The Bard’s Town, the unique restaurant-meets-theater in the Highlands, will embark on its 10th year in business on July 23. But it may very well be the last.
Founder Doug Schutte, who deems the business a passion project, said he is simply tired, no matter how much he loves the space he created and nurtured for so long.
He’s looked at moving the concept to other spaces and will continue to do so, but he hasn’t found anything appropriate. The layout, with a stage upstairs and a restaurant downstairs, in the century-old building at 1801 Bardstown Road makes for an ideal design, one that would be difficult to replicate.
But Schutte points out that The Bard’s Town is actually two buildings that have been melded together. As such, the space generates four LG&E bills each month due to separate systems. The combined bills last month alone totaled $2,300.
“It’s not going to get more efficient,” he half-jokes in talking about the possibility of finally opting out of his year-to-year lease arrangement.
A lot has happened over the past few years to bring Schutte to this point.
Late last year, he decided to hire additional staff so he could take more time to spend with family. But he ended up firing two full-time kitchen staffers and finds himself back in the kitchen full time, working 75-hour weeks.
Being the resident chef was never in his plans, but necessity has dictated he fill that role.
He looks back on the five-year anniversary, on July 23, 2015, a Saturday get-together at The Bard’s Town to celebrate. The business was thriving.
“It was a really proud moment,” he says.
But on the following Tuesday, his younger brother fell into a coma, diagnosed with blood cancer, a disease he didn’t know he had. He died six days later.
Schutte’s sister-in-law was pregnant with twins, children who would never know their father. The family was understandably devastated, but Schutte was so busy with the restaurant and theater, he couldn’t help as much as he wanted to.
“I needed to duck out for a bit,” he says, “but that wasn’t possible.”
He originally had a pair of partners in the business, but they both left, one just before the five-year mark, the other a year after. Worrying about his family and worrying about keeping the business going was taking its toll.
“I was at a point where, ‘I’m not the same me,’” he says, describing the amount of time he’s spent on The Bard’s Town as being “one long day.”
Not long after his brother died, Schutte lost an aunt with whom he was very close. And then last year he lost a close friend to the same blood disease that took his younger brother. On top of that, one night he was upstairs in the theater and heard a crash.
“It sounded like someone crashed a car into the building,” he says. But he came downstairs to find that the ventilation system had collapsed from the ceiling. It was in the wee hours of the morning on the Fourth of July before a busy weekend.
“There were times I thought, ‘I’m going to pack a bag,’ ” he says. Costa Rica was going to be his destination of choice, on a one-way ticket. He never left, however, and The Bard’s Town carried on, staging regular shows, original plays, music events and basically being a cultural center for the theater community, providing an outlet for creativity unlike any other such venue in Louisville.
“This place is able to stay open and do well because of the amount of work I’m OK with doing,” Schutte says, an earnestness in his voice that sounds almost like he’s saying it aloud for the first time.
He loves the theater, loves The Bard’s Town, and that’s why he does the work. His theater business is literally a dream come true for Schutte. But upkeep on the building continues to be prohibitive, and the long hours are taking their toll on not just his will, but his finances. He estimates he has subsidized the business to the tune of about $500,000 over the past few years.
Meanwhile, the twins, named Kate and Luke, are now 3-and-a-half, and along with their older sister and brother Claire and Ryan, they live about 30 minutes away by car. Whenever possible, Schutte sees his nieces and nephews, tries to lift some weight from his sister-in-law as a single parent, but he worries it isn’t enough.
“I feel guilty all the time that I’m not able to make more time for them,” Schutte says. He wants to help more — to spend more time being Uncle Doug.
So, at age 43, he’s now seeing a light at the end of a long, difficult tunnel — and this time, it’s not an oncoming train.
Last Christmas season, he performed a one-man version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the theater. He said it was therapeutic to get back on the stage and do what he loves.
And as year 10 begins, Schutte finally sees an ending. He says he probably won’t close the place right at 10 years; he’ll try to keep the business open through Christmas 2020 to stage one final performance of the original play, “The Kings of Christmas,” which has become a Bard’s Town tradition.
“I would miss it,” he says about the prospect of shutting down The Bard’s Town. “But I feel like there would be a sense of, ‘There was a purpose here, and it was successful.’ But it’s time.”