Since she trod the boards at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kathy Bates has become a busy and generously honored actress, with an Oscar, an Emmy, and Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards to her credit and many, many more nominations.
But KET producer and director Tom Thurman had no trouble getting Bates to recall her days as a Louisville stage actress before people were quoting, "I'm your biggest fan," the signature line from her Oscar-winning turn in Misery.
"Kathy Bates was exactly what you expect her to be. She was smart and funny and down to earth and unpretentious and articulate," Thurman says of the actress, whom he interviewed when she was in New Orleans shooting FX's American Horror Story. "When she tells you a story, you listen."
And Thurman says Bates' memories of Actors Theatre were very clear, as were those of the many other ATL alums he talked to, including Mary McDonnell. Timothy Busfield and Michael Shannon.
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"When you're young and nobody knows who you are, and someone gives you an opportunity to do great work and have terrific facilities and get the support you need as a young artist, people end up appreciating that and remember that the rest of their lives," Thurman says. "So many of their memories remain so vivid and positive, and that's very helpful to me telling the story."
The story Thurman tells in Kentucky Muse: Actors Theatre of Louisville, which premieres Monday night on KET, takes viewers back to the days before the Oscar-winning actors and Pulitzer Prize-winning premieres that now make up the theater's storied history.
"They came onto the scene so modestly and so very quickly achieved such a high level of quality," Thurman says. "They started out very modestly on a second floor on Fourth Street, where they had peach baskets for lights and you had to climb up these stairs to get to the theater, then they moved to an old train station on Seventh Street before the interstate ramp came in and took that building out. Then in '72, they were able to move into that beautiful old bank building. So in the world of business and theater, that's a pretty short time."
Now, Actors Theatre occupies the corner of Third and Main streets in downtown Louisville, with three theaters, a restaurant, administrative offices and a parking garage. In addition to being a nationally renowned Equity theater company for Louisville, it had put the city on the theatrical map with the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which attracts writers, producers, directors, actors and critics from around the world each spring and sets the tone for contemporary playwrighting in America.
Thurman says one man is indispensable in the Actors Theatre story: former producing director Jon Jory.
"The team he formed there with Alexander "Sandy" Speer and Trish Pugh Jones was really at the heart of the operation for many years," Thurman said. "They were really adept at securing community support from prominent people in the Brown and Bingham families, but when they brought on the Humana Corp., things really took off."
Today, ATL is known for launching plays including Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and nurturing writers like Marsha Norman, and for helping launch the careers of famous and revered actors.
Thurman expects that the KET film will have national distribution, like Kentucky Muse programs about actor Harry Dean Stanton and dancer Wendy Whelen. He said he hopes the film will help keep Kentuckians from taking ATL for granted.
"You hope that people will see this documentary and that it will allow them to see what a great opportunity we have in this state, and see this level of work right here, and not have to go to New York to see cutting-edge theater," Thurman says. "You hope people will see the documentary and say, 'I need to go see a play at ATL.'"