Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: Woodford Theater's new boss loves it, rec center and all

Steven J. Arnold is the new artistic and executive director of The Woodford Theatre.
Steven J. Arnold is the new artistic and executive director of The Woodford Theatre. Lexington Herald-Leader

VERSAILLES — When Steven J. Arnold visited The Woodford Theatre for the first time, he wasn't quite prepared for the theater's location: inside the Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center.

"It was bizarre," he says. "I'd never seen anything like it.

"I pulled up to the building, and I said, 'This is a theater? There's a pool.' I knew that it was a recreation center, but I don't think I quite understood what that meant until I got inside. I open the door, and after I get through the double doors I see a basketball court, and I'm thinking, 'There's a theater in here? Someplace?'

Then he made left turn and fell in love.

The Woodford Theatre board must have been smitten too, because today Arnold comfortably settles into that theater as its new executive and artistic director.

Arnold succeeds Beth Kirchner, who retired earlier this year. She had spent 16 years nurturing the theater from what a barely functional organization into a highly regarded community theater with a home that could make a well-traveled theater artist swoon at the sight of it.

Arnold got into theater while growing up in the Annapolis, Md., area.

"My route began with professional non-Equity acting gigs that segued into professional directing gigs," Arnold says.

Then he got a job as artistic director at a community theater in Mansfield, Ohio.

"I loved that job so much, and I really did love that job, that after three years I knew I had to quit," Arnold says.

To that point, his career path had not included college.

"I had not given myself a reason to spend the money and put the time into it," Arnold says. "Just like a lot of other actors and people who are considering a career that doesn't necessarily hold a lot of promise, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. And I thought, I'm not going to go and attend classes for a degree unless I know what that degree's going to be in and what it will do for me. My job at the Mansfield Playhouse taught me what I wanted that degree for."

He knew that getting other executive-level theater jobs would be difficult without a degree, so at age 37, he enrolled in the theater department at Ohio State University.

His post-college job was at Church Hill Theatre on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a job that felt very much like his Mansfield gig. There, he says, he went about expanding the scope of a traditional community theater that did classic plays for a graying audience to a theater presenting fresher material for a younger crowd.

He appreciates that in Versailles, instead of reinventing, he gets to build on Kirchner's success.

"Things will certainly continue for the best of what The Woodford Theatre has been, and hopefully we will find ways to embellish on that and move forward even more," Arnold says.

The rest of this year will see Arnold implementing some behind-the-scenes strategies, including longer-range publicity efforts and getting to know the theater and the community better. Next year, audiences will get to see Arnold's directorial touch with John Cariani's play Almost, Maine, and Connie May and Alan Bailey's Smoke on the Mountain

So, now that he has had time to get used to it, what does he think of that theater-and-rec center setup?

"What I came to realize was this is a really, really great opportunity that some community theaters will never have," Arnold says. Many community theaters, including his previous one, have the problem of being hard to find.

"I thought, 'Oh, we're next to the pool.' There are a lot of people who are going to know about us just because we're in this building. It is an unexpected benefit that turned around my initial reaction of 'Really? This is weird.' Now it's, 'Really! This is great!"