Stage & Dance

Lexington native's return leads to founding of theatrical company

Nick Vannoy in a promotional photo for ProjectSEE Theatre's production of Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet.
Nick Vannoy in a promotional photo for ProjectSEE Theatre's production of Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet. for ProjectSEE Theatre

It's not unusual for Lexington's young artistic talents to leave the Bluegrass to seek their fortunes in bigger cities like Chicago or New York.

Actress and Lexington native Ellie Clark moved to New York nine years ago to immerse herself in the theater scene. Returning home every summer to participate in the Lexington Shakespeare Festival and later Summerfest, Clark just couldn't get Kentucky and the artists she had to say goodbye to each summer out of her system.

"There is so much talent here, and a community that is so supportive," Clark says. "I decided to move back to Kentucky to pursue theater more deeply than I'd be able to in New York."

Clark's sentiment might sound counter to traditional maxims about "making it" in theater, but she says that, when it comes to artistic growth and integrity, size isn't everything.

"There is an opportunity to build something more substantial in a place like Lexington, where you can develop deep, long-term relationships with other artists and the community more readily," she says, referring to the saturation of talent in New York, where even veterans can feel anonymous and out of touch with the deeper aspects of their work.

Clark and fellow New York actor and Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory instructor Evan Bergman made the permanent move to Lexington earlier this year, coinciding with another theater colleague's move to Lexington: Director Sullivan Canaday White joined the drama department at Transylvania University.

The trio had a long history of working together thanks to the Shakespeare Festival and SummerFest, and now that they are all permanently in Lexington, they wanted to take that collaboration to the next level.

"Evan had actors in mind that he wanted to work with and an amazing script by Stephen Dietz in mind," Clark says.

In August, the trio sat down to discuss the details of Dietz's AIDS-themed play, Lonely Planet. "Things kind of just snowballed," Clark says. In four short months, a new theater company, ProjectSEE Theatre, was born.

The theater is billed as a "fellowship of artists," with a multipurpose mission.

"We want to redefine the theater experience for older audiences and win over younger audiences by exposing them to a kind of theater they might not have known existed," Clark says. "We want to be fresh, collaborative and surprise people with what theater can do, all while building the community's trust in our artistic choices."

Clark, Bergman and White have made significant progress in community collaboration in SEE's debut show. The Lonely Planet production features partnerships with AVOL and Moveable Feast, and a visual-arts component in which six area artists — Pat Gerhard, Georgia Henkel, Phillip March Jones, Kristen Murphy, John Ridener and Althea Wiggs — painted doors in honor of six Lexingtonians who died of AIDS.

The company is in its fledgling stages but plans more productions as material, time and space become available.

"We hope in the next year or two to have a season," Clark says.