Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, which presents the annual Summerfest outdoor theater lineup in July, adds a new festival to its programming with the debut this week of Winterfest. The two-week festival will feature the musical Cabaret at the Grand Reserve and a one-man version of Hamlet at the Barrel House.
It's the second time that Kentucky Conservatory Theatre has branched out beyond its Summerfest programming, which, like the Lexington Shakespeare Festival that preceded it, features musicals and Shakespeare productions.
Artistic director Wesley Nelson says that Winterfest was inspired by the unique experiences offered to Summerfest patrons, who last year followed the event from the Arboretum on Alumni Drive to the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater in the Beaumont subdivision.
"Last year went extremely well, and we had a really successful summer," Nelson says, "so in thinking about doing indoor shows, our first question was, 'How do we get our patrons from Summerfest follow us?'"
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When organizers examined what made Summerfest a success, they concluded it was about more than just the shows themselves, but about the experience of seeing outdoor theater. Patrons bring their own blankets or chairs, lounge under the stars with coolers of beer or wine, picnic with snacks from home or sample new foods from one of several food trucks on site.
Clearly, they couldn't replicate a summer experience in winter.
But they could focus on providing a unique winter experience for its established patrons.
"We asked, 'How can give that to them inside?'" Nelson says. "We said, 'OK, what if we find shows that really give an experience in these venues?' Then we started to explore other options, like adding food and cocktails.
Ticket prices for Cabaret include dinner, and there's a cash bar. Tickets without the dinner option are available. Patrons are encouraged to arrive an hour before the show starts to enjoy pre-show entertainment, sip cocktails and mingle. The Grand Reserve, the venue for Cabaret, will seat as many as 192 guests, and the Barrel House can seat 92 people for Hamlet.
KCT has ventured beyond its Summerfest parameters before.
Nelson was hired as artistic director just two weeks before the opening of August: Osage County, another indoor studio season show of 2011.
"I kind of jumped in head and feet first," Nelson says. "We were artistically proud of those shows, but I never felt like they were what KCT does best."
Nelson says a rough summer of rain cancellations for Summerfest then prompted a yearlong self-examination of the theater's strengths and weaknesses.
"We took that year and said, 'What do we do, and what do we do well?'" Nelson says. "We decided our audiences knew us for Shakespeare and musical theater."
Nelson says that Winterfest is keeping that formula, but the intimacy of the indoor venues allows KCT to offer shows that simply wouldn't work on a larger outdoor venue such as MoonDance.
For Cabaret, for instance, the Grand Reserve will be transformed into the Kit Kat Club, and the musical will be performed in the round, somewhat in the spirit of the hit Broadway revival, presented in the former Studio 54 nightclub in New York.
"A lot of the choreography takes place next to the tables, and the audience sitting up close will feel like they're part of the show," says Nelson, who was inspired to direct Cabaret after viewing the space.
"The first time I saw it, I said, I have to do a show in here," Nelson says. "Aesthetically, the space is just fantastic. It's contemporary but formal, rustic but elegant."
Nelson says that KCT had planned to produce Cabaret as early as 2012, when the show was listed in the Spring Awakening and Summerfest playbills as an upcoming November 2014 studio season production. But after the summer of 2013, KCT announced that it was suspending its indoor season.
"There was a rush to become a year-round theater," Nelson said at the time. "We weren't really ready for that as an organization, so we decided to suspend the studio season and focus on Summerfest."
Several planned productions were canceled, including a planned fall 2013 production of The History Boys, and no further plans for productions outside of the summer were announced.
Last spring, the University of Kentucky Theatre announced a production of Cabaret for this season, but Nancy Jones, who chairs the UK theater department, replaced it on the schedule with Hair after KCT announced its Winterfest lineup in September.
"I thought it was in the best interest of the students and audience to change shows," Jones says. She wasn't aware that KCT was still planning to produce Cabaret when she planned the 2014-2015 season, she says.
"They had stated a few years back that they had intentions of doing this play, but they had also said they weren't going to be doing winter shows anymore, so in the back of my mind it was a bit of a moot point," Jones says.
Nelson says the mix-up was a misunderstanding and that KCT always had planned to produce Cabaret this season.
"When we decided to do Winterfest, we pushed it back from November and got the dates changed to January," Nelson says.
Nelson acknowledges that UK Theatre and KCT have had duplication problems in the past. In the 2011-12 season, both presented August: Osage County and in 2012-13, both programmed Spring Awakening.
Jones says the overlapping problem is in the past.
"It really worked out for the best," Jones says. "Hair is even better for us right now, and our students are really excited."
Performances of Hair will be April 16 to 26 at UK's Guignol Theatre.
For the Shakespeare component of Winterfest, Nelson says, he saw an opportunity to try something different.
"Our Summerfest audiences prefer Shakespeare's comedies, but we felt like Winterfest might be our chance to start slipping in some darker shows," he says.
Matthew Lewis Johnson, who directed Twelfth Night for Summerfest 2014, will star in Winterfest's one-man version of Hamlet, thanks to a special agreement with Actors Equity Association. Johnson is the former associate artistic director for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is a co-producer of Winterfest's Hamlet. The company's artistic director, Brian Isaac Phillips, a Nicholasville native, is directing the show.
Nelson says he hopes that Winterfest becomes a permanent part of KCT's programming, but this first year is a trial run.
"Whenever you go into something new, you always approach it as a test with the hope of the test going well and then proceeding with it," Nelson says. "All signs point to yes. Ticket sales are going well for both shows. Artistically, we are thrilled with both productions."