Last summer, Wesley Nelson was wrapping up his work directing The Rocky Horror Show for SummerFest, but he wanted to stay involved in the organization. He asked about becoming a member of the board for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre and SummerFest, but the organization had other ideas.
Trish Clark, then an education director of the organization, called Nelson and said, "I want to talk to you, and I want to make sure you're in a location where you can't run away," Nelson says.
In summer 2011, Martha Campbell served as interim general manager for the festival — and she meant interim. Come the conclusion of last year's event, she was gone, and the organization was looking for a permanent replacement in the arduous job.
Nelson, who had experience both in management and on stage, seemed an ideal candidate.
"Wes comes with a unique set of skills," says Joe Ferrell, SummerFest's artistic director. "Because of his background, he is able to function as a sort of producing manager, looking for money and that sort of thing on that end, and he also came with a background in theater and directing and acting, which serves us so well when we start looking at how are we going to run this sort of thing and how are we going to do this and that."
With Nelson, an Eastern Kentucky University graduate who worked with theaters in Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania before returning to Kentucky, SummerFest is now able to start looking to the future of the annual theater festival in the Arboretum and of the overall organization.
The event and its educational arm have evolved since it stepped in for the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, which folded in 2006. In its original form, SummerFest was a stage outlet for the theater conservatory that had developed under the auspices of the Shakespeare Festival.
But when the organization announced that intention and opened with some student-centric shows including an age-appropriate production of Romeo and Juliet, The Crucible and The Lord of the Flies, Ferrell and others say, audiences and the Lexington theater community got the wrong idea.
"There kind of developed a perception of the adults in the acting community that we were going to become more of a young people's sort of production," Ferrell says.
In the past few years, with more adult fare including Antony and Cleopatra, Rent and Rocky Horror, SummerFest has blunted that perception. Now it's looking for balance.
Of this year's productions, all have some student involvement, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opens the festival Wednesday, and Legally Blonde: The Musical, later in the month.
"In all, we have about 20 students on stage this year, and many behind the scenes as crew," Nelson says.
They are working alongside local stage notables and conservatory instructors, including Vanessa Becker, who will play the character role of Paulette in Legally Blonde.
"They get to see their instructors practice what they teach," Nelson says.
Nelson and Ferrell are quick to say that audiences should not just write the conservatory actors off as students.
Lucy Sharp, who played Juliet in that 2007 Romeo and Juliet production, is now working on the third season of the hit PBS series Downton Abbey. Nick Vannoy, a former conservatory student who returned to play lead roles in the past two seasons of SummerFest, is now a New York actor who will come to Cincinnati this fall to play Porthos in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production of The Three Musketeers.
The directors say Ellie Todd is their latest budding success story. A veteran of the conservatory, she is coming back from the University of Michigan to play the lead role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.
So, rather than think of them as student actors, SummerFest leaders like to promote the idea that you are seeing students poised to go off to do bigger and better things, or to come back and become one of the future pillars of SummerFest.
In addition to raising future artists, the festival is, of course, aiming to put on a show for local theater lovers. In its heyday, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival commanded audiences of 2,000 people or more a night for To Kill a Mockingbird and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Ferrell and Nelson acknowledge that those days might be gone. There are a number of factors at play, including higher ticket prices now, more competition for audiences and only a few titles that generally will draw those enormous audiences.
Nelson takes it as a point of pride that SummerFest, and now Kentucky Conservatory Theatre in other parts of the year, have had hits with August: Osage County and Rent.
"Our audiences have come to expect contemporary, important works from us, and that's great," Nelson says.
Now, with a solid management team in place, SummerFest hopes to build that audience. Nelson, after all, has shown that he won't run away from a challenge.