copious notes

It’s quite the production when Lexington Children’s Theatre takes a show on the road

April 6, 2013 

GREENVILLE — More than 100 Muhlenberg County elementary and preschool students have just watched a performance of Pinkalicious: The Musical at the Felix E. Martin Jr. Hall Creative and Performing Arts Center, and they have lots of questions.

How did Pinkalicious turn pink? How do the actors move all those heavy set pieces? Why didn't Pinkalicious turn purple?

One child asks a key question during the post-show session: Do the actors have a theater?

Yes, they do.

The show is a production of Lexington Children's Theatre, which indeed has its own theater, offices and shops on West Short Street in Lexington. In fact, Lexington audiences got to see the show last month.

But those hometown shows represented only a small portion of LCT's nearly 40 performances of Pinkalicious this season. The musical version of Elizabeth Kann and Victoria Kann's best-selling children's book is one of two shows the theater took on the road this season (the other was last fall's Oz, about the creation of The Wizard of Oz).

The theater, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary season in 2013-14, has toured shows for decades, but producing director Larry Snipes says the troupe has been doing it more regularly in recent years.

The regional tours extend well beyond school districts that would take a trip to Lexington and sometimes beyond the commonwealth to states such as Illinois and Ohio, and even to Hilton Head, S.C., a cast and crew favorite, LCT directors say.

In just two stops, Greenville is becoming a favorite, too, thanks in large part to the new, 780-seat theater that was developed as a venue to serve the school district and the community.

"I wish I had a theater like this when I was in high school," tour manager Tiffany Lutz, 23, says while surveying the venue attached to Muhlenberg County High School's west campus.

A plan of action

For this tour, the children's theater sends out six actors and four crew members — though, really, everyone is crew.

Lutz and most of the actors left from the Lexington theater shortly before 9 a.m. March 27 and drove nearly three hours to Greenville. Technical crew members Rebecca Bandy, Justine Burke and Zach Alexander had left earlier that morning in a truck carrying the set and props.

When everyone arrives, the truck is pulled up to the loading dock and they all lend a hand to unload items that include a giant couch, three giant cupcakes and a refrigerator that doubles as a car.

The Greenville theater has its loading dock in the backstage area, making unpacking easy. Touring company members say that part of the trip can be an adventure at times. Some schools where LCT performs, for instance, have no loading docks, so the actors and crew have to schlep items through hallways and parking lots.

"There was one place where the biggest opening was a regular-size door, so everything had to be able to get through that," says Carly Crawford, who plays the title character in Pinkalicious and is a veteran of five LCT regional tours.

You have to factor in such things when planning tours, says Anne C. Meacham, production manager for all of the theater's tours this season.

"You take everything into account when building a show, like that at this venue you'll have to take a 90-­degree turn, at another venue they'll have to walk everything a long way," she says. "We try to build the shows so that they can handle it in all the venues they are going to."

The tours go to a variety of venues.

The regional tours are one of two types the theater presents. The other kind are smaller shows with three or four actors and minimal, highly portable sets. Those tours, which mostly play in schools, can do a number of shows a day, often at different venues.

Due to their size, the regional tours go to one place and set up for several performances, often including a public, ticketed show like the one in Greenville that attracted more than 300 people March 28.

"The funny thing is, not all shows that sell well on the road do well here," LCT general manager Lesley Gwynn Farmer says back at the theater offices in Lexington. She points to last season's production of Sacagawea, which "was a big hit on tour, but we didn't have much more than 100 people come see its public performances here."

Pinkalicious — a story about a girl who learns to have her favorite things, including her cupcakes, in moderation — is a big hit wherever it plays. It's final performances Tuesday at the Morehead Conference Center are sold out.

Martin Hall director David Probus says that except for The Nutcracker ballet, Pinkalicious has been the most popular show the theater has presented since it opened last March. Last fall's Oz was a big hit, too.

