Guest contributor Ben Lovell is a freelance writer who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and loves the Louisville theater scene. Here, he dishes the scoop on five gorgeous Louisville theaters – and why you’ll want to book a performance (or two)!
“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity.” – P.S. Baber
I love live theater.
From my first performance as Anna’s son in The King and I, I’ve been intrigued by the dynamic mystique of it all. Although my personal resume extends no further than college musicals and community productions, I’ve been privileged to witness some of the nation’s finest performers over the years. Most people associate premiere theater with cities like New York and Chicago (and they aren’t wrong). But the Bluegrass State of my youth is home to some world-class stage productions too.
And no city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky packs in more drama (of the good kind) than Louisville!
Louisville theater in 5 stages
Let me steer you through five of the stages that caught my eye during my time in this river city.
1) The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
Louisville’s most high-profile venue, The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is the home of prominent theatrical tenants like the Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Ballet and Broadway Across America.
The Kentucky Center’s 1983 dedication was an international event – attended by such notable thespians as Charlton Heston and Lily Tomlin. The next year, then-President Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale duked it out in a nationally televised debate on the stage of the Kentucky Center.
My first experience with The Kentucky Center was from the stage.
As a member of Kentucky’s All-State High School choir, I donned my school-issued tuxedo and tried not to gaze past the mercifully blinding spotlights into the 2,406-seat auditorium. Years later, I returned to see such grand spectacles of talent and precision as the Louisville Orchestra’s interpretation of War & Peace and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The Kentucky Center has three event halls: Whitney, with 2,400 seats; Bomhard, with 619 seats; and Martin, with 139 seats. Shows range widely in genre, scope and price.
Upcoming events include traditional performances (Beethoven’s Ninth Sympathy by the Louisville Orchestra), experiential collaborations (Louisville’s Hip Hopera) and the comic Book of Mormon. But rest assured, whatever you see at this center will be excellent.
2) Actors Theatre of Louisville
Formed in 1964 when two existing theater companies joined forces, Actors Theatre of Louisville is another nationally-recognized venue. But while the Kentucky Center accommodates a variety of performances, Actors Theatre of Louisville stages almost exclusively plays.
It’s a voracious production house, booking over 400 productions and 150,000 seats annually. It has published over 450 plays (including five Pulitzer Prize winners) and received a Tony award for Distinguished Achievement. As a full-fledged theatrical company, it has both touring and training branches.
My father is a Middle School teacher who recently chaperoned students on an arts and rewards field trip to see Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Actors Theatre.
“The kids were blown away by the presentation, particularly the special effects,” he told me afterward. “The Ghost of Christmas Future was a massive puppet that dwarfed the actors. Most of these kids had never seen a play, and this was so much more than they expected.”
I’ve seen several shows at Actors Theatre, most recently Seven Guitars from acclaimed playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Like all of the theater’s productions, this one lured nationally-recognized talent and spared no expense on wardrobe, effects and scenery.
For true theater aficionados, the Actors Theatre is the place to see plays in Louisville.
3) The Brown Theatre on Broadway
An enduring testament to the glory days of Louisville’s theater district, the Brown Theatre on Broadway dates back to 1925.
But like the great Radio City Music Hall and other contemporaries, the gaudy glory of the Brown Theatre was quickly tarnished by The Great Depression. It spent nearly three decades as a movie theater. Then a series of purchases and partial renovations that spanned half a century followed.
The final restoration was completed in 1998, and the theater is now managed by the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
Attached to the equally historic Brown Hotel & Restaurant (home of Kentucky’s famous “Hot Brown”), the Brown Theatre on Broadway today is a gorgeous building and fascinating piece of history. Experiences here are as much about the ambiance as they are about the performers. The schedule is lighter than the other venues on our list and includes as much music and comedy as theater.
When I was last at the Brown, it was to see blues guitar prodigy Jonny Lang.
The intimacy of the vintage theater made an incredible backdrop for this legendary performer. Actually, considering the Brown Theatre only has 1,400 seats, there’s really no bad place to watch a rock show.
Upcoming performances range from stoner metal band Sleep to stand-up comedian Chris D’Elia to Verdi’s Rigoletto opera.
4) The Louisville Palace
I used to manage a restaurant across the street from the Louisville Palace – where many Louisville concerts are held. While it’s almost exclusively a concert venue, its architectural and historical significance convinced me that it needed a spot on this top five list of Louisville stages.
Founded in 1928 and less than a block from the Brown Theatre, the Louisville Palace also lost its sheen for many decades after the Depression. But even more so than the Brown, the Palace is famous for both its interior and exterior extravagance.
You’re likely to do a quick double-take when you first see it on Louisville’s South 4th Street – its opulence stands in such stark contrast to its drab in-line neighbors.
And its combination of Spanish Baroque architecture (complete with turrets, balconies and arcades) and a functional marquee reminiscent of the Chicago Theatre is both impressive and a little off-putting.
Once inside, the Louisville Palace rachets the decadence up a notch.
From the flooring (marble and ornate plush carpet) to the 139 sculpted busts of historic figures to the faux-night sky in the auditorium, the Palace stimulates the senses and imagination of all theater-goers.
I’ve seen everything from the Tedeschi-Trucks Band to a screening of Ghostbusters at the Louisville Palace – and it’s pretty much impossible to have a bad experience here.
5) Shakespeare in Central Park
Founded in 1949, the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is a non-profit thespian group operating out of Louisville, Kentucky. Along with producing traveling plays and collaborating with theater education, they offer a series of Shakespeare plays at the Ramsey Theatre in Louisville’s Central Park. They’re commonly referred to simply as “Shakespeare in Central Park.”
The company runs multiple plays each summer – including several weekends each of a comedy, a tragedy and a history. They also work with partner programs as well as their high school troupe, the Globe Players.
During the colder months, the Kentucky Shakespeare Company operates a small-cast program called “Shakespeare in the Libraries,” currently offering a two-actor Taming of the Shrew.
Now, here’s the really good news.
Performances by the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival are free to all patrons, and they’re family-friendly, including pets.
The company relies on sponsorship and audience donations (collected by in-character thespians during intermission) to continue its 70-year legacy of producing and promoting the “Bard of Avon.”
But don’t let the fact that you don’t have to pay deceive you into thinking these are amateur actors with no funding. I’ve been to performances of “Shakespeare in Central Park” (most recently Much Ado About Nothing), and I can attest that they are passionate professionals, empowered by some serious costumes and sets.
On a Kentucky summer night, with the sun setting through the trees behind the audience, there’s truly no finer way to experience Shakespeare!
Stay for the curtain call
One of the beauties of live theater is that every performance is unique. The myriad actors, set designers, lighting operators, wardrobe masters, musicians and venues add delightful variables to every static script. These five stages and theaters in Louisville each bring something different to Louisville’s dramatic and artistic geography.
I hope you enjoy a performance at one of these when you visit!
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A passionate envoy of the written word, Ben Lovell is a freelance writer who relishes a good tale. From fact to fiction (and all the shades between), he channels the storytellers of old with the hope of enriching the world for his readers. Follow his semi-occasional musings at the Gothic Optimist.