“We’re probably the country’s only practical training program,” boasts Michael Legg, the director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Apprentice Company for the past six years. This troupe of young actors helps keep the Humana Festival—and, indeed, the year-round Actors Theatre of Louisville season—running smoothly.
Apprentice Company members are chosen through a rigorous audition process, and are contracted to be at ATL for the full fall-to-spring theater season. They understudy roles (especially in the ATL main season stalwarts Dracula and A Christmas Carol), run crew, do the “turn off the cell phones” speeches before shows, engage in workshops with established companies such as the New York-based The Mad Ones, and get lots of other real-world experience in being part of a contemporary American theater institution. They also have shows written expressly for them to perform, often by some of the hottest emerging playwrights in regional theater. Amy Herzog and Laura Jacqmin are among the writers who once concocted apprentice shows. “We are a gateway for playwrights into the festival,” Legg says.
The culmination of the apprentices’ year at ATL may be the show they all perform as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. But they’re also key players in the festival’s Ten-Minute Plays series as well, and they’ve had earlier opportunities to act in solo and ensemble works during the regular season. Following Humana, they’re given a special showcase where they can audition for agents and other theater professionals.
These positions are hard-won but unpaid. Some ATL grant money covers housing costs. There are opportunities to get further stipends, based on financial need. On the plus side, being in the program allows the apprentices to defer their student loans. Michael Legg considers these pecuniary aspects of the apprenticeship to be one more way that the program “teaches life skills. You have to learn how to budget. When they’re accepted into the program, I tell them not to take a summer stock job and save up some money instead.”
The actors may have to subsist on very little while in Louisville, but Legg claims that once they’ve gone through the apprenticeship, “this theater is big on hiring back,” hiring alumni for acting jobs both at Humana and in the main season. The statistics are impressive: 18 out of the 22 apprentices in the 2012 program “booked their first gigs within months of being at Humana,” Legg says. “At least 12 of them have signed with agents. Eight have already joined Equity.”
Legg spent “a weird three years in New York as a casting agent, so I know a lot of people in the business. People call me all the time, asking if I can recommend someone for a role. I tell [apprentices] that I’m their agent until I get an agent.”
The apprentice show in this year’s Humana Festival is Sleep Rock Thy Brain. Like many previous apprentice vehicles, it takes a general theme (in this case sleep, or the lack thereof) and uses a multi-part format to make sure everyone in the large company gets something to do.
Sleep Rock Thy Brain’s authors are: Rinne Groff, whose Anne Frank-related drama Compulsion was produced at the Public Theater and Yale Rep starring Mandy Patinkin; the much-produced and much-anthologized Anne Washburn (Mr. Burns, A Devil at Noon, The Communist Dracula Pageant) and Lucas Hnath (whose hospital thriller Death Tax was part of last year’s Humana Festival). The apprentices received high-quality attention on the technical side as well—the show requires many members of the troupe to “fly,” held aloft with cables and harnesses.
A complex work both textually and visually, Sleep Rock Thy Brain is the only Humana show this year not being staged in the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s own three-theater complex on West Main Street. Instead, audience members are bused to the Lincoln Performing Arts School, where the show’s two-story set and flying-track assemblage can be accommodated.
More than 2,000 actors audition each year to become one of the 20 or so ATL apprentices. Legg sees every one of those auditions, which are held in New York and Chicago besides Louisville, as well as at the American College Theatre Festival.
Legg says he follows simple guidelines regarding whom he selects.
- Does the candidate want to act as a profession?
- Have they completed a four-year degree program? (“I don’t want to feel responsible,” Legg says, for anyone dropping out of school.)
- Is this the right time?
“What I’m really thinking,” Legg says, is: ‘I need nice people.’ They should be nice. They should be collaborative.”