Stage & Dance

After director's departure, leaders of Lexington's Lyric Theatre look to reboot

The renovated Lyric on East Third Street reopened Oct. 30, 2010.
The renovated Lyric on East Third Street reopened Oct. 30, 2010.

Just over two years since its gala reopening, the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center sits at Elm Tree Lane and Third Street a shadow of what it was expected to be.

Last year ended with executive director Yetta Young departing and many questions remaining about what the theater's mission should be and why so little seems to be going on there. The big item on the theater marquee Tuesday morning: volunteer training.

"Its doors closed in one world and opened in another," Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said. "Not unexpectedly, there are bound to be some growing pains.

"It will be good to see community involvement and usage increase. These kinds of improvements are on the horizon."

Lyric board chairman Chris Ford acknowledged there is a lot of room for improvement.

"We are quite a ways away operationally from being where we want to be," said Ford, who is also Lexington's 1st District Urban County Council member. "Part of our focus has to be moving toward that goal."

What the goal is, or what the goal should be, are big questions surrounding the Lyric.

From the late 1940s to early 1960s, it was a hot spot for Lexington's black community with artists including jazz great Dizzy Gillespie packing the theater. Then it closed, shuttered for decades until a movement finally took hold to revive the Lyric with a $6 million renovation.

In October 2010, the Lyric reopened in a flurry of events, but programming has been spotty at best since then.

Months passed without major weekend performances in the theater, and a chorus of dissatisfaction began to rise from the East End community, complaining that the theater was inactive and inaccessible due to high rental rates.

Board member Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre and an independent producer and performer, said the Lyric has several big challenges. Those include its storied past, which probably helped raise expectations beyond what they should have been for a new 540-seat theater in an area unfamiliar to many regular arts patrons. That number of seats, he notes, is too few to make it financially feasible to bring in the Dizzy Gillespies of today — Wynton Marsalis, for instance — without risking a huge financial loss.

"We have to look at what we can do with the seating capacity we have to be a successful venue," McCorvey said.

Patricia Muhammad of the Historic East End Community Association Inc. said the Lyric's leaders should stop worrying about bringing in big-name acts and focus on providing arts opportunities to people in the community.

"Booker T. Washington said, 'Cast down your buckets where you are,' and see the beauty of the people that are in your own community," said Muhammad, who has been part of several efforts to protest what she and others have seen as the inaccessibility of the Lyric and a board out of touch with area residents.

Last year, the ordinance governing the theater, which is considered a partner agency of the city, was amended to require that at least one board member come from the community surrounding the theater.

Other responses to community concerns included new projects such as a free film series on Saturday afternoons in the summer and the Tiny Dresses program that taught area residents to make simple summer dresses for children in the community and in Haiti.

But Muhammad said that the initiatives came too late and that the Lyric needs to undergo fundamental changes to become the community gathering place she believes it was supposed to be. The ordinance, she said, is too geared toward a business model for the Lyric.

"All you have to do is change your mind and change the ordinance and have a community-based board, and the Lyric would become a functional part of the community," said Muhammad, whose ideas include basing an arts school like the New York High School of Performing Arts portrayed in the 1980 movie Fame at the Lyric.

Muhammad questioned the need to replace Young, saying funds can be better spent to buy resources such as instruments for music programs based at the theater.

"Whatever you do, you have to have a director," McCorvey said, "someone to make sure the place is cared for and the facility is maintained."

He said that the performance- and community-oriented visions for the Lyric are not mutually exclusive and that there should be room for both.

"The board is exploring ways the Lyric can serve the community as a whole, and the East End," Gray said. "It has the room and the facilities that can accommodate a dynamic programming schedule."

Already, board chairman Ford pointed out, efforts have been made to modify rent for facilities in the Lyric, such as the up-to-325-seat multi-purpose room, which has rental rates beginning at $25 an hour.

Hopes are that the addition of performances of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour folk-music program — which announced last month it was moving from the Kentucky Theatre to the Lyric starting Jan. 21 — will generate more traffic and get people used to going to the theater.

Ford said there will be efforts to garner more community input as the board begins searching for a successor to Young. He acknowledged that's just the start of work that needs to be done for the Lyric to fulfill its promise.

"We have to prove ourselves to be good stewards and good managers," Ford said. "The first few years of any start-up are rough.

"Frankly, we need to say to the public we would like a second chance to earn their patronage."

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