Role-ing on the River: Actors Theatre
of Louisville and the Southern Woman
Elizabeth S. Bell
Scarcely a stone's throw from the Ohio River, Actors Theatre of Louisville serves as an anchor for the historic downtown of Kentucky's largest city. Founded in 1778 by George Rogers Clark as a military stronghold and portage point on the major water route connecting Philadelphia and New Orleans, Louisville was once upon a time as famous for its open red-light district as it was for its accommodation of river trade and services. By the 1800s, Louisville was also famous for its hospitality to thespians and theater companies, including the illustrious Booth and Barrymore families.1 While its days as a rowdy river town for the unsavory elements of society have largely ended, Louisville still maintains its theatrical heritage, serving as home to one of the most active and prosperous regional theaters in the country. Indeed, Actors Theatre's reputation for excellence and innovation spreads far beyond the banks of the Mighty Ohio River to garner international appreciation of its repertoire. In the thirty years of its existence, it has also earned a reputation as a congenial forum for women playwrights.
Actors Theatre's reputation for encouraging women playwrights arises from several sources. Playing crucial roles in this endeavor, a strong financial foundation and loyal community support provide the theater with both the means and the opportunity to be innovative, particularly in producing plays by relatively unknown women playwrights. In addition, ATL's management decisions and artistic risk-taking attract playwrights whose perspectives have been underrepresented on the American stage. In a field dominated by men until the latter quarter of the twentieth century, this combination has been particularly important to women writers. New York Times critic Mel Gussow, writing for American Theatre in 1996, makes the point that over the years, ATL has excelled in producing plays by women writers, including, specifically, Southerners Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, and the pseudonymous “Jane Martin,” who