BARDSTOWN — Taylor Coriell's mother used to sing her a song at bedtime: "The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home ..."
"Stephen Foster has been there all my life," Coriell says of the writer of Kentucky's state song and many other classic American tunes.
Foster now has a huge impact on Coriell's career: She plays his muse, Jane McDowell, in this summer's production of The Stephen Foster Story, which plays through Aug. 13 at the amphitheater in Bardstown's My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
Jane is the first professional part for Coriell, who graduated from the University of Kentucky's voice program in May.
"This is such a thrill, to have a job in my chosen profession, just a few weeks after graduating from college," Coriell says.
She grew up in Lexington and was a student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School.
When she enrolled at UK, Coriell thought her arts career might be behind the scenes.
"I had been doing a lot of stage managing," Coriell says. "I wasn't getting a lot of big roles, so I thought maybe what I needed to do was concentrate on things behind the scenes.
"But then I realized, here I am putting all these limits on myself when I was only 17 years old, and you're supposed to have the whole world in front of you."
So she studied voice in UK's program, which is primarily geared toward opera. In addition to ensemble roles in UK Opera Theatre productions, Coriell got active in Lexington-area musical theater, landing prominent roles in productions at SummerFest, The Woodford Theatre and other companies.
Graduation finds Coriell on a roll, having scored leading parts as Olive in The Woodford Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and as Mabel in the UK Opera Theatre's Undergraduate Studio production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.
It all put her in a positive, confident frame of mind when she went to the open auditions this spring at the Southeastern Theater Conference in Atlanta.
"It was odd that we went all the way to Atlanta to find someone in our back yard," says Johnny Warren, managing artistic director of the Stephen Foster Drama Association. Auditioners have only a minute to make an impression at the conference, and Warren says, "The minute she opened her mouth, we knew she was a strong candidate for Jane.
"She's a great person with a great attitude, and obviously it's nice to have a Kentucky performer in Kentucky's official outdoor drama," he says, referring to the show's designation by the state General Assembly.
For Coriell, it was nice to be courted for the part.
"They were actually trying to sell it to me, which was so funny, because I was thrilled to get the offer," she says.
For a recent college graduate, The Stephen Foster Story has been a quick immersion into the world of professional theater.
"Just in scale of rehearsal versus performance, it's so different," Coriell says. "Last week, when we did the final dress rehearsals, I realized that's usually a time I get emotional, because that means the show is almost over. But here, it's just the beginning."
There are 53 scheduled performances of Foster, 45 of which star Coriell; her understudy, Jessica Boeglin, performs in the Saturday afternoon, indoor matinees. Coriell also is part of the ensemble in the theater's production The Wizard of Oz, which opens July 7.
She grew up in Lexington, but Coriell, 23, says she had not seen The Stephen Foster Story since she was 10. She says there was a learning curve in getting the music and lines down. She says she has known My Old Kentucky Home pretty much since birth, but she had to learn a lot of other lesser-known Foster tunes in the show, which features portions of more than 50 of Foster's songs.
Her favorites include Open Thy Lattice, the first song between Stephen and Jane in act one of the show. She likes a lot of the newer material, but she does name a classic as her favorite in the production: Beautiful Dreamer.
"He sings it to me while I'm on my balcony," Coriell says. "What girl doesn't want to be sung to on her balcony?"
After this summer, it will be back to the routine of a working actor, auditioning and looking for the next show.
But for this summer at least, Coriell is enjoying life in her new Kentucky home.