Stage & Dance

Arts community seeks more seats

Bill Owen passes some census figures across the table in his office at Lexington Center.

They show that since 1980, Lexington has added more than 80,000 people, to reach a population of 282,114 in 2008.

But in that time, the city has added only one new general-use performing arts venue: the Downtown Arts Center, which seats 250 at most in its theater.

"To me, intuitive judgment would tell you that with the growth in population, there is a natural demand for additional theater infrastructure," says Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which operates two of the city's large arts venues, Rupp Arena and Lexington Opera House.

Lexington's arts infrastructure is an assembly of venues that have impressive strengths — but also glaring weaknesses.

On the up side, there's Rupp Arena, a 23,000-seat venue that can host the biggest names in pop music.

But for the acts that don't fill arenas, the offerings are more hit-or-miss. The Lexington Opera House (with 866 seats) and University of Kentucky Singletary Center for the Arts' concert hall (seating nearly 1,500) are busy, with full calendars of national and local artists. But they have limitations and are too small for some purposes.

But venues within the gulf between 1,500 and 23,000 seats attract many touring musicians, theater productions and dance ensembles.

And for local theater groups, there's a need for something between the Opera House's size and the Downtown Arts Center's 250 seats.

Competitive disadvantage

Lacking a bona fide, multi-use performing arts center puts Lexington at a competitive disadvantage with large neighboring cities such as Louisville and Cincinnati, both of which have several big theaters.

But the Horse Capital of the World also has competition from some of the region's smaller towns.

For 36 years, Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts has hosted an enviable who's who of classical and pop music stars and touring Broadway shows in its 1,450-seat Newlin Hall.

Although the Norton Center has built a loyal audience in its home city, Danville (population 15,524), outgoing director George Foreman says more than half of the center's audience comes from outside Boyle County.

"One reason the Norton Center has been as successful as it has been is there really is not a serious level of competition in Lexington," says Foreman, who will leave Kentucky early next year for a job at the University of Georgia. "If there was someone in Lexington with a proper large theater doing the same kinds of things we've done here, ... do you think people would drive here instead of staying in Lexington?"

In 2011, they might start driving to Richmond, too.

At the Eastern Kentucky University, construction is proceeding on a performing arts center with just what arts leaders say the region needs: a 2,000-seat theater. EKU is building the venue as a cooperative project among the university and the cities of Richmond and Berea.

"It will certainly be a venue for Eastern groups," says EKU President Doug Whitlock. "But we also envision bringing in a variety of first-rate performers all the way from Broadway road shows to small dance troupes, not unlike the program at the Norton Center."

Busy but limited

Lexington is hardly a theatrical ghost town. The Opera House and Singletary Center stay busy, but neither offers the complete package of seating and stage amenities many national touring acts require.

At about 1,500 seats, the Singletary Center has a capacity comparable to the Norton Center. But it is built as a concert hall with little backstage space to accommodate the sets, props or large casts of many dance or theater productions. Its schedule is also full of UK School of Music events, making booking outside groups difficult.

The 122-year-old Opera House's backstage space falls far short of 21st-century industry standards. And at just fewer than 900 seats, it is one of the smallest venues in the country to present touring Broadway productions.

The Lyric Theatre, which is undergoing massive renovation, will come on line in 2010 as a 588-seat venue primarily geared toward music.

Size is an issue not just in terms of what can fit in a theater. Organizers also must be able to divide the costs of bringing in an artist among enough seats to make ticket prices attractive.

The Singletary Center's director, Michael Grice, says many artists — say Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. with his big band — aren't possible for Lexington because their fees would make ticket prices at the Singletary Center or the Opera House prohibitively high.

"If I have a $100,000 artist coming in and I have a 1,000-seat house, I have to sell all the seats at $100 a seat just to pay the artist fee," Grice says, noting there are numerous other costs associated with putting on a show. "At 2,300 seats, we can charge $50 a seat, and we might even be making some money if we sell out. It's a constant balancing act."

Lexington Center's Owen says the solution is in a new home for the UK men's basketball team.

Opportunity at Rupp

There has recently been a lot of discussion about replacing Rupp Arena, the cavernous home of the Wildcats and site of blockbuster concerts by acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen. But lost in discussions of a new Rupp, Owen says, are plans to convert space in the current arena complex to a 2,500-seat theater.

He says that the conversion is at least five years away and that the project hinges on how UK plans to proceed with a new arena, most likely in Rupp's current parking lot.

"It's a question of when," Owen says. "This is a concept, work plan, which the Lexington Center Board and the Downtown Development Authority feel has merit."

In addition to creating an attractively sized venue, a new theater might result in a trickle-down benefit for local artists.

A new theater at the current Rupp site would most likely become the new venue for a few Opera House staples such as the Broadway Live series. That might free up time on the Opera House calendar for more local performers.

Owen says the majority of the Opera House schedule is filled with local groups.

But Lexington Ballet executive director Joe Tackett says locals often have to wait until schedules for touring shows are set before they can get in. Then they have to compete with other groups for choice times.

A smaller need

In addition to that coveted 2,500-seat space, LexArts President and CEO Jim Clark says, Lexington has another need: a traditional theater space seating 300 to 500 people and accessible to area groups.

When the Downtown Arts Center opened in 2002, there were hopes it would fill that need. But while artists cheer the flexibility of the center's black box theater, they say it leaves much to be desired in amenities for artists and audiences.

"The Downtown Arts Center is too small," says Grice, also a local play director and producer. "It doesn't have the wing space, the backstage space, and it certainly does not have the audience space to do a theatrical production in which you hope you will make your investment back so you can do another one."

The Lyric will have the right number of seats, but it won't have the wing and backstage space needed for theater productions.

Many of Lexington's theater artists look longingly west to Woodford County's Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, where The Woodford Theatre performs in a 304-seat theater that opened in 2002. It has plenty of space on, behind and above the stage.

"Woodford is a real theater," says director Ave Lawyer, who has put up productions there and directed on most of Lexington's stages. "And it would be lovely if we had that sort of space here. I just don't see that happening any time soon."

In a tight economy, artists, administrators and politicians can't see where the political will or a private financier would come from to fund that idyllic theater.

Clark says the development of Lexington's Distillery District, a burgeoning arts and entertainment district northwest of downtown, might provide some opportunity for that sort of space.

If that happens, it could combine with a new Rupp Arena and performing arts theater and other Manchester Street hot-spots like Buster's Billiards & Backroom to make a vibrant entertainment district, Clark says.

Although the Norton Center's Foreman is leaving Central Kentucky, he says he'll keep his eye on the Bluegrass: "I think the next four to five years here are going to be very interesting for the performing arts."

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