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Seeking longevity, Louisville theater companies to merge

A group of people on a stage decorated with balloons and "StageOne" signage, in front of a blue background
Breya Jones
Commonwealth Theatre Center and StageOne Family Theatre are combining with the aim of creating a sustainable theater company model.

Commonwealth Theatre Center and StageOne Family Theatre are merging in a move leaders hope will help secure the future of local theater.

Both organizations have faced recent financial challenges, which led them to reevaluate how they could move forward, leaders said Tuesday.

“Nationally, regional theaters are either closing their doors or suspending operations at an alarming rate,” said Andrew Harris, StageOne Family Theatre’s producing artistic director. “Here in Louisville, we have our own challenges. In a post-pandemic environment, funding for the arts has diminished.”

StageOne makes a large amount of its revenue from school groups coming to see shows at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. But Harris said JCPS’ transportation issues have made it difficult to have student matinees.

He said that’s on top of the lack of funding for arts education in school.

“Many of these challenges are outside of our control. They involve complex problems that we can't solve. But there are always choices as arts leaders that we do control,” Harris said.

He said he believes creating and investing in youth involvement in the arts is the key to creating a sustainable theater company in the city’s arts community.

Commonwealth Theatre Center, which includes the Walden Conservatory, launched a campaign to raise $300,000 last May. CTC leaders said they needed to raise the money within a month to ensure they could operate beyond last summer.

Although they raised the funds, CTC artistic director Charlie Sexton said Tuesday the organization was still existing payroll-to-payroll.

“So I'm very excited that all of this is going to be built upon a platform of sustainability,” Sexton said. “And looking for growth into the future with the power these two organizations have coming together.”

The merged organization will retain the name StageOne Family Theatre.

Sexton said even with the name change, the new company will pay homage to CTC, which was a merger of the Walden Theatre and Blue Apple Players.

“I'm happy to report that the conservatory in this building will be renamed the Walden Theater building, as a nod to the legacy of that conservatory program that's existed for 48 years,” Sexton said.

Sexton and Harris said the offerings people associate with each organization will continue to exist in one form or another.

“Our Storytellers Program, our shows at the Kentucky Center, camps and classes, all of those things that you know and love are going to, they're going to be there, and you're not going to have to look very hard to find them,” said Harris.

Harris said StageOne Family Theatre plans to launch a touring show to bring productions to schools, since it’s harder for schools to transport kids to the theater for field trips.

Leaders said the merger is expected to cut $1 million from the organizations’ combined budgets.

“We're able to achieve that by overlap, duplication of needs and services, you don't need two sets of insurance and two payroll processes, two accountants. So there's a good portion of that, that just gets eliminated,” Harris said.

Other cuts include reducing programming costs and staff.

The new StageOne Family Theatre will have 16 full-time employees and some people were transitioned to part-time or contractual roles.

Harris said eight people — full-time and part-time employees — lost their jobs in the merger.

The change goes into effect June 1.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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