Stage & Dance

Wynonna, Aretha, 'Wait, Wait' lead EKU arts center's debut season

Oct. 22: Aretha Franklin
Oct. 22: Aretha Franklin

RICHMOND — The Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts will open this fall with an artist who once lived in Richmond in her humbler days, and then it will host marquee talent from around the world during its inaugural season.

A Sept. 24 performance by Wynonna Judd is the first concert of the debut season. As a child, Judd lived in Richmond with her sister, Ashley, and mother, Naomi, while Naomi was a nursing student at EKU.

Judd will be followed by an October lineup of legends including Peter Frampton, B.B. King, Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin.

The rest of the season includes a mix of classical, pop, jazz, Broadway and dance performances, including jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and the hit NPR news quiz show Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me.

EKU President Doug Whitlock said the star- studded lineup was due to center director Debra Hoskins and her experience booking acts at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. Hoskins served in several roles at the Norton Center, including assistant director, before she left in December. She was named the EKU center's director in February, after the departure of original director Katherine Eckstrand, reportedly for family health reasons.

Hoskins said she leaned in her years of experience at the Norton Center in programming the 2011-12 season, particularly as she got to the task late in the season-booking game.

"I have a very good idea of what will be successful," Hoskins said, when asked how much she considered past Norton Center seasons in programming for EKU. "I believe that the public wants to purchase performances that are familiar — they know the music and they know what their dollars are going to. Past Norton Center seasons weren't considered other than knowing what sold and what didn't. Most of the performances we're presenting have a history of being sold out across the country — my two favorite words, sold out."

Whitlock said a big aim of the initial season is to establish the center, 11/2 miles from Interstate 75's Exit 87, as a regional center.

"This facility came into being through a partnership between the city, the county and the university," Whitlock said. "In order for it to be viable and host the quality of entertainment we want, it has to be recognized as a regional facility."

In addition to booking internationally known entertainers, Hoskins said, regional acts such as Lexington Ballet and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra were part of the effort to establish a regional profile for the center.

The center's main hall is expected to seat 2,100 when it is completed, and the facility also includes a black-box theater capable of seating 200.

Construction is getting down to the details, with tan paint covering drywall and fixtures being installed in the theaters and spacious star dressing rooms.

Whitlock said a team scouting the center as a possible venue for one of the 2012 presidential debates was impressed with the ancillary facilities in the center as well as the theaters.

Before Judd's concert, the center probably will open with an invitation-only gala featuring area performers to help showcase the center's capabilities.

"People talk about life-changing experiences," Whitlock said. "The opening of this center will be a life-changing experience in a positive sense for Central Kentucky."

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