The ongoing growth of the newly rechristened Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC) — formerly Walden Theatre and Blue Apple Players — is one of the most interesting stories in Louisville theater right now. As the center grows, they are able to take more artistic chances, in their student productions, their productions for students, and what I find most interesting, the productions by their faculty and alumni.
Louisville audiences can see the alumni company taking on two challenging plays in rep this week as they present Annie Baker’s “The Aliens” and Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth.”
Ben Park, CTC artistic associate and one of the current driving forces of the alumni company, spoke with Insider Louisville in advance of the company’s two openings. He’s directing “Cowboy Mouth” and acting in “The Aliens.” He was joined by guest director and recent alumnus of the program Maggie Rogers.
Park sees the alumni company as a natural extension of the work that CTC does with students, pointing out that the graduates are just beginning their lives as artists. “We have kids from 5 to 18. That’s an enormous amount of time … but we have no idea what’s going on with our lives by the time we leave here. I mean, I was as lost as anybody was when I was 17, 18.”
Park also points out that finding an artistic voice can be difficult in bigger cities, where younger artists might not be given much artistic agency. They aren’t always choosing their projects, their roles, or their parts. Park keeps in touch with these alumni and welcomes them home with the opportunity to do challenging work. “I try to put out feelers to alumni, specifically alumni who have had a little bit more intense training and some experience,” said Park, “and I put out those feelers a year in advance.”
One such artist is Maggie Rogers. Since she left CTC she graduated from Columbia College of Chicago as valedictorian, before working in Chicago for a year and then accepting a prestigious internship at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
She sees a similarity between Seattle’s scene and Louisville’s. Think of Seattle Repertory Theatre as a West Coast analogue to Actors Theatre of Louisville. “In Chicago, you can make a career there. In Seattle (and) Louisville, it’s hard to sustain a career just doing art.” But Rogers says that’s a reason to come back to Louisville: “That’s why it’s exciting to do work here; there’s a need for new creative work.”
Rogers is passionate about young playwrights, and in her Seattle internship she looked at scripts from all over, many of which she sent to Park to read. “I think it’s time we bring living playwrights here. Shakespeare’s great, and we have a great history with him, but let’s bring Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning badass lady.”
“The Aliens” is a story of two 20-somethings and a teen, none of whom feel they fit in, who slowly form a bond of friendship.
To add another layer, “The Aliens” is being set as a piece of site specific theater. The action of the play happens in the outdoor break area of a small coffee shop. To recreate that environment, Rogers is setting the play outside of CTC, in the alley behind the building. Rogers admits it’s a departure for her artistically. “It’s something I’ve never done before.” While the artistic challenge is exciting, the outside-the-blackbox thinking came from the source of many inspirations: low cash flow.
“When I got here, I was like, ‘we don’t have a budget, we don’t have money for a set,’ (but) this play all happens in an outdoor space, and I was like, ‘we have the perfect venue for it, outside.’”
The alumni shows generally are produced with little or no budget, making the work similar to self-produced shows. Park says the wave of self-producing young artists is responsible for a nationwide theatrical renaissance. “The trend is self-producing, and it’s not just Chicago or New York. That’s why places like Louisville, Atlanta, Minneapolis, they’re blowing up, people have decided, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’” Park wants to share that idea with CTC students, so they will be brave enough to make their own work.
The company’s other rep piece, Sam Shepard’s weirdo classic “Cowboy Mouth,” will be set indoors but should be just as interesting. The project was brought to Park by the two actors starring in the production, Chloe Bell and Aaron Roitman.
It’s an older play, from the height of the American love affair with punk rock, and the height of Sam Shepard’s fame as the next great American playwright. Park admits it’s not his favorite play, but points to the fact that returning actors can have artistic agency in the alumni company. “Man, the collaboration, I think that’s kinda the big point.”
Charlie Sexton, artistic director of CTC, spoke with Insider via email. He described the expanding alumni company as part of the larger expansion, which includes performances from the faculty company, and mixed performances in which students, alumni and faculty work together. “The eventual goal is for the professional shows at CTC to be inclusive of the whole community, not just staff and alums, and to give the broader theater community a chance to audition for professional/paying roles.”
With the strength of Walden Theatre and Blue Apples players, who combined to form Commonwealth Theatre Company, it’s not a pipe dream. Here’s hoping that repertory runs of challenging new and newly classic plays will be a regular fixture of the alumni company.
“The Aliens” runs Wednesday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, July 22, 9:15 p.m.; and Saturday, July 23, 9:15 p.m.
Catch “Cowboy Mouth” on Monday, July 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, July 19, at 7:30 p.m.; and Thursday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.
In case of rain, “The Aliens” performances will move indoors. Be advised: “The Aliens” includes sparklers and smoking.