Stage & Dance

Central Kentucky arts scene saw big events and big changes

Joe Gatton and Lisa Welch starred in One Flea Spare at Balagula Theatre. Playwright Naomi Wallace attended one of the shows.
Joe Gatton and Lisa Welch starred in One Flea Spare at Balagula Theatre. Playwright Naomi Wallace attended one of the shows.

We did not have a major international event in Lexington this year like 2010's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but it felt like a big year in the arts.

WEG was a catalyst for a lot of big names and big plans for Lexington arts organizations and presenters, but the major events of 2011 came a bit more naturally. It was an important year for the arts in Central Kentucky as the organizational and physical landscapes shifted.

Big events

How many college orchestras could claim a year in which they played with superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman and orchestral superstars the Boston Pops, complete with Keith Lockhart on the podium? The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra could, and it played a world premiere by Thomas Pasatieri. Major accomplishments are becoming routine under John Nardolillo's direction.

Also coming from the UK School of Music was the Opera Theatre's innovative production of Porgy and Bess, which recorded multiple sellouts at the 1,500-seat Singletary Center and employed a new video projection system created by UK's Viz Center for the sets.

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 50th anniversary season with another violin superstar, Midori, and continued some changes that it experimented with last year, including having Picnic With the Pops at Keeneland and taking its annual Messiah performances to area churches.

As is becoming more the case, numerous new works were premiered in Central Kentucky this year, including the orchestral version of Daniel Thomas Davis' Book of Songs and Visions, which he originally composed for the chamber ensemble at the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. This year's festival world premiere was Daniel Kellogg's Look Up at the Sky.

ActOut Theatre brought Stephen Currens' The Happy Hour to the stage, and Christmastime brought two world premieres: Margaret Price's musical Looking for Mrs. Santa Claus at Studio Players, and Robyn Peterman-Zahn's Smackdown for the Christmas Crown at The Rep, a new company making its debut.

An arts district?

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has primarily been a sports story, to this point, focused on what kind of home court the University of Kentucky men's basketball team will have. But the whole project has major implications for arts and entertainment in Central Kentucky beyond what effect renovations in Rupp will have on arena acts that play Lexington. Included in the discussion have been possibilities for new venues, including an amphitheater near the arena, a possible new home for area orchestral groups, and a downtown campus for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The effort to reimagine the arena area also has revived a decades-old debate about whether Lexington needs a 2,000- to 2,500-seat performing-arts theater, which does not appear to be in the cards with recently approved plans.

This story will evolve over the years because the project reportedly will take more than a decade to complete. But 2011 is the year things seriously started to happen, and the arts have had a seat at the planning table.

A new venue

Speaking of major performing-arts theaters, a new one opened this fall: the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond. It is the first new major arts venue of more than 1,000 seats to open in Central Kentucky in several decades, although Lexington's Singletary Center for the Arts and Opera House, and Danville's Norton Center for the Arts have undergone major renovations in recent years.

EKU made a provocative move in hiring former Norton Center assistant director Debra Hoskins as its director, and she brought the Norton Center playbook, booking big names including B.B. King, Peter Frampton and Wynonna Judd for the opening season of the new theater.

In possibly a hint of how arts programming at Central Kentucky theaters might be realigning, new Norton Center director Steven A. Hoffman programmed more of a connoisseur/adventurer season at his venue, with the Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata performing a reimagined Sound of Music and avant-garde violinist Hahn-Bin this fall.

A realigned theater scene

No genre realigned in Central Kentucky this year as much as theater in Lexington. Actors Guild of Lexington staged what has been a successful comeback, with a dizzying number of shows for one calendar year, mostly at its new venue off Harrodsburg Road, near the Fayette County-Jessamine County line. Meanwhile, several new theaters emerged, including ProjectSEE Theatre, which has programmed a season at the Downtown Arts Center and Transylvania University; SummerFest, which staged its first fall and indoor show with August: Osage County and has plans for a spring production; and The Rep, which grabbed the musical theater baton from Paragon Music, which went on possible permanent hiatus with the departure of founding director Ryan Shirar.

Other players moving around and positioning themselves in 2011 included On the Verge, which had a successful site-specific performance at a funeral home with Three Viewings and then presented its first theater production with God of Carnage at the Downtown Arts Center. And Balagula Theatre continued growing its own niche, performing Naomi Wallace's contemporary classic One Flea Spare for the playwright and participating in a competition with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference that will result in a world premiere production early in 2012. Agape Theatre also has continued to innovate, with new productions illustrating the black experience in Kentucky and beyond, including a collaboration early in the year with eventual National Book Award winner Nikky Finney.

With all the shifting, the Lexington theater scene has become a true ensemble cast, with no leading theater — although Lexington Children's Theatre is the leading professional house — but with lots of interesting character actors.