The theatre arts department’s Repertory Company takes its shows on the road, providing many young students with their first experience in the performing arts. Since professor Bert Harris founded the company in 1975, it has performed to more than 150,000 young people throughout Louisville and southern Indiana.

This year’s troupe of four graduate students is about to hit the road with two 30-minute plays: “The Seven Labors of Arlecchino,” a folk tale adapted and directed by professor James Tompkins, and “How Vulture Saved the Earth,” a Yoruba poem that professor Nefertiti Burton adapted for the stage.

For the next academic year, members Tiffany Gist, (St. Louis); Melony Tisdale, (Kingstree, S.C.); DeAldon Watson, (Houston, Texas); and Obadian Ewing-Roush, (Nashville, Tenn.) will tour as many as four days a week, giving more than 80 performances in area schools.

The schedule is demanding, but it allows the actors to “try something new every day and watch the students’ faces as to what works best,” said Tisdale, who is a veteran of the troupe.

It also teaches them to improvise, as they had to do one day last year when Tisdale forgot her turtle shell costume. Students in the audience had to guess what she was supposed to be.

“They learn what works and why,” Tompkins said. “The experience passes on the traditions of the stage and helps develop good instincts in their acting.”

The plays do more than introduce students to theater. They also “broaden students’ experience with other culture and develop their ability to empathize with others,” noted Russ Vandenbrouke, department chairman.

Teachers like that the plays help make their lessons come to life. The performances are highly interactive, Watson said, noting that students often “jump and scream interacting with our characters.”

“Talk back” sessions follow each performance, and the experiences often lead to class discussions and follow-up exercises on such topics as peaceful conflict resolution, links between drama and books, caring for the Earth and the diverse cultures around the world and in Louisville, according to surveys the theatre arts department conducted last year.

One teacher noted in her response that students in her class “were able to connect the play to their own lives … accepting others and how a shared world impacts all.” Another teacher was “thrilled” that her students could look to the Repertory Company members as role models.

Repertory Company performances are free for any school or non-profit organization in the Louisville Metro area and are scheduled on a first-come basis. Financial support comes from the UofL School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Theatre Arts.

UofL’s Master of Fine Arts program is the only graduate theater program in Kentucky.