Stage & Dance

Lexington becomes theater central with convention's arrival

Southeastern Theatre Conference representative David Giambrone stood backstage at the Lexington Opera House with a cluster of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School theater students crowded around him.

Quietly, he articulated instructions to them and director Tonya Merritt.

Then he raised his stopwatch in the air, announced "Dunbar High School, your 25 minutes starts now," and clicked a button.

The students were off for a brief rehearsal for their performance of an abbreviated form of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew later that morning. They grabbed pastel set pieces and took them onstage in blurs of turquoise and yellow. Susan Creech and Kayla Bryan threw each other all over the stage as contentious sisters Katherina and Bianca. Victoria Harrington made her way up four flights of stairs to give the Opera House light board a test drive.

Such was the fast-forward life of students in the high school theater festival at the conference's annual convention.

Usually, Lexington competitors in the high school festival and other regional thespians must hit the road for the annual convention, a must for anyone in the southeastern United States who is serious about theater.

The event, which includes four play festivals, a job fair, auditions and numerous workshops, is expected to attract 4,000 people from 13 member states to Lexington this weekend.

The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau conservatively estimates the economic impact at $1.2 million.

This is the first time Lexington has hosted the convention since 1978. But judging by reactions from SETC leaders, it probably won't be three decades before the event returns.

"If it continues like it has, this is a location we would like to return to as quickly as possible," said SETC president Beth Harvey, director of the Nathan H. Wilson Center for the Performing Arts at Florida State College at Jacksonville. "This city is phenomenal. The whole downtown center is lovely and accessible, and the hospitality is above and beyond."

Among amenities Harvey said she really appreciates are restaurants tailoring menus so convention-goers can get in and out quickly. The signs welcoming participants to some establishments also are a plus.

"I haven't heard a report of bad service or a bad meal yet," Harvey said.

Most SETC activity is concentrated downtown between the Lexington Center and Lexington Opera House. The University of Kentucky's Guig nol Theatre, on campus, is also a venue for the community theater festival, where Lexington's Balagula Theatre presented a pair of plays by Samuel Beckett on Thursday morning at the same time the Dunbar students were on stage at the Opera House.

Most events are open only to convention attendees. But the Lexington Children's Theatre invited students from nearby Harrison Elementary and Sts. Peter and Paul schools to see shows in the "theater for young audiences" festival at LCT.

Though her venue was an SETC site, LCT managing director Lesley Farmer was heading to the job fair to look for recruits.

"Last year, I think I talked to 300 people in one day," she says of the employment sessions, which she and LCT arts administration intern Bradford Forehand likened to speed dating.

Last year's SETC, in Birmingham, Ala., is where Farmer hired Forehand.

"It sets you up with connections for life," Forehand said of the convention.

And that is a point Dunbar high school's Merritt was making to her students during a talk between their 8:25 a.m. rehearsal in the Opera House and their performance at 11:30 a.m.

"This is a learning and networking opportunity," she said. She also advised them to be on their best behavior because they were representing themselves and their school.

"Someone you meet here could become the director of the theater company you want to get a job at down the road, and if you were a schmuck to them, they might remember it," she advised.

Several students recalled Dunbar lighting designer Katie Bosworth becoming sought after by colleges at last year's SETC. Merritt said, "I think they were making up colleges to offer her scholarships."

Dunbar is in its second straight year representing Kentucky in the high school festival.

Theater troupes advance to the SETC festivals by winning in state competitions, in Kentucky's case, the Kentucky Theatre Association's get-together last fall at Morehead State University.

"I have never been on this stage before," Richard Stephan III, 18, a senior playing Shrew's Petruchio, said as he surveyed the Opera House's 866 seats.

Dunbar's take on Shrew was an updating of the 16th-century play that one festival judge likened to "one foot in the world of Shakespeare, one foot in the world of Happy Days."

Petruchio entered saying, "Aaayyy," like the Fonz, and got married in an Elvis jumpsuit. Still, the students earned praise from the judges for navigating Shakespeare's language.

The entire process from getting into costume to putting away the sets took less than two hours, leaving the Dunbar students to enjoy the rest of the convention until the results of the competition are announced Saturday night.

That is, unless they had signed up for something else.

"I'm auditioning tomorrow," Catie Coldiron, 18, said. "So I'm pretty nervous about that. But it's nice to be able to sleep in my own bed."