juergen K. Tossmann has been the producing artistic director of Bunbury Theatre for 25 years. He was recruited to the position after starring in one Bunbury show and directing another.
“I took over this role blindly,” he tells Insider. At his first meeting with the board of directors, he found out the company was in debt and the space they were using was no longer available.
He helped the company relocate to the back of the building that is now 21c Museum Hotel, which was then Publishers Printing. The owner, Michael Simon, told Tossmann he’d always wanted a theater in the strange, garage-like space. So he and the company renovated the space into a 99-seat theater where they stayed for 13 years until 21c took over the building.
This led Bunbury to a very successful capital campaign and its new and current home in the Henry Clay Building. Bunbury mounted its first show there in 2008 and then the “bottom dropped out of the economy,” Tossmann says.
At one point, there had been plans for the Henry Clay that included retail and hotel rooms and “24-hour-a-day traffic,” Tossmann explains. “But the plans for the Henry Clay never manifested” because of the recession.
By 2012, Bunbury could no longer afford its long-term lease. Instead of folding or moving, the company began to share the space with Pandora Productions. Both companies have a five-show season. When they’re not in production or rehearsal, the two companies rent the space out to other arts organizations.
Bunbury was founded in 1985 by Caren Browning and Elizabeth Spicer as another professional theater company that was contracted with Actor’s Equity. When Tossmann took over, he decided to hire from the community. The technology people are all professionals in their field, but the actors usually have day jobs now.
His mission for Bunbury Theatre is “creating enriching and diverse theatrical and cultural experiences for the community and its artists in a professional setting.”
“Passion” drives Tossmann’s selection of plays for the season. That and they must meet the mission and the audiences’ desires. He says the average age of a Bunbury subscriber is around 55 years old.
The company’s most-produced show is a Christmas comedy called (hold on to your seats) “The Butterfingers Angel, Mary & Joseph, Herod the Nut, & the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree,” by William Gibson. Bunbury has mounted that show yearly for 13 years in a row. This season, the company is remounting a horse racing-themed play Tossmann wrote called “I Bet on the Nag!,” which he hopes will become a Derbytime tradition.
Tossman was born in Germany but raised in Ohio. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater from Audubon University in Westerville, Ohio. He was an apprentice at Actors Theatre from 1977-78. He did the dinner theater circuit in Ohio, then headed to California. It quickly became apparent that the Midwestern guy just didn’t fit in on the West Coast, but it is where he met his wife.
When he returned to Louisville, he worked for Stage One, Derby Dinner Playhouse and Kentucky Shakespeare. He also formed his own improv comedy troupe called Kudzo, with which he toured the region. Then it was on to Bunbury.
Back when he started at Bunbury, Tossmann says, there were maybe a dozen other theater companies in town. Now there are new theater companies popping up all the time. This means the pools of money and talent have to spread out more. “It becomes more challenging all the time,” he says.
Too many nonprofits are vying for too few local dollars, Tossmann says. “Local funding is drying up.”
Tossmann admires many of the theater groups in the city, including Pandora, and the “good work going on at The Bard’s Town.”
On Saturday, Sept. 10, from 6-9 p.m., Tossmann and Bunbury Theatre Company will celebrate 30 years of theatrical excellence at the American Legion Hall on Shelbyville Road. There will be a live band, dinner, dancing, raffles and more. Tickets are $50 each.
The company’s 30th season opens with “On Golden Pond,” which begins Oct. 7. The rest of the season includes David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries,” “Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee, “I Bet on the Nag!” and “Stages of Bloom.” For more information on the season or the company, visit their webpage.