When I started as a critic for the Herald-Leader in 2006, I was humbled and excited to take the reins as one of the primary reviewers of Central Kentucky theater, particularly because it was a time when the Lexington stage community began a transition.
Since then, a Shakespeare festival fell, two arose in its place, and one survives. Numerous independent productions have begun to pepper downtown venues, a restaurant gave birth to a serious theater entity, and a long-standing institution buckled and is trying to regroup.
As a critic, I have the privilege of attending just about every show coming and going in the Bluegrass. Each season has brought its own gems and stinkers, and like an actor who beams one night and falters another, I too have had successes and stumbles in reviewing. Was I too soft on one show? Too hard on another? Perhaps I missed the point on a third, or drew only a mediocre insight on another.
Admittedly, I have had my share of hits and misses. The same could be said for Central Kentucky theater as it begins to define the 21st-century version of itself.
Looking back over the 2009-10 season, it is easy to see that theme playing out.
Two long-standing established theaters, Lexington Children's Theatre and The Woodford Theater in Versailles, took what they do best to a new level.
Lexington Children's Theatre continues to put out the most consistently excellent programming of any area theater — including Vivian Snipes' gorgeous commedia dell'arte-themed staging of Pinocchio and Larry Snipes' pared-down and courageous rendering of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (remembering the last scene of that December production still makes me misty-eyed). The theater's reputation is so good, in fact, it landed a spot in the top 100 of December's Chase Community Giving Competition on Facebook, earning it a check for $25,000. That LCT was the top vote-getter among theaters nationwide is a feat for the entire Bluegrass arts community to be proud of.
With a new name, The Woodford Theater, formerly the Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association, also had a banner season. Its motto is "Something for everyone," and that is true. The theater knows what it does best and sticks to it: plain ol' good community theater. Very good, in fact.
This past holiday season, Woodford enjoyed its most defining accomplishment: the world premiere of an original play. The Christmas Presence, written by the theater's artistic director, Beth Kirchner, featured clever writing and tight directing, and it demonstrated what happens when Kentucky cultivates its own talent rather than looking to outsiders as the only legitimate standard-bearers.
To a lesser degree, Studio Players in Lexington belongs in this category. Studio knows where its bread is buttered — entertaining romps like the comedy Run for Your Wife in May — but it has been mixing riskier material into its past few seasons. March's gritty production of Sam Shepard's Wait Until Dark comes to mind. Whatever Studio Players is doing, it is working. No other theater sells out shows so consistently and quickly.
At least one other theater did not fare so well.
Actors Guild of Lexington experienced what most likely will be remembered as its most challenging season to date. After suffering some major blows in funding and the loss of key staff members, the beleaguered troupe mounted a scaled-down season that included two musical shows and a holiday comedy. A disappointing debut with the musical revue Beguiled Again, in September, set the tone for a hard slog ahead.
Kudos to Eric Seale, AGL's acting artistic director and sole paid staff member, for thinking outside the box with subsequent on-the-fly programming. The SantaLand Diaries, presented in a former restaurant in a strip shopping center in December, drew sold-out crowds. It's almost as if AGL needed to laugh darkly at its plight along with SantaLand writer David Sedaris. Timothy Hull's elfin adventures in the lead role were indeed a bright spot in the year.
Actors Guild took a risk earlier this month on the concert version of the musical Tommy, but I am nostalgic for and eager to see it get back to its roots of producing smart, compelling drama.
At press time, Actors Guild's new season had yet to be finalized, but Seale confirmed that a full season is in the works. One of the upsides of last year's fallout is a renewed effort to examine and respond to what the community needs.
"My job is to serve the community, and not do what I feel like," Seale said.
As AGL regroups and refocuses, other theater entities have emerged.
The independent production of Equus, put on by Banta Productions in early June, was one of the most, if not the most, artistically sophisticated, beautifully wrought shows of the year.
And Balagula Theater sprang from its humble beginning, doing shows in a tiny corner of Natasha's Bistro & Bar, to mounting a full season in a newly expanded theater space, complete with upgraded technical capabilities.
Ryan Case and Natasha Williams, the troupe's co-founders, quit their day jobs (with Williams closing her eclectic Props Gallery boutique at Main Street and Esplanade) and have committed themselves to full-time theater. This past season of intellectually heavy-hitting absurdist theater was a refreshing, if challenging, escape from the ordinary.
All of these developments made for an exciting year of reviewing and a pivotal turning point in the evolution of Lexington's theater scene.
What's next for Central Kentucky theater? Join me next season to find out.