Since the merger of Walden Theatre and Blue Apple Players formed the Commonwealth Theatre Center in 2015, the nonprofit has expanded its programing, upped the visibility of its alumni company and offered classes for adults, creating a Professional Company in Residence.
During that time, CTC also has worked to expand in another direction, across Ninth Street and into the racial divide in Louisville art’s scene.
This week, Walden Theatre, which serves as the conservatory wing of programing post-merger, opens “Welcome to Wandaland” by Ifa Bayeza. The play looks at the end of segregation in education and a younger sister’s efforts to educate herself enough to pass a test to go to a newly integrated school.
The play offers Walden students a chance to perform, but it also offers an opportunity for the company to share the results of some of the outreach work it’s been doing.
Insider sat down with guest director Karen Edwards-Hunter; CTC’s associate artistic director Julane Havens; and the young actor playing the titular Wanda, Demi Handley.
Havens discussed the historic demographics of the students at Walden, sharing facts that it might be more comfortable to avoid.
“They’ve been primarily white, if we’re being honest,” she said.
That demographic was troubling to Havens and to the rest of the staff at CTC. It’s a problem many arts organizations in Louisville face.
While they are willing to admit that a segregation exists in Louisville and is reflected in its arts scene, they often falter on ways to coax people of color and other underserved populations through their doors and into their programs.
For Walden and a few others, part of the answer is to go to those populations, instead of waiting for them to come to you. One way of doing that is to create partnerships with existing organizations and programs.
“We’ve been working with Baron Kelly, who’s the head of the African-American Theatre Program at UofL, working on a partnership with them for the last few years,” said Havens.
That partnership has included stage time for students, co-productions and the expertise of professional African-American artists and scholars. And to reach out to younger students of color, Walden created a partnership with a different group, Louisville Central Community Center (LCCC).
“We’ve been working over the last few years to increase the diversity of our students and our staff, and we’ve partnered with LCCC recently to do some co-classes and co-teaching residencies,” said Havens. “So a few of their students have come over here and are working with us.”
LCCC is located in the Russell Neighborhood, at 13th and Muhammad Ali. It’s right in the center of a push to develop that stretch of Muhammad Ali into a flowering arts district, a push that is funded by public and private money to the tune of millions of dollars. LCCC offers classes in theater and other disciplines and is in the process of building a 300-seat theater that will serve as a performance space for its programs and other artists throughout the city.
In addition to outreach, Walden is backing up its efforts with season scheduling.
“We can’t do a season anymore with all 10 shows written by white guys,” Havens said. “So we’re always looking for those special shows where we can really tell stories that need to be told in our community.”
This year, that story is “Welcome to Wandaland,” a script that came to Havens via UofL’s Byron Kelly. It spoke to Havens, and Walden set out to find a director to bring it to the stage.
The director they found is a veteran of the community — Karen Edwards-Hunter. She’s worked with StageOne, Kentucky Shakespeare and several other groups, as well as founding a company at the Jewish Community Center that focused on the intersection of African-American and Jewish theater.
Edwards-Hunter told Insider the script had a special appeal to her.
“I was drawn to this script because it mirrored, in so many ways, my life,” she said. “I felt like I could have been in Wanda’s position, and a lot of the historical things and cultural things that are mentioned, that’s during my lifetime, my time period, so you know I remember Sputnik, I remember the Civil Rights Act being signed into law.”
For Havens and the other staff members and educators at CTC, “Wandaland” might represent an initiative and even make political statements to adults in the audience, but for a young 13-year-old actor like Demi Handley, the play just offered a great performance opportunity, her first lead in Walden’s mainstage season.
“I really just focus on getting into my character,” said Handley. “It matters what the audience thinks, but for me, usually what helps isn’t even thinking of what the audience is gonna think but really focusing on what I feel about what I’m doing.”
The eighth grader is a student at Western Middle, a performing arts magnet located at 22nd and Main streets in the Portland neighborhood.
The teen already is in love with theater and has been her whole life. She plans to stick with it and has her high school and college picked out already — the Youth Performing Arts High School and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
“Theater is going to be something that goes throughout my entire life,” she says. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
She doesn’t sweat fighting the racial divide or worrying about who’s in office and whether or not they are healing a polarized country. The adults at CTC keep all that off her plate and let her just have the space to chase her dreams for the future, one opportunity at a time.
Isn’t that what us adults are supposed to be doing?
“Welcome to Wandaland” is on stage at Commonwealth Theatre Center, 1123 Payne St., from Nov. 9-18. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with additional matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors.
For adults dreaming of being on stage or just looking for a free ticket to the show and complimentary lunch, there’s an Adult Acting Workshop on the Saturday, Nov. 18, as well as a chance to hear the playwright speak after that day’s matinee.