Taking the Stage
Stage One Debuts New Play In February
Born and raised in Louisville, Diana Grisanti came from a large family who equally adored sports and theatre. In fact, Grisanti admits that she sometimes uses the word “halftime” instead of “intermission” and vice versa when speaking about theatre and sporting events. As a teenager, Grisanti attended Commonwealth Theatre Center in Louisville (formerly the Waldon Theatre).
“That’s where I found my people — other theatre nerds,” she says. Though she had fun acting and singing, deep down she knew she didn’t want to pursue performing as a career. Then she stumbled upon “the literary side of making theatre,” and knew immediately she had found her purpose in playwrighting.
She studied dramaturgy and playwrighting at the University of Iowa. After college, she completed an internship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville where she had the joy of meeting other playwrights. She also studied for two years in Mexico. While there she wrote a play called “Semantics” that got her into graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. “Semantics” is about language, wealth, US paternalism and the limits of good intentions.
“The program at UT Austin was sort of two programs in one,” Grisanti says. “As a writer, my colleagues were playwrights, poets and fiction writers. But then, on the theatre side of it, I was collaborating with designers, actors and directors. So I had multiple communities in one.”
Following graduate school, Grisanti returned to Louisville with her husband, Steve, also a playwright. They began working as Playwrights-in-Residence with Theatre 502, a small company that opened in 2011. Initially run by Amy Attaway and Gil Reyes (co-artistic directors), along with Mike Brooks (the founder who stepped down in 2006), Grisanti and her husband took over as co-artistic directors in 2019.
“It’s been intense and amazing, nuts and awesome,” Grisanti says. “It was unexpected, but it felt like the right step for all of us.”
Though Theatre 502 doesn’t have a dedicated space, they hold the majority of their performances in Baron’s Theater, an old magic theater located on Main Street.
“It’s a strange little space that we’ve come to love,” says Grisanti, noting that 100 people can fit in the building though she prefers setting it up cabaret style with tables, which cuts seating in half.
“Every show is sort of its own thing. You have to calibrate the space to the show,” says Grisanti, who is biased to the smaller theatres. “I like to feel connected to what’s there.”
Typically, they fill the house as the theatre has a good reputation in the city for doing polished work. Still, she says she’d love for word to spread and for everyone in Jefferson County and beyond to come see their shows.
Historically, Theatre 502 has put on three shows per year on the main stage with sometimes a couple of smaller, less produced productions on the side. Grisanti, who calls this a rebuilding year, has shifted the model of theatre from traditional seasons to project-to-project.
“Steve and I are interested in producing plays by other writers, but we also want to carve out a space if we want to write something new or create something with a group of people in the room,” Grisanti says. “Basically, we’re just trying to give ourselves maximum flexibility.”
Next up is the play Grisanti wrote called “Lawbreakers: A Fast and Furious History of Women’s Suffrage” which opens in February and runs for two weeks.
When she was commissioned by Stage One to write it, she was excited but anxious because she wanted to get it right. She did a ton of research to ensure that the play featured not just those we always hear about but also the unsung players in the suffrage game like Ida B. Wells, who simultaneously worked on an anti-lynching crusade while also supporting the suffrages and working as a journalist.
“I honestly don’t know how they had the time in their day to do all of these amazing things,” Grisanti says.
Told through the perspective of two teenage black stepsisters who are seniors in high school, through magic they go back in time to learn about all of these black suffragists who were doing work in the 1800s and early 1900s. “Lawbreakers” is focused on women of color, specifically black women who were working against multiple injustices.
“It’s one of the trickiest plays I’ve ever written because so many young people are going to see it,” Grisanti adds. “At the end of the day, I want them to leave the theatre excited about voting.”
Grisanti is also producing a show called “Gasping Whiteness” by Will MacAdams, which is a play, community workshop and anti-racist fundraiser. Plus, Grisanti and her spouse are collaborating with senior theater majors at UofL to draft a play.
“We’ll do an invited reading and produce that play a year form this spring,” Grisanti says. “We have multiple irons in the fire.”
When it comes to writing plays, Grisanti says that if she’s focused, she can complete a draft in two to three weeks. When her son, Victor, was born three years ago, it actually helped sharpen her concentration.
“Now when I have writing time, I have to use it. I can’t squander it,” she says.
The topics of those plays vary, though there are themes that show up in a lot of her work. For instance, she’s intrigued by the notion of good intentions that don’t pan out. Plus, all of her work is feminist in nature.
“I always want to see more women on stage,” says Grisanti, who especially loves creating teenage characters because she’s interested in their vernacular development as well as the generation gaps in our manners of speaking. She gets to practice listening to teens speak by teaching classes and workshops in the area.
“Just listening to how people talk and capturing that in dialogue is something I love to do,” Grisanti says.
She has taught every level, from PreK through college and adult. Currently, she’s teaching a playwriting class at the Commonwealth Theatre Center. She’s also teaching after-school drama programs at Looking for Lilith Theatre Company.
“I’m constantly hustling on the teaching end because rarely can you make a living just writing plays. There are maybe five playwrights who do and the rest of us need a steady day job or a million side jobs to make ends meet.”
Grisanti and her husband are passionate about theatre and the arts because it lets society take a pause from our real lives and consider what it means to be a person.
“It makes us reflect on what our responsibility is to other people — just taking a moment to examine yourself and your own life. Theatre provides that opportunity,” Grisanti says.
She notes that theatre is also communal.
“There’s something to be said for going into a room and everybody turning off their phones so that they may all participate in the same story. That so rarely happens,” Grisanti says. “With each play, you’re building a community in the rehearsal room and then you’re inviting more people into that community when you open the play.”
And none of this even scratches the surface of all of the amazing life skills that theatre teaches — like how to work as a group and how to meet deadlines.
“People in the business world are fools to not hire theatre people because we are really good at working under pressure,” Grisanti says.
To learn more about Stage One Family Theatre or to purchase tickets, call (502) 498-2436 or visit stageone.org.