HARRODSBURG — On a late August Friday evening, Ragged Edge Community Theatre managing director Tagan Cox is buzzing around the lobby of the historic playhouse preparing for opening night of the first show of the season. There's popcorn to be popped, drinks to display, tickets to sell and a missing actor to round up.
Jonah Cline, who plays Count Bordoni in Woody Allen's Cold War comedy Don't Drink the Water, has been in a minor car accident. He's getting checked at the ER but should make it in time for his second act entrance.
"Where is he?" asks longtime volunteer and board member Betsy Fleischer, who at the moment is manning the box office but also painted the set's faux marble floor.
"He's at Ephraim," Cox says anxiously, cellphone to her ear. That means he's in Danville, at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center, so it will take longer for him to get to the theater.
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But the show is going on. Back stage, first-time director, veteran actor and physician-by-day Tom Johnson is giving the cast an opening night pep talk as they gather in the darkness of the wings. There's a blended sense of excitement and apprehension in the air.
As folks in the audience find their seats, Johnson is wearing a trench coat and military hat reminiscent of Cold War Russia and walks about the theater in character. With Cox, he delivers a faux-militant curtain speech in a heavy accent that earns some smirks and laughter, particularly when he mentions the arts are not subsidized in this country like they are in his. It's a playful way of reminding everyone that all of this costs money.
Later, having changed into regular clothes, before intermission, Johnson, whose wife stage manages and whose daughter acts in the show, says what may as well be the mantra for community theaters everywhere: "We do it because we love it."
Theater to store and back again
Ragged Edge Community Theatre occupies a building that was once a movie theater — so old-fashioned that you can still see remnants of the balcony that was designated for black people during Jim Crow segregation. The theater later became an antique shop before becoming a theater once again in the 1990s. Like many historic theaters, it is rumored to be haunted.
Ragged Edge depends on donations of time, money, skills and resources from individuals and organizations throughout the community, a model that has been working for the theater since its founding in 1983 by Mary Chelf Jones, a Harrodsburg native who earned music degrees from the Cincinnati Conservatory and pursued a singing career in New York and London. She eventually settled as a vocal instructor at Interlochen Music Academy in Michigan before relocating to Harrodsburg for retirement. The term Ragged Edge is a nod to Jones' grandmother, who was involved in a theater and arts group in New York called Ragged Edge.
Ragged Edge is a typical small town community theater in many ways: dependent on community donations, a stable of fired up volunteers and seasons that veer toward the safe, classic, G-rated fare.
"We really know our audience and we try to make our shows as family friendly as possible," Cox says, explaining that shows are selected by a committee based on content and logistical limitations.
"We have a large stage that I'm really proud of, but we can't do a show that has something like a trap door, for instance," says Cox, a Mercer County native who was a Ragged Edge performer as a child before studying musical theater in college, acting in summer stock productions and eventually finding her way back home as managing director of the theater.
Cox's experience as a youngster highlights one of two ways Ragged Edge is different from other community theaters. It features a second series of productions comprised entirely of child actors and produces outdoor shows at Fort Harrod every summer.
"Our children's shows do not feature any adults. It's entirely young people age 12 to 18 and it is a great opportunity for them to have fun and get experience onstage. It really gives them a chance to shine," Cox says.
The parents of School for the Creative and Performing Arts student Benjamin Walton, 17, who regularly makes the trek from Lexington to Harrodsburg to participate in main stage and children's shows, echo Cox's sentiments.
"It's good for him to get experience like this," says his mother, Ashley Walter-Robbins, also a Ragged Edge board member. "It's been a huge boost of confidence for him."
Goodbye Daniel, hello James
The theater also stepped in to fill a vacancy left by the 2008 departure of The Legend of Daniel Boone from Fort Harrod. The annual summer show, produced by a professional company, had become a rite of passage for many Central Kentucky actors, and its absence was keenly felt.
"Four years ago the theater teamed up with the park manager, and we wrote an original show about James Harrod, who founded Harrodsburg," Cox says of the outdoor drama James Harrod: The Battle for Kentucky.
"We got on the radar of the Tourism Cabinet and two years ago were able to receive some money from them to help bring in more tourism," says Cox.
The theater now mounts two major productions each summer at Fort Harrod: a large family musical and the James Harrod production: next summer, the musical is Lil' Abner.
Opening night has turned out to be unusually light by Ragged Edge standards, though Cox is not sure why. The audience is comprised primarily of friends and relatives of the cast, but there are a few, like Barbara and Glen Culbertson, recent transplants from Naples, Fla., who are new to the theater.
"We just bought season tickets," says Barbara. She says the couple is looking forward to diving into the Central Kentucky arts scene.
Glen chimes in, "We went to the Sarasota Opera and theater down there, so when we found out there was a theater here, we wanted to come out and support it."
And they get to see a complete production, including the actor who started the evening in the ER.
The opening night audience is none the wiser when Jonah Cline sneaks into the theater right around curtain time, the show going on without a hitch.