Behind the Curtain
StageOne Family Theatre Director Andrew Harris Talks Organizational Impact on Local Youth
Photographer / Bruce Hardin (Blue Harvest Photography)
Andrew Harris has been a fixture at StageOne Family Theatre for nearly two decades, but his start in theater as a teenager isn’t what you might imagine. He wasn’t the kid who, from an early age, dreamed of breaking box office records as a theatrical success.
“I was a kid who found theater by accident,” he says.
Although his mom encouraged him to join the local community theater’s children program in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he grew up, he showed no interest.
“When I was about 14-years-old, some friends of mine got in a play, and they got to miss school to perform,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘I like missing school. I should get involved in this.’”
He went to his first audition completely unprepared, and when he was asked to sing [since it was a musical], he picked “Amazing Grace,” which is a challenging song for even the best vocalists.
“It was horrible. I sounded more like I was strangling a cat than singing notes,” he says.
As he left that audition, without being cast in a part, he was angry, not because he didn’t make it but because he didn’t know what he was doing.
“I couldn’t handle failure. I couldn’t handle the not-knowing,” Harris says.
Determined, he returned to the next audition a little more prepared. He knew that it was not a musical, and he wouldn’t be expected to sing. However, he did not have a monologue prepared. Although a kid handed him an excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” to help, Harris stumbled through it and then stormed out.
Fortunately, he says a man who had seen him at both auditions offered him the opportunity to work on the lights for the show. Harris’s response to him was, “Do I get to miss school?” When the gentleman answered yes, Harris signed up.
He was very prepared for the next audition of “Treasure Island” with his monologue and pirate voice ready, and he was cast as a pirate in the play.
That determination and stamina served Harris well when he became a teenager and developed a summer theater camp for kids with a friend. While he intended to become an actor, he continued teaching because he didn’t want anyone to find theater in the way that he did. His first full-time job after graduating from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga was instructing teachers how to use theater in their classrooms. That focus on education is what brought him to StageOne, where he was originally the education director.
He liked the fact that education has always been the core of what StageOne does, which is different from a theater that also does education.
Most people think of StageOne as the performances it does at Kentucky Performing Arts, but it also has robust in-school programming. Not only do StageOne staff come to the classrooms to instruct students, they meet with teachers individually to collaborate on how to connect theater to what the teacher is actually teaching students, learning what their goals and objectives are.
“We custom-design that programming so it’s not one-size-fits-all,” he says. “Instructional time is incredibly important so it’s important we design programs that enhance their instructional time.”
StageOne also has a wide range of summer camp programming, the goal of which is to help kids develop life skills such as listening to others and collaborating. While some of them may go on to pursue theater professionally, most of them will grow, learn, enjoy theater and be the future generation of audience members.
Through his many years at StageOne, Harris has seen producing artistic directors come and go as well as structural changes for the organization. In 2007, StageOne and the former Music Theater of Louisville combined to form a hybrid entity for a number of years. It was at this time that Harris became associate artistic director while still filling the role of education director, which he did for a number of years. Since the departure of Idris Goodwin, Harris has been serving as interim producing artistic director. “As my wife jokingly called it, the iPad,” he says.
His responsibilities are varied and include identifying talent, hiring actors, directing several shows and guest relations.
“It’s also season selection. I’m constantly looking at what are the trends in theater for young audiences,” he says.
He explains that while some theaters break artistic and business responsibilities into two tracts, StageOne and other companies that follow a producing artistic director model, a single executive “who is responsible for both the artistic vision and programming as well as maintaining, supporting, and supporting the business aspect [marketing, public relations, etc.],” he says.
A huge shift in the industry came in 2010 when the economy bottomed out. StageOne used to do six or seven shows per season, but it scaled back to four shows per season with extended runs.
“We had a comparable amount of performances,” he says.
It also made the decision to retire the Music Theater of Louisville brand. At this time, StageOne developed Play It Forward, a ticket underwriting program to provide free tickets to schools and students that struggle. Harris says the company made changes to ensure it could meet its business costs, but it asked the public to help support kids.
“It’s a program that continues today. We work tirelessly to remove barriers,” he says.
When planning for upcoming seasons, StageOne works to ensure it is providing shows that children want to see as well as shows that teachers and parents choose to come to. It strives to find a balance between plays that are well-loved or recognizable favorites and those that have important messages. Its show “LawBreakers: A Fast and Furious History of Women’s Suffrage” by Diana Grisanti was one that StageOne commissioned.
“Most school audiences aren’t going, ‘Yeah, let’s go to the suffrage play.’ But it’s an incredibly important story that resonates,” he says. “It is still very relevant.”
Harris is excited by the next season of shows, which he says is focused on love, acceptance, words and community and is what he is calling “Our Season of What Matters.”
Although StageOne is beloved by children and families, and many people have wonderful memories of their own childhood experiences at shows or education programming, StageOne isn’t only for children and families.
“Whether you have kids or are just young at heart,” he says. “If you come see the work that we do, you’re going to be engaged. If you come play with us, you won’t be disappointed.”
When Harris is not crafting shows and educational opportunities at StageOne, he is spending time at home with his wife, Clara, who is a professional actress and playwright, their son, Flynn, and their dog, Copper. They enjoy camping and have had great experiences out west at the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. His son has even convinced him to begin martial arts.
“He looked at me one day and said, ‘Dad, no offense, but you’re kind of fat and out of shape, and I’m afraid you’re gonna die,” Harris says.
In the years since Harris began martial arts, he has caught up in rank with his son in a shared experience they both love.
StageOne Family Theatre is located at 315 W Market St in Louisville. For more information, visit them online at stageone.org or give them a call at 502-498-2436.