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The Vault: Actors Theater goes from hometown staple to worldwide attention

WHAS11’s The Vault travels back to 1980 to one part of this production’s storied history – it’s international tour.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Actors Theater was founded in 1964 and later designated as the State Theater of Kentucky in 1974.

The local gem started as a modest downtown Louisville acting space but has since transformed into one of America’s top theater companies – even gaining worldwide attention for the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

WHAS11’s The Vault travels back to 1980 to one part of this production’s storied history – it’s international tour.

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The play was called Getting Out, written by former Courier Journal reporter Marsha Norman. The production premiered at the Humana Festival in 1979 and was so well received, they took it on tour and to three international cities a year later.

"For me, who always said I was just a storyteller, to come into the land of the great storytellers and be accepted is a thrill that I really can't even describe to you," Norman said.

Former WHAS11 News anchor Jim Mitchell joined the Actors crew on their journey, landing in Dublin, Ireland and watching the set come to life.

"This ornate, old theater is the Olympia. It's the oldest in Dublin and one of the hosts of the Dublin festival. This week it is home to Actors Theater of Louisville," he said.

The set for the production was a critical part of the show as the main character moved back and forth in time from her imprisonment in Alabama to her try for a new start in Louisville.

Both the jail and apartment had to be on stage at the same time.

"And the entire set has to be built piece by piece every time the Actors Theater moves to a new stage," Mitchell said.

The man for that job was Kentucky master carpenter George Kimmel, who traveled with the show to lead the behind the scenes set build. He said there were challenges, including the obvious, language barriers.

"We've had different crews in every place we've been. In Yugoslavia it was difficult because of the language problem. Whenever someone was doing something wrong I had to go grab an interpreter and go over and explain to them he was doing something wrong," he said.

The actors started the Irish leg of the tour with a press conference, greeting Dublin theater critics – a crew well aware of Actors Theater—and Louisville.

"They've heard of our city, they know Actor's Theater breaks new ground. The country's most respected critic called Getting Out the most vivid piece of American Drama in years."

They said audience reaction was warm, with the exception of Louisville crowds generally liking it.

A tour stop in Israel was next. Mitchell and the WHAS11 crew stumbled upon a wedding while visiting small towns near the theater.

"We also sampled Israeli food – staples like steak and French fries for the homesick. But also, Cholent, a traditional sabbath dish of beans, meat and sausage. It’s terrific by the way," he described.

Mitchell was there for the first night of the show in Tel Aviv where locals watched a piece of Kentucky literature.

"For some Israelis, an American play is like coming home. They've moved here from the states. They too have followed the progress of the actor's theater tour," he said.

Three countries with the play receiving positive reaction. For the theater, it was only the beginning of worldwide fame.

Playwright Marsha Norman would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her show "Night, Mother" in 1983.

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