Ben Park and Melinda Beck in "Camerado" | Photo by Eli Keel
Ben Park and Melinda Beck in “Camerado” | Photo by Eli Keel

Last week, Walden Theatre Alumni Co. invited Insider Louisville to watch a rehearsal of their latest production, “Camerado, I Give You My Hand,” which premieres Friday at Walden Theatre.

Three actors face an audience of one. The stage is nearly dark, a single light shines from above, and each of the three captures his own face in a personal pool of light created by the lanterns they hold aloft in front of them.

They speak, and lines from celebrated poet Walt Whitman’s seminal “Leaves of Grass” hang in the air. Then, Ben Park, Melinda Beck and Gracie Taylor break the tableau and dive back into the work it takes to create such arresting theater. At the moment, the question is how to safely get Beck upstage in the dark.

“Camerado” is devised theater — a play created by actors and directors during the rehearsal period. Many companies that create devised work begin with some starting point — sometimes it’s a theme, and sometimes it’s a historical event or work of art.

Based on the work of Whitman, every line in “Camerado” is pulled from one of his poems.

Camerado poster“It’s not about Whitman, it’s about pairing old opinions and old feelings that are still really relevant to what’s happening today,” explains Beck, who originated the idea of devising a work based on Whitman. The play tackles themes of war, racism, patriotism and love of nature.

It’s challenging, experimental work that includes scenes, monologues, spoken word, moment, and shadow puppetry. It’s the kind of theater young artists might not be able to produce without a little help.

That’s sort of the whole point of the alumni company, an offshoot of Walden Theatre.

Walden Theatre is a children’s theater conservatory. They teach kids to act, and they put the kids in shows. Judging form their alumni in Hollywood and New York, which includes the likes of Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Carpenter of “Dexter,” Jess Weixler of “The Good Wife” and a host of successful stage actors, they are doing something right.

Walden Theatre often distinguishes itself by allowing students, especially high schoolers, to take on challenging and uncomfortable works — far from the milquetoast safety one usually encounters in plays for high schoolers.

The Walden Theatre Alumni Co. has existed in one form or another nearly as long as there has been Walden alumni.

“It started as like a summer stock thing,” says Park. “You come back for the summer, and you were able to do whatever shows you wanted to do that you wouldn’t normally be able to do in New York or Chicago at your age.”

A young professional actor in a big city like New York or Chicago would probably spend several years paying dues before they were able to take on challenging creative work, unless they mounted costly self-produced shows.

“I could go to Chicago, I could do this (Harold) Pinter show, but I’d have to spend $1,000 of my own money,” says Park. “Or I could come here. It’s a free space. It makes it more possible to do the work we want to do.”

By helping its alumni produce challenging work, Walden can help them continue to grow as artists. Walden also has frequently supported its alumni in the form of employment.

“There is a long tradition of Walden alums coming back after university training to work for us,” says artistic director Charlie Sexton. “It’s so exciting and gratifying to see them pass along our traditions to a new generation of actors and theater artists.”

Walden managing director Alison Huff tells Insider that opportunity and resources have been available “whenever a group got motivated enough to put something together.”

Park is one such alumnus. When he moved home from Chicago, he started volunteering his time and producing work with the alumni company. His involvement coincided with a growth period for Walden that included a merger with Blue Apple Players.

Shadow puppets are used to invoke Whitman imagery. | Photo by Eli Keel
Shadow puppets are used to invoke Whitman imagery. | Photo by Eli Keel

“Charlie (Sexton) had long wanted a more formal alumni company to perform their own things, but also to create and perform touring shows,” says Huff. “After graduation, Ben came home with a lot of ideas and initiative — conversations with him became the catalyst for formalizing the program.”

Park hopes the alumni company continues to grow and lures more alumni back onto the stage. The company also features actors from the Louisville area who aren’t alumni, such as “Camerado” cast member Taylor.

Park, Beck and Taylor performed a few scaled-down sections of “Camerado” at Locust Grove last week.

“I think one of the best things we heard the other night was a guy who said, ‘Oh, this is why people like Walt Whitman,” says Park.

Find out if you like Whitman, or deepen your love of the American poet with “Camerado, I Give You My Hand,” running Aug. 14-16 at Walden Theatre, 1123 Payne St. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are pay what you can.

Eli Keel

Eli Keel

Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.