The Actors Guild of Lexington stage feels like home to Laurie Genet Preston, albeit a home that has moved several times.
At AGL's old Short Street location, she had what was essentially the title role in the 1997 production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, even fainting during a dress rehearsal in the harness that lowered her into the show. Then she led the cast of AGL's first show in the Downtown Arts Center as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Now, several life changes later for Preston and AGL, she is back on its stage, playing one of Lexington's most infamous and intriguing historical figures, Belle Brezing, the madam whose national claim to fame was that she was thought to be the model for Belle Watling in the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone With the Wind.
For Preston, it's simultaneously a chance to play a legendary local figure and to retake center stage at Actors Guild, where she last performed in the 2004 production of Diana Son's Stop Kiss.
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"Lots of things have changed," Preston says. "But I love the fact that it's still going and still growing strong."
Preston, 38, made her Actors Guild debut 20 years ago in Psycho Beach Party. She subsequently appeared in A Few Good Men and Arcadia in 1997. She was even briefly married into the organization: her first husband, Kevin Hardesty, was artistic director of Actors Guild in 2002 and 2003.
After the couple split and Hardesty left theater, Preston continued to perform at AGL in Side Man and Stop Kiss before her second marriage to teacher Matt Preston took her to South Florida for a few years. That turned out to be a productive time for her acting career. She became active with Fort Myers' Florida Repertory Theatre and Theatre Conspiracy, "a very Actors Guild-esque theater," Preston says, that did a lot of world premieres.
"I didn't know how I'd be received," she says. "You leave an area where you're known and do a lot of work, and then you come in where you're completely unknown and are in the pile of everyone else they don't know. I didn't know, do people in Lexington use me because they know me, and I have an established name? Was I getting cast for just that reason? Or was it talent and merit?
"It was good to get work in Florida because no one knew who I was. It told me that my work could stand elsewhere."
Preston also enjoyed being cast in different roles from what she was used to in Lexington: more comedies, whereas in Lexington she was known for drama.
The Prestons eventually moved back to Lexington, and she did some work at Studio Players and Balagula Theatre, although the primary focus of her past couple years has been the couple's 2-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Kennedy.
With the girls getting ready to turn 3, Preston had the itch to get back onstage right about the time Actors Guild announced it would present Lexington playwright Margaret C. Price's Belle Brezing, a show Preston was familiar with, having played Belle's mother in a 2004 staged reading of the show at the University of Kentucky.
"I knew Margaret's piece was very interesting, edgy and different, and I thought that would be really interesting," Preston says. "I also got that feeling that a lot of actors get that I just didn't want anyone else to play it. If I could get that role, I knew it would be a challenge to play someone so conflicted who goes through a lot of pain, but also has to be a sassy broad at the same time."
Price, the playwright, who got to know Preston when Preston was the drama teacher at Sayre School, where Price's children were students, says she thinks Preston will bring a great combination of beauty and wisdom to the role.
Bob Singleton, who plays Belle's lover, Billy Mabon, says Preston clearly enjoys being back on the Actors Guild stage.
"It's like a lot of people here who really want to see this theater keep going, and be a part of it," says Singleton, whose first AGL experience was the 1989 production of 59 Magowan Street, an early version of the Belle Brezing script that was presented at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. "It's like your first love. You think of it fondly."
Actors Guild looks a lot different today. The longtime downtown theater is now based in South Elkhorn Village shopping center off Harrodsburg Road, near the Fayette-Jessamine county line. The theater made the move, under the guidance of artistic director Eric Seale, after a financial upheaval that nearly closed it in 2009 and 2010.
"I have always considered Actors Guild one of my home theaters," Preston says. "More than anything, I'm so thrilled AGL is still there and vital, and serving a new area of our community. Nobody ever wants to see one of these places where we have a chance to work fail. So, while I know there may have been certain thoughts and feelings about certain people involved, there was always the need and desire for the theater to succeed."
She is amused at AGL's evolution from the off-off- Broadway feel of the downtown space to its current status as Lexington's suburban theater.
"It's very non-regular theatergoer-friendly," Preston says. "Theater can be anywhere. All we need is people in the seats, and we can do our work."