Stage & Dance

Central Kentucky's open-air theaters count survival as achievement

Holly Henson is the artistic director of the Pioneer Playhouse.
Holly Henson is the artistic director of the Pioneer Playhouse.

When asked how The Stephen Foster Story has been doing the past few years, managing artistic director Johnny Warren says, "We're open."

That has not always been a given in the past several years. The summer musical at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown has had to endure the recession as much as any other enterprise.

Then again, says Holly Henson, director of the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, "It's always a recession in summer outdoor theater."

Harrodsburg's The Legend of Daniel Boone is the only outdoor drama in Central Kentucky that has closed, but all of the region's destination outdoor theaters — meaning theaters that attract significant tourist audiences from outside their immediate areas — have teetered during the past few years. They have faced questions as to whether their shows would survive.

Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg's Jenny Wiley State Park has labored under a debt it took on in 2004, when extensive flooding put its amphitheater under water and necessitated significant infrastructure expenses.

"Recently, we have just attacked the debt and gone after more grant money and saved money, and we have a new sales director who is doing a great job, particularly at getting groups in," says Martin Childers, executive director of the theater.

In all three cases, the open-air theaters have been in business nearly 50 years or more and have become important parts of their local economies.

"I can't imagine a year in Bardstown without The Stephen Foster Story," says Marcheta Sparrow, secretary of Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. "I know there would be a big gap there in restaurants and other businesses."

Sparrow says she has seen the kind of impact a closed theater can have on a local economy in Harrodsburg, where she lives and where Daniel Boone used to draw audiences in the summer months.

Although they both opened just last weekend, Sparrow says she already has been to Pioneer Playhouse and to The Stephen Foster Story.

"Sitting out in the Pioneer Playhouse under the night sky with the stars overhead and watching the play and hearing the laughter of the audience is a wonderful experience you can't get anywhere but in live, outdoor theater," Sparrow says.

But that experience has a lot more competition than in the thriving days of outdoor dramas, in the mid- to late 20th century.

"People's idea of entertainment has changed," Sparrow says. "In the last half of the 20th century, more people went to plays and took their children. Now, there is so much more virtual entertainment, and it's a real challenge to convince people that this is still an attractive alternative."

Sparrow says outdoor dramas generally are not the attraction that will draw people to a state destination. Conventions, adventure tourism like biking and hiking, and indigenous attractions such as horse farms or race courses are big draws to Kentucky, she says. But the plays and musicals are often an attractive additional activity.

"They show people that we have talent here and an appreciation for the arts," Sparrow says.

The big tourism issue in recent years has been gas prices, but theater directors in general say that is not a big issue for them.

"If gas prices are higher, we see more of an in-state audience — people who are coming to us instead of maybe going to Disney World this year," Warren says. "When they're lower, we see more out-of-state travelers."

Childers says Jenny Wiley doesn't see a major impact until gas prices hit their upper reaches, and in recent weeks, prices have gone down.

Still, even if the economy begins to improve, the theaters know that times have changed, and they are changing to attract new audiences. At Jenny Wiley, efforts are afoot to add an indoor area for year-round programming to bolster the offerings at the amphitheater and indoor, dinner theater-style space.

Warren says the addition of musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, which opens next month, to its schedule is specifically to attract Bardstown-area audiences who might not be interested in seeing Stephen Foster every year. Conversely, Pioneer Playhouse has added a new local history play to each season to attract locals, who might not have been inclined to come out before.

"We have found that when people come out and see us, they come back," Henson says.

Echoing other theater organizers, Henson says the summer of 2011 has started well at Pioneer Playhouse, with strong ticket sales and shows — in this case, a production of the recent Broadway hit The 39 Steps. And that gives her hope that, although there might never be a booming economy in summer outdoor theater, maybe it will be steadier.

"For people who know how to market and know their demographic, if they program and market well, they will thrive," Henson says.

Referring to her father, the late Eben Henson, founder of Pioneer Playhouse, she says, "Dad always said it just takes a little common sense to run a theater."