SummerFest's executive director, Wesley Nelson, wasn't looking for a new home for the annual outdoor theater festival. But he kept hearing he needed to check one place out.
"I hadn't visited this space before, which is insane, being a producer in this town," Nelson says, standing in front of the stage at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater.
While the set was being struck after last season at the festival's longtime home, The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, Nelson recalled that sound designer Richard Jones "asked if we had ever considered moving. And I said, no, we like the Arboretum, and they're wonderful to work with. And he said, you should take a look at MoonDance.
"I said, I've seen pictures of it. It looks really small. He said go look. As I drove up, I said, 'It's really small. This isn't going to work.' But once I walked on the stage and really looked, the boundaries and the retaining walls do give it a more intimate feel, but walking through the space, I could see it was plenty to accommodate what we do."
As he brought SummerFest directors and designers out, he sensed an excitement about the prospect of a venue change.
In the Arboretum, SummerFest had to start every season building its stage, and then setting in lights and all other accommodations, including box office tents, a trailer for a dressing room and portable toilets for patrons and actors.
MoonDance comes with all of that built in.
So, Wednesday night, SummerFest's first edition in MoonDance opens with a production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, which will run for two weeks. It will be followed, in late July, by SummerFest's production of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
"I have seen a lot less suffering this year, since the stage is already built," says Little Shop director Jenny Fitzpatrick, who has directed and choreographed SummerFest shows in the Arboretum.
Nelson says it took nearly a month to build the stage at the Arboretum, "because it starts with a lot of frame structure underneath, platforming, then walls, staircases, more platforming. That was cutting down on our designers' time."
The freedom to create is shown in things like the blue framework that was going up last week around the stage, which is now covered with a roof.
All seating reserved
Other prominent changes include an earlier start time (8 p.m.) and completely reserved seating for 953 people a night.
"That means we can sell out now," Nelson says.
Previously, at the Arboretum, patrons could just continue grabbing spaces father and father back on the lawn, so tickets were essentially unlimited.
If the spring and summer concert series at the amphitheater is any indication, sell-outs are a possibility. Since the weather has warmed, Celeste Lewis, program director of the amphitheater for the Lexington Division of Parks and Recreation, says the series has been attracting crowds of 800 or more. The amphitheater is being managed in a public-private partnership with the MoonDance Foundation, which was founded by the Haymaker family, which built the venue.
SummerFest struck the deal to move to MoonDance with developer Andy Haymaker before Parks and Recreation took over programming the venue earlier this year. Lewis said she was thrilled to find a theater company was already part of the programming.
"We were very attracted to the idea of bringing a wide range of experiences to the audience out there," Lewis says. "When you look at that venue, you think music and theater, and SummerFest certainly fills that mission."
Venue more intimate
The venue seats nearly 1,000, but its feel is much more intimate, and the audience will be seated right up to the edge of the stage.
"It opens the door to a lot of shows we can pick now," Nelson says. "Because a lot of shows we picked at the Arboretum, we felt like we had to do something huge and grand, like a cast of almost 30, to make it feel like that stage was full.
"Here, we have more room to do small shows."
Little Shop, with a cast of eight, is a prime example.
"We had always talked about doing Little Shop at the Arboretum, but it never seemed like it would have been big enough," Nelson says.
The size of the stage will rule out some of the big musicals SummerFest has done in recent seasons, like last year's A Chorus Line. But Fitzpatrick concedes, "That can be positive, because I don't know how many bigger shows SummerFest needs to be doing."
Moving outside New Circle
The move brings yet another theatrical resident outside New Circle Road following Actors Guild of Lexington's move to a former retail space off Harrodsburg Road in 2011. It was a groundbreaking move for director Eric Seale to take the troupe out of downtown Lexington, where arts groups traditionally perform.
"Actors Guild broke that stigma of people saying you can't do quality theater outside of downtown because they've had great success since they moved out here, and Eric's always been a huge proponent of saying, 'We're able to get audience members out here.' ... Knowing he was OK out Harrodsburg Road, made us feel a lot safer making this move."
Lewis says in just a third of a season of concerts at MoonDance, she has seen a huge response from the Beaumont neighborhood immediately surrounding the amphitheater.
"We see people walking up with their lawn chairs from the neighborhood, and they are just ecstatic this is here," she says.
Standing on the stage, Nelson says, "You turn around, and you're in the back yards of 5,000 people."
Fitzpatrick concludes, "I think we've found a new place to be."
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes.