BEREA — ”Freeze,“ Eddie Kennedy says. ”Stop.“
On his command, the cast members rehearsing Noel and Reb, a play by the late Paul Power, go rigid and stationary, like kids playing freeze tag on a playground. Kennedy then makes a suggestion — often something as minor as moving a prop to the other side of a small table or moving an actor forward several feet.
”Do it again,“ he says, and they take it from the top.
Nobody questions his stage direction. Kennedy has been at this a long time, they know; his eye for detail has been honed by a lifetime dedicated to theater. Sure enough, when the scene runs again, it works better. Moving the prop those few inches makes it easier to pick up on an exit. Moving the actor lets a different person's character cross to the other side of the stage without blocking him or her from the audience.
You'll find Berea Arena Theater, where Noel and Reb is halfway through its two-week run, nestled in the leafy green foothills outside downtown Berea. The building, owned by Berea College, used to be leased to the U.S. Forest Service.
Signs of the Forest Service's work are evident. Emergency eye-wash stations and hooded vents still hang in rooms now used for prop storage and set design. The woods once used for the service's experiments are today a quiet, transcendental backdrop to Berea's newest haven for the arts.
”Isn't it great?“ Kennedy says, admiring the theater he founded. He leans against one of the building's triangular support beams. ”Buddy, this is a lifelong dream come true.“
Kennedy is a man with many titles. Currently, he's an adjunct professor at Spalding University in Louisville, co-founder of the SaraCare charitable organization, and managing producer and artistic director of Berea Arena. In the past, Kennedy was a key player in the 1970s revival of Paul Green's Wilderness Road at Indian Fort Theater and an actor, director and technician in many community theaters. He was a teacher at Berea Community Schools for 33 years, and he's an internationally published writer. His plays have been performed in Canada, England, New Zealand, Germany and Australia.
Kentucky Educational Television has produced two of Kennedy's scripts into movies: The Quiet Place, about teen-age drug abuse; and Just One Day, a story of teenage pregnancy that was aired nationally on PBS. George Rasmussen, a retired KET producer and director, said he thinks Kennedy's writing became famous for its honest portrayal of life in rural Kentucky.
”You just feel the Southern-ness of it,“ Rasmussen says. ”His plays are very much at home in Appalachia as opposed to being at home in Chicago or New York ... They really are the product of the environment.“
Kennedy says, ”For a while, writing was really, really my focus. When Sara was born, things just changed.“
Kennedy's move from international playwright to family man began several years before, in a Bonded Oil service station, where he bumped into a former student, Norma Proctor, who was working as a cashier. On a whim, he invited her to the opening production of Wilderness Road. They married in 1976 and had their first and only child, Sara, 10 years later.
”She was just a remarkable, beautiful little baby,“ Kennedy said. ”I know we sound like every other happy parent in the world, but that's the beauty of having children. Look what it does to parents and families.“
As she grew up, Sara became known throughout her community as a beautiful, active person whose kindness was rivaled only by her love of theater.
”She was an actress, she did tech, she'd mop the floor,“ Kennedy says. ”She did it all. She was a trouper.“
In 2004, when Sara was 17, she was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Despite almost equally aggressive treatment at Kentucky Children's Hospital, she died in March 2005, four months after her 18th birthday and 10 months after being diagnosed.
”Most people think that during that 10 months she was just constantly in horrible shape, but she wasn't,“ Norma says. ”She had so much fun with her nurses. She would just harass them and have a good time.“
Dr. Joe Iocono, whose only clinical contact with Sara was to lance an abscess, often found himself visiting her room to hang out and unwind after a long day. He recalls the effect she had on the nurses and doctors who treated her.
”When they lose a kid, they have to move on. They can't dwell on it. We're jaded, as doctors, in that way,“ he says. ”But even today, three years later, bring up Sara's name with anybody on the fourth floor, and you're likely to have a 30-minute conversation.“
The day Sara died, Eddie and Norma established SaraCare, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families whose lives have been touched by cancer. Their first mission was to provide TVs with built-in DVD players in every room of Kentucky Children's Hospital. Sara was always concerned during her stay that she would be taking a TV from someone who needed it more.
”They originally only had two DVD players on carts they wheeled from room to room,“ Iocono said. ”She wouldn't take one until she made sure every little kid on the floor didn't want it.“
Thanks largely to Berea residents, who turn out in droves to yearly SaraCare fund-raisers, it wasn't long until all the rooms were furnished. The organization is going strong, helping families in countless other ways and extending its service to other area hospitals. With SaraCare's original mission accomplished, Kennedy decided it was time to fulfill a different dream that he'd planned and talked about with his daughter: running a non-profit theater.
The perfect location
Kennedy spent more than a year scouting for a location. When the Forestry Service moved out of the Berea College building at 1835 Big Hill Road, he knew he had found the perfect spot. Diane Kerby, retired vice president of business and administration for Berea College, helped broker the deal. It didn't take long. Everyone was eager to see Kennedy back in action.
”I worked with my colleagues to consider whether it was a good use for the property, and ultimately, quickly, we decided it was,“ Kerby said.
Friends and former colleagues crawled out of the woodwork to volunteer their time. They tore down walls, trucked away debris, painted, installed carpet and hung stage lighting. A $75,000 renovation was done for $15,000, and that was covered by season ticket sales before the theater opened its doors in January.
All aspects of play production still are done by volunteers — friends of the Kennedys or people eager to gain experience working for Kennedy. Fred Kolloff, director of the Instructional Development Center at Eastern Kentucky University, volunteers as a set designer.
”Eddie has a reputation, a good reputation,“ Kolloff says. ”There have been other opportunities for me to do this kind of thing, but let's just say I waited for Eddie to get something in motion here.“
For Kennedy, the greatest reward of opening Berea Arena is the opportunity to pay back those volunteers and friends, and those who helped support SaraCare after his daughter's death, the only way he knows how: with theater.
”I always told Sara we're going to be top-drawer, top-notch,“ Kennedy says. ”We'll always do the best we can do to give this community the best theater we can provide.“