Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest has spent the past several years in a bit of an identity crisis.
When the theater company launched in 2007, after the dissolution of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, it was billed as primarily a conservatory for students who also would fill the casts of shows geared toward young actors: Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies and The Crucible.
That had an unexpected consequence.
"Within the acting community, those adult actors began to get the idea that what we're doing with SummerFest was making a radical change that would focus predominantly on high school kids," artistic director Joe Ferrell says. "That was not a true representation of what we wanted to do. What we wanted to do, as much as possible, was to mix what was going on."
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Managing director Wes Nelson says, "As time went on, it kind of slipped away from that a little bit," with more adult-oriented productions including Richard III and The Rocky Horror Show.
Now, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre and SummerFest are rebooting.
Last fall, the organization presented its first non-summer show with a production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at the Downtown Arts Center.
Late last month, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre announced its first yearlong schedule of shows, including the flagship presentation of SummerFest, three productions presented in July in The Arboretum. The schedule includes two projects heavily geared toward students and a production of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening.
The SummerFest lineup includes two shows rife with opportunities for conservatory students — William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Legally Blonde: The Musical — plus Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
"I wanted us to really identify ourselves, really brand ourselves," Nelson says. "People know that we do SummerFest; people know that we have this great conservatory. They don't necessarily understand that they're all the same thing, that it's the same theater company that's producing all of this.
"That's why in the season announcement, you'll see that two of the shows are conservatory projects. Since we're all one company, those conservatory projects are part of our season."
But KCT wants to make sure people know that there's a place for adult theater artists onstage and in the conservatory.
"One thing that will really become part of our identity is, as part of the conservatory program, we bring in instructors," Nelson says. "We're encouraging those instructors to be part of the shows by auditioning, and working as stage directors and managers."
SummerFest's new education director, Vanessa Becker, says, "Watching us practice what we preach, and the adults acting alongside the high school students, it truly becomes a whole training ground. It's not just going to a conservatory class during the day and doing a little scene work; it's being part of an exciting season of SummerFest."
And the students will have their own time in the spotlight, both in the spring show, The 24-Hour Theatre Project, and in next fall's The Girl Project. Both will be essentially student-generated productions guided by adult mentors.
Becker and Nelson say the structure of the company is inspired by their experiences of seeing students raise their game when working alongside adults.
Lexington has a variety of high-level theater training programs for students, including Lexington Children's Theatre, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the new fine-arts program at Lexington Catholic High School (see ArtyFacts, Page F2), The Woodford Theatre's class and classes with The Rep. However, the KCT directors say their program is distinguished by instruction in specific theater techniques, including technical training and Anne Bogart's Viewpoints school of theater.
One of the major hurdles for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre is that like numerous other area troupes, it does not have a home base. It has to scrounge for class, rehearsal and performance space, particularly in projects during the school year, when University of Kentucky venues that the company once used are not available.
But it's all part of the adventure of creating a new company, Nelson says.
"It is exciting to be involved at this point," Nelson says. "I feel like we're taking the next step. The first five years was us saying we can do this, we're sustainable, we can be here. Now we can take the next step and say, 'Here's exactly who we are.'"