Kentucky Repertory Theatre, long known as Horse Cave Theatre, was always one of the Bluegrass State's arts anomalies.
Located in a Hart County town of a little more than 2,000 people, it was something a lot of larger cities, including Lexington, had not been able to pull off: a professional theater affiliated with Actors Equity, the stage actors union.
Just a hop off Interstate 65 between Louisville and Bowling Green, it became a destination for tourists looking for a stop where they could take in several shows during an overnight stay while also visiting local attractions including nearby Mammoth Cave National Park.
But there's a reason we're speaking of Kentucky Rep in the past tense.
On Wednesday, South Central Kentucky-based Jobe Publishing Inc. reported that the theater has closed after 36 years in operation, many of them a financial struggle.
"Unfortunately, forces came together that brought us to this decision," board president Lyn Taylor Long told Jobe in an apparently exclusive interview, citing the economic downturn, declining numbers of patrons and the loss of major donors as factors contributing to the theater's demise. "It was not a decision we wanted to make."
As a professional venue, Horse Cave attracted several Lexington artists interested in building theater careers close to home, primarily Robert Brock, a Henry Clay High School and University of Kentucky graduate who served as the theater's director from 2002 to 2011.
Brock succeeded founding director Warren Hammack, who teamed with a few area residents to launch a professional theater that did substantial work. It opened as Horse Cave Theatre in June 1977 with a production of George Bernard Shaw's politics- and religion-driven Candida. Hammack and his wife, Pamela White, remained at the theater's helm for 25 years, with Brock coming along late in their tenure as an actor and eduction director.
It was a stunning place to visit on a hot July day. As life moved slowly along on the sidewalks of Horse Cave, the theater was busy putting up classic and new plays in the tradition of that other beacon of Kentucky theater: Actors Theatre of Louisville's internationally acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Lexington attorney Walter May developed several scripts as part of the Horse Cave Theatre's Kentucky Voices series and earned his Actors Equity card through work at the theater over several summers.
The new play efforts even helped gain the theater a statewide audience through Kentucky Educational Television, including filming Liz Bussey Fentress's Liz's Circus Story, and Horse Cave's appearance as part of its Electronic Field Trip Series.
Under Brock's direction, school field trips became an important part of the work of the theater, which won two Governor's Awards in the Arts — one in 1996 for Hammack and one in 2008 for the theater. In 2004, Brock was in charge when it changed its name to Kentucky Repertory Theatre to assert itself as one of the major theaters in the state. Brock also brought in film actors including Sally Struthers and Annie Potts, who grew up in Franklin, for special projects.
Despite the accolades, money was always tight. The last few times I saw Brock in his role as director, finances were weighing on him. The theater experienced several near-closings before last week's announcement.
Brock left Kentucky Rep in 2011 to become director of the theater department at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia. He was succeeded by New York-based director Christopher Carter Sanderson, who remained in the post for only 11 months before leaving in January 2012. The final season was produced under a New York-based company, RepAlliance, that has a stated goal of bringing professional theater to underserved communities.
In Jobe Publishing's story, Brock said of the closing, "I'm saddened by it, but everything has a life span. In the 35 years it was a professional Equity theater, it was a miracle that it survived."
For 36 years, the theater in Horse Cave just seemed to be a miracle.