The cast and crew of Equus were working on a scene from the intense Peter Shaffer drama when the door to the gym at SCAPA Bluegrass opened. A woman came through with a cart carrying the sound system for a middle school dance.
"Ah, the joys of independent productions," producer Jim Betts said jokingly as the company moved to another room.
Betts is producing Equus apart from any of Lexington's established theaters as something of a Lexington swan song for his son Jimmy, who is graduating from the School for Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School on Thursday. That's the same day that Equus opens at the Downtown Arts Center.
"I will literally graduate and be on stage just a few hours later," says Jimmy, who in the fall is heading to the theater conservatory at Webster University in St. Louis. "I can't think of a better way to go out."
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The Bettses were intrigued by the idea of presenting Equus after seeing the Broadway production starring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in 2008. Jimmy told his theater teacher, Paul Thomas, how much he wanted to play the lead character, Alan Strang, who sets the play's events in motion by stabbing out the eyes of six horses. Thomas said he had always wanted to play Martin Dysart, Alan's psychiatrist.
"I said, 'Let's do it,'" says Jim Betts, who has worked with Midway's Thoroughbred Theatre and has done some local acting.
"We did not want a little dinky production of Equus," he says. "We wanted a big-time show."
So Betts sought respected local theater practitioners to put up the production, starting with director Bo List.
"Equus was one of the first plays I saw that got me excited about theater back in the days of Phoenix Group Theatre," List says, recalling the Lexington company that closed in 1998. "It was mind-blowing that something of this depth and intensity could happen right in front of me.
"When the opportunity came to work on this show that had meant so much to me, I jumped at it."
Betts also attracted Centre College stage designer Matthew Hallock, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre costume designer and actor Susan Wigglesworth, and stage talents Michael Grice and Missy Johnston. But securing Thomas to play Dysart was essential.
"Once Jim said, 'Would you like to do it?' I snapped it right up," Thomas said. "It had not been on my radar as a role I wanted to do, but now, it's one of my favorites."
People who know Equus might be surprised that a father is presenting it for his son. The role involves on-stage nudity for both Jimmy, who is 18, and Amanda Beth Jewell, who graduated from Transylvania University this month, as Alan's love interest, Jill Mason.
"I have my 'bad dad' hat on a lot," Betts says. "Maybe he's young, maybe he's naive and maybe I'm stupid. This is an expression of vulnerability and being exposed raw. As verbally done and artistically done, it's also visually done."
Jimmy says, "Once you get into the scene, it's not about the nudity. It's about the art of the show and driving the show and not, 'Oh! Jimmy's naked; Amanda's naked.'"
List says he would have been fine with doing the show without full nudity, but because both actors were willing and interested, they decided to go ahead for the maximum impact. He says that no nudity has been rehearsed at SCAPA.
But the use of SCAPA did help solve one of the major challenges for an independent production: rehearsal space.
Betts says one of the other major challenges is getting the word out to the local audience.
"We haven't had a previous production where we can promote it to the audience or a season-subscriber list we can contact," Betts says.
But the risks of striking out on their own have been worth it to put on what people in the company think will be a strong production.
"To have someone come along and take the risk, because there's nothing but risk involved with this, maybe Jim will be willing to try something else and find places and properties to do these shows," Thomas says. "But I think the whole idea of independent productions is exciting, so I hope there are more of them."