SummerFest, which has presented plays and musicals in The Arboretum since 2007, announced Monday that it was moving to the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater inside Beaumont Circle starting next summer.
In addition, theater directors announced a change to the lineup of shows for next summer and acknowledged the organization was scaling back plans to become a year-round presenter.
Executive director Wesley Nelson said the move to Beaumont would allow SummerFest to address many enduring audience and artistic issues.
"After this summer, one of our designers mentioned the MoonDance amphitheater," Nelson said. "I had never been there before, but once I walked out there, I could see the possibilities."
Each summer at The Arboretum, crews for SummerFest and its predecessor, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, have had to install — and tear down — infrastructure for the event in an empty field of the botanical garden. MoonDance offers a permanent and partially covered stage with lighting and sound equipment, a permanent box office and restrooms.
"It was obvious we were pushing ourselves to the limit to produce a quality product out there," Nelson said of The Arboretum. "At MoonDance, the theater is already there, and our designers and technical crew can focus on the shows."
Developer Andy Haymaker, who built the amphitheater, said, "That's kind of what we envisioned when we built it. We built in a lot of efficiency for those guys to be able to put on their shows."
The amphitheater opened in 2010 in a large open space just off Harrodsburg Road and New Circle Road behind the Beaumont Centre shopping complex. Haymaker, who like many Lexingtonians still has a tendency to refer to SummerFest as "Shakespeare in the Park," says having the festival will help raise awareness of the venue, which already hosts part of the summer Big Band and Jazz series that began at Ecton Park and the Crave food festival that began in September.
Haymaker noted numerous restaurants in the immediate area of the amphitheater that theatergoers could patronize and "make a night of it."
Outdoor theater has been produced in The Arboretum in July since 1997, when the Lexington Shakespeare Festival moved from Woodland Park to the venue across Alumni Drive from Commonwealth Stadium. The Shakespeare Festival folded in 2006 because of financial difficulties, directors said. Early in 2007, SummerFest was created to continue summer outdoor theater in the venue.
"We've enjoyed having them, and it's been a good partnership, but we understand their reasoning," said Arboretum director Marcia Farris. She said hosting the festival helped raise awareness of The Arboretum. "We will miss them, and we wish them well."
Farris, who is retiring in January, said that over the years she has talked to other organizations that have wanted to do things similar to SummerFest, but she was not aware of anyone ready to replace the festival.
SummerFest board member Kim Dixon said, "It is a shame to move away from the UK campus and downtown, but there are a lot of exciting new possibilities in Beaumont."
The change of venue also prompted a change in programming, Nelson said. The inaugural season lineup for SummerFest at MoonDance will be William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night followed by the musical Little Shop of Horrors, replacing the previously announced lineup of Romeo and Juliet and the musical The Color Purple.
Nelson said recent productions of Romeo and Juliet in the area made it seem too soon to present the frequently staged show again. He said the scale of The Color Purple was too large for the MoonDance stage and SummerFest's budget.
Nelson acknowledged that it also was beyond the organization's grasp to become a year-round theater. Under the banner of Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, the organization had presented several successful shows, including a well-received fall 2011 production of August: Osage County, a fall 2012 production of the musical Spring Awakening and this year's late-summer presentation of The Girl Project.
"There was a rush to become a year-round theater," Nelson said, noting that previously announced productions including The History Boys this fall had been canceled. "We weren't really ready for that as an organization, so we decided to suspend the studio season and focus on SummerFest."
One consistent component of the Shakespeare Festival and SummerFest has been a conservatory for high school actors. Nelson said that would continue, and new details of the group's education programs will be announced early next year.