Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, freelance writer Ben Lovell is a fan of the Louisville theater scene. Here, he introduces us to five gorgeous stages for live theater in Louisville, Ky – and shares why you’ll want to book a performance at one of them!
Do you love live theater? I do!
From my first performance acting as Anna’s son in The King and I, I’ve been intrigued by the dynamic mystique of it all. And although my personal acting 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 premier 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.
Indeed, there are some fabulous places for live theater in Louisville, Ky. And one of the top things to do in Louisville is to take in a live performance.
No city in Kentucky packs in more drama (of the good kind) than Louisville!
5 Best stages for live theater in Louisville, Ky
Let me steer you through five of the best venues for live theater in Louisville – ones that caught my eye during my time in this river city.
1) The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
One of the best places in Louisville for live shows is the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
Louisville’s most high-profile venue, it’s the home of prominent theatrical tenants like the Louisville Orchestra, the Louisville Ballet (the official state ballet of Kentucky), the Kentucky Opera 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 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 Hall – 2,377 seats (multi-purpose concert venue with box seating and rows)
- Bomhard Theater – 619 seats (steeply-raised rows for a clear view of the stage from any seat)
- MeX Theater – 139 seats (a plain “black box” with a stage and seats)
Shows range widely in genre, scope and price.
You can find everything from traditional performances (e.g., Beethoven’s Ninth Sympathy by the Louisville Orchestra), experiential collaborations (e.g., Louisville’s Hip Hopera), musicals (e.g., Cats), light-hearted whimsical concerts (e.g., Disney in Concert by the Louisville Orchestra) and family-oriented opera (e.g., Robin Hood by the Youth Opera).
But rest assured, whatever you take in at this theater in Louisville will be excellent.
2) Actors Theatre of Louisville
Formed in 1964 when two existing theater companies joined forces, the Actors Theatre of Louisville is another nationally-recognized venue. It’s another of the top theaters in Louisville.
But while the Kentucky Center accommodates a variety of performances, the Louisville Actors Theater 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 chaperoned students on an arts and rewards field trip to see Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the 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 this Louisville playhouse, including 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 W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
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.
Experiences here are as much about the ambience 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 Kentucky 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.
Performers range from stoner metal band Sleep, country music singer Carly Pearce and the Mavericks to stand-up comedian Chris D’Elia.
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.
Along with producing traveling plays and collaborating with theater education, they offer a series of Shakespeare plays in Louisville’s Central Park. They’re commonly referred to as simply “Shakespeare in Central Park.”
The company runs multiple plays each summer – including comedies, tragedies and history shows. 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.”
Now, here’s the really good news.
Performances by the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival are free for everyone. They’re family-friendly, and you can bring your pet.
The company relies on sponsorship and audience donations (collected by in-character thespians during intermission) to continue its 75-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” (including Much Ado About Nothing), and I can attest that the actors 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!
Louisville theater and shows: 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.
“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
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 them when you visit!
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