Folks who make the annual theater festival in the Arboretum part of their summer routine will have to get used to a new routine when SummerFest opens this week.
In the most radical realignment since it moved to the Arboretum in 1996, when it was then the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, the event will both expand and contract this summer.
The lineup features two productions, down from three, but they will be spread over five weekends, with a break in the middle.
All previous editions at the Arboretum were three shows in as many weekends.
That needed to change, says SummerFest general manager Wesley Nelson.
"The discussion has been going on for several years to change the format because we kept recognizing several problems that really had to do with time constraints," Nelson said. "Our designers and technicians were killing themselves to do the changeover from show to show to show. There was discussion of leaving three shows but expanding the time period of the festival."
That created logistical problems, particularly for college students involved in the event who start school in August, meaning the event didn't have much room to expand. Other ideas also were explored.
"It really came down to the fact that in order to maintain our production values, we needed to cut one show," Nelson says.
The festival will open Friday with Peter Pan, which will run through July 14. Then there will be a nine-day transition to the next show, A Chorus Line, which will run Wednesday to Sunday, July 24 to Aug. 4.
In addition to giving the festival crew a chance to catch its breath and focus on the later shows, Nelson says, the schedule gives audiences more chances to see productions — and more of a cushion during a rainy week. Particularly unfortunate productions have been able to present only one or two of their five scheduled performances.
"We have had people say, 'I would love to see this show, but that's the week I am on vacation,'" Nelson says. "Now, there will be more opportunities to see each show, which you really want after putting so much work into them."
A major factor in SummerFest's expansion was the adoption of a year-round schedule by its parent organization, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre. It now presents a "studio season" at the Downtown Arts Center, which this year will include The Girl Project on Labor Day weekend and Alan Bennett's The History Boys in November. Last season's productions included Spring Awakening.
"Now that we're year-round, we didn't feel like we were taking away opportunities for actors and audiences to see shows," Nelson says.
He and education director Vanessa Weig say response has been mostly positive except for the absence of one name from the lineup: Shakespeare.
Since launching as Shakespeare in the Park in 1982, the summer theater festival has had the Bard as one of its cornerstones, featuring at least two of his works until 2004, when the lineup moved to a Shakespearean play, a contemporary play and a musical.
That omission is in part why SummerFest already has announced its 2014 schedule: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and the musical version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
"Shakespeare will always be part of KCT's programming," Nelson says. "It is part of our legacy and part of our educational mission. So in the future, when we don't have Shakespeare on the SummerFest season, we will have him as part of the studio season."
The educational aspect of KCT also is receiving a renewed focus in the revamped SummerFest. When the event launched in 2007, following the dissolution of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, there was an emphasis on getting conservatory students in shows. But Nelson says that waned amid concerns that it was becoming a children's theater and that area adult actors were not welcomed.
Nelson says the aim is to make it akin to his own experience at Prestonsburg's Jenny Wiley Theatre, where as a student he got to work alongside professional actors.
"Peter Pan in particular, is giving the students a chance to take what they are learning at the conservatory and applying it directly to the stage," Weig says. "It really is an educational playground, and it's going to be a great show."
IF YOU GO
What: Outdoor theater presented by Kentucky Conservatory Theatre.
Shows: Peter Pan, July 5-7, 10-14. A Chorus Line, July 24-28, July 31-Aug. 4.
When: 8:45 p.m., gates open at 7.
Where: The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, 500 Alumni Drive.
Tickets: Both shows: $25 general admission, $35 reserved chair, $120 reserved blanket space for four. Single show: $15 advance, $18 at the gate general admission; $20 advance, $25 gate reserved chair; $65 advance, $90 gate for reserved blanket for four. Visit mykct.org to order.