VERSAILLES — Beth Kirchner was at a get-to-know-you cookout shortly after moving to Woodford County with her husband. She mentioned to one of the guests that she had a degree in theater.
"She said, 'Oh, theater? We have a theater and need a director,'" Kirchner says.
Kirchner ended up directing a children's play and eventually signing on to run the theater.
"They really needed some help, so I said, 'We'll give it two years,'" says Kirchner, who at the time was working primarily as a free-lance writer and video producer.
That was 16 years ago.
In those years, Kirchner has taken the barely operational Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association and turned it into The Woodford Theatre, the envy of community theaters around the region.
The Versailles troupe attracts audiences and participants from around the Bluegrass to perform in its 300-seat theater in Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, which opened in 2002.
And that status is part of why Kirchner has decided it's time for her to step down.
This month's production of the musical 1776 will be Kirchner's swan song as artistic and executive director of the company.
"For several years, I have started the season thinking, 'Oh, this will be my last season,'" Kirchner said, sitting in the theater's green room, which is decorated with the signatures of actors who have appeared in its many hit shows. "But then something would come up that made me think it wasn't the right time to step down.
"Then I realized, there never is a good time to step down, because there will always be something left to accomplish, something you want to do. But stepping down now, when the theater is running in the black, its reputation is at its highest and we have tremendous support from the community gives a successor the best chance to succeed."
There are plenty of people vying to succeed Kirchner.
Brett Butler, a past president of the Woodford Theatre board and chairman of its ad hoc search committee, says more than 70 people from around the country have applied for the job, including applicants from New York, Chicago, Arizona and Florida. He says the theater hopes to make a selection in June so there can be some overlap with Kirchner's tenure, which will end June 30.
Butler says a big part of the reason Woodford Theatre has attracted such a talented pool of applicants is that Kirchner made a commitment to quality.
"She set high standards and expected people to meet her," Butler says.
That has shown, he says, in the vast array of actors from around the region who made the drive to Woodford. Kirchner says she found a rich talent pool in Versailles but always knew that it would take performers from surrounding areas to foster growth at the theater.
"It's always been about presenting the best-quality show we could for the community," Kirchner says. "So if you came out and auditioned for a part and you were the best one for the role, you got it, regardless of where you were from."
At the same time, Kirchner says, it was important to build a strong relationship with the community, especially after the troupe successfully lobbied to have a theater included in the plans for Falling Springs.
There were times when the theater was in danger of being written out of the plans, and "we had to be vigilant that the interests of those supporting the arts in the community were heard," she said.
The theater has been a key to the company's success, giving it a stable base where shows can be rehearsed from the beginning on the stage where it will be performed, Kirchner says. The theater and its backstage areas, including roomy dressing and green rooms, have helped make it attractive to area talent.
That said, there have been adventures along the way, including several instances when the road to Kirchner's home flooded and she had to take a canoe to rehearsals. "You hate to say the show must go on, but literally, the show had to go on," she said.
Kirchner, 49, says she wants to get back to writing and spending more time with her husband, internationally acclaimed sand sculptor Damon Farmer.
"He gets to go to all of these fabulous locations around the world, and I usually don't get to go with him," says Kirchner, who has become a good enough sand sculptor to be booted out of the amateur divisions at competitions.
Although she is retiring from her day-to-day post, Kirchner says she plans to remain a presence in Central Kentucky theater.
"This is a very deadline-oriented job, and it will be a relief not to have deadlines to meet," Kirchner says. "But who knows? Two weeks after I leave, I may say I want a deadline."