"I was hired last year with a mandate to fill the theater with shows," says Probus, who formerly worked with Actors Guild of Lexington and moved to Greenville for the job. "So LCT was one of the first calls I made. When Lesley said they had Oz and Pinkalicious, I said, 'Great, let's book them.'"

Feeling 'really appreciated'

Creating relationships such as that is key to a successful touring operation, Farmer says.

Snipes says the tours are a way to give the theater's productions longer lives and make it more cost-effective to keep actors on staff.

"So many of our shows, we would put in months of work designing, building and rehearsing them," Snipes says. "Then we would do it here for a week or two, and that was it. With the tour, we get a lot more for the effort."

The tours also give the artists, most of whom are recent college graduates from outside of Kentucky, a chance to see the state.

"I love this," Alexander, 22, says, "getting to travel, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and see the world through theater — this is, in essence, what I want to do."

The regional tours give the artists a little more time to get to know the places they go, too, and Lutz says she files a report on every stop assessing the hotels, restaurants and other attractions they visited.

Touring artists start to look forward to return visits to see favorite places, such as Morehead's Root-a-Bakers Bakery, which will be on the itinerary when the company is there this week.

In Greenville, avid runner and actor Justin Doro ran into town from the hotel and at dinner was raving about the small town's city square.

Where to have dinner the first night in Central City, home of the hotel where the LCT staff stayed, was the subject of some debate. Cast and crew gathered in one of their rooms to decide among steak, hibachi or Mexican. Duck Dynasty played quietly on the TV. Mexican at Central City's El Bracero won out. Over chips, salsa and margaritas, the crew talked about how Kentucky has won them over as they have crisscrossed the commonwealth.

"No doubt, people living in rural Kentucky are not very different from people living in rural Minnesota or Florida," says actor Jim Short, who is in his third season of touring with LCT. "They're heart-warming, welcoming people who are happy and proud of their communities."

Meacham says she has been at tour stops and talked to kids who could list every LCT show they have seen.

Sara Vazquez, 26, says, "You feel really appreciated because, often, we get to be the play the kids get to see that year."

Wearing several hats

Vazquez, who is on her sixth and final regional tour, once received a T-shirt that said, "Keep Calm and Do Everything," riffing on the famous slogan from World War II-era Britain. Like most everyone else who works with the company as a staff member or intern, she learns to do a bit of everything.

"Every job at LCT is something-slash-something else," says Burke, 24, who is assistant technical director/lighting designer.

After setting up the stage, including piecing together the big cupcakes, the six actors run microphone checks and a transition rehearsal, in which they go through scene changes to make sure everything will run smoothly.

When actor Kyle Chesney mentions that one of the cupcakes feels wobbly, Crawford says, "I shoulder-checked it once, and it nearly fell over."

A few minutes later, drills, a Shop-Vac and other tools are pulled out to take care of problems they spotted and clean up debris from load-in.

While the team members are honing a variety of marketable skills, they also are fulfilling one of the theater's stated goals: to be the chief source for quality, professional children's theater in Kentucky and beyond.

In Greenville, the theater's crew is impressed by the Martin Hall staff, who are ready to answer questions and able to work out any problems.

On the day of the performances, the actors and technicians leave their hotel at 7:30 a.m. to get to the theater by 8. The first curtain is at 9:30.

It's not glitch-free. Bandy, the sound designer, and the theater staff have to work out a computer problem before microphones can be checked. But soon, the microphones are hot, and the kids are seated and laughing at the antics of their increasingly Titian-haired heroine.

"I am constantly surprised at how excited people are to see us," Lutz says. "Like we were just in Hazard, and the kids were so excited, you could see it in their faces when they came in. And when the actors would come out into the audience for question-and-answer, it was just like they had walked off a movie screen."

The twentysomethings onstage are just starting to build careers, but on tour in Kentucky, they're already stars.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. 
Twitter: @copiousnotes. 
Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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