For nearly a decade, Balagula Theatre has been a bit of an oddity in the Lexington entertainment landscape: a theater based in a restaurant, Natasha's Bistro & Bar, in the middle of downtown Lexington. But this was far from conventional dinner theater, challenging audiences with a steady offering of contemporary, sometimes absurdist, always literate fare.
In the process, the theater built a strong reputation, earning consistently strong reviews and attracting some of the area's best-known actors.
But starting with the 2014-15 season, which opens in September, Balagula will no longer be the theater in a restaurant.
For the bulk of its seven-play season, Balagula will perform in the Farish Theater in the Lexington Public Library's downtown branch on Main Street. That will make it the first professional company to call the library theater home since it underwent a major renovation in 2012 and reopened under the Farish name. Other professional groups performed in the theater before the renovation, the last big one being Phoenix Group Theatre, which disbanded in 1998.
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"Libraries aren't just books," said Ann Hammond, executive director of the Lexington Public Library. "It's about culture, and the many aspects of our culture."
Balagula will present five out of seven plays this coming season in the library theater. The other two will be presented at the Downtown Arts Center to take advantage of its flexible stage layout.
When Farish Theater coordinator Thomas Southerland and Balagula Theatre co-artistic director Ryan Case began talking about the potential of working together, they found it was a perfect fit.
Balagula will be the exclusive professional theater in the library space, though school and amateur groups will still be able to use it.
"The library was a great place for us to go to because we're so literate, and we look at the word first," said Balagula Theatre co-artistic director Natasha Williams, who is a native of Russia. "So for the library to have a theater and for us to be in the library, seemed like a great collaboration."
And while the Balagula directors have enjoyed having their own home at Natasha's — after all, the place has Williams' first name on it — the artistic directors said it was time for them to move out into a theatrical space and maybe lay to rest some confusion about Balagula.
Over the years, the theater progressed from simply presenting plays in the restaurant space to building a stage and providing non-restaurant seating for performances, eventually becoming a not-for-profit company and presenting complete seasons of shows. But plays were presented on a Sunday-through-Wednesday schedule because Natasha's is also a music venue, particularly on weekends, which meant that the company had only rare opportunities to rehearse in the space it performed in. The dimensions of the restaurant also presented challenges in terms of the physical space.
"The restaurant has my name, and it has the theater, and in a way, the theater became more associated with me than it should have been," Williams said. "It is Ryan's as well as it is mine, and other people we are partnered with."
Case and Williams also said this will clarify some confusion, like whether it is a dinner theater, and relieve awkward moments like restaurant patrons showing up and finding the kitchen closed because a play is being presented. Williams acknowledged that the move will also give Natasha's, which is owned by her husband, Gene Williams, greater latitude as a music venue.
And the library has a theatrical tenant, which it had wanted since the renovation.
"For us," Southerland said, "they're being in here opens a whole lot of new possibilities."