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    Robert Barry Fleming became artistic director of Actors Theatre in June, but he’s no stranger to Kentucky. The director and actor has worked on television programs and award-winning theater (most recently in Cleveland) since he left Frankfort as a teenager, but he’s glad to be back home.

    How it does feel to return to Kentucky? “When I left Kentucky when I was 17 back in 1981, if you had told me I would be happy to be back in Kentucky, I would have been like, ‘You are on something.’ But the reality is, it has been so powerful to come back home, and I think it’s like reclaiming a part of your fundamental self after venturing out into the world and discovering so many other parts of yourself.”

    What were your expectations of Louisville as a place to make creative work? “Actors Theatre is such a prestigious organization; you can go across the pond to Europe and have people recognize Actors Theatre of Louisville. So there was no secret about the quality of the art that was being made here. That was kind of the given. I think what was unexpected was to have a Kentuckian lead that conversation.
       “It’s been really heartening to think about the work being centered in a  Kentuckiana, Commonwealth worldview. Kentucky holds a really interesting place in the nation’s narrative — the Civil War being one of our central conflicts that defined the nation. And I think that is reflected in the kind of complex racial dynamics, the complex gender dynamics, the complexity of what it means to be a Kentuckian, and in terms of the urban-rural kind of narrative. These are all quintessential Kentucky, but they’re the quintessential America. The idea of being able to create art in a place that speaks so centrally to the concerns of the country is a tremendous privilege.”

    It sounds like the thing that surprises you most about working in Louisville is that you are the one doing this, not that Louisville has great things to offer. “Absolutely. Just a little anecdotal story: My father died in 2011, and I came back to Frankfort for the first time in many decades. My mother said, ‘Well, why don’t we just stay in Frankfort?’ And I literally said to my mother, ‘Mom, there is one game in town in the state of Kentucky. It’s Actors Theatre of Louisville; I don’t know anybody there and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I’m going to get a job there, so we have to leave.’ It’s the best way to eat your words.”

    What are your plans for Actors Theatre? “I’ve often said I just want us to be a whole lot more fun and have a whole lot more social impact. And that’s kind of a cheeky way of saying our mission. We’re really talking about unlocking human potential, building community and enriching the (lives) of people through the work that we do.”

    How do you balance your creative vision with the need to put on some of these more traditional staples? “A show like Dracula or A Christmas Carol, it’s easy to refer to them as just pop staples, but popular shows have a very valuable place. If I can make you laugh, if I can scare the bejesus out of you, if I can delight you — there’s an opportunity to process difficult, challenging things in a non-threatening way.”

    I’ve heard Louisville referred to as a “stepping-stone city.” What do you think about that, and what do you think could be done to convince great artists to stay here or to attract new creative people to come in? “America’s always had certain narratives, and many of them deeply distorted. They talk about many of the middle states in America as ‘flyover states.’ I’ve been to Paris; I’ve worked in France and Germany. I’ve gotten the pleasure of working on both coasts in all kinds of industries, from film (to) television, radio and the theater. I can’t think of any place in the world (where) more meaningful impact, more illumination, more transformation and liberation could possibly happen through arts and culture work than where I am right now. One has arrived when they’re here. Whether one recognizes that is not as much my concern.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine. Read 2019 from A to Z.

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    Photo by Andew Cenci,

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