This past week was a quietly momentous one for Lexington theater. No new shows were mounted, though the new Afterculture Theatre wrapped up a successful inaugural production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit the previous weekend.
But on Tuesday, AthensWest Theatre Company became the first Lexington theater in recent memory to announce a season of shows that will feature actors hired through contracts with Actors Equity, the stage actors union.
Then on Thursday, The Lexington Theatre Company announced the cast for its late-July production of 42nd Street, which will include several Broadway veterans working under Equity contracts.
Since I arrived in town, an Equity theater company has been something of a holy grail in Lexington theater. Equity companies are theaters that present shows with some or all of their performers working under Equity contracts. The primary Equity theaters in our region are Actors Theatre of Louisville and Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, though each city boasts other theaters that work with Equity on some level.
Having an Equity theater is widely viewed as desirable because it presumably raises the level of professionalism in productions, and it also gives local Equity actors opportunities to work at home and focus on their craft. At certain thresholds, Equity theaters also give actors chances to work toward getting their Equity cards so they can then audition for roles in other Equity theaters.
There have been, and are, companies in Lexington that have paid actors a stipend for their work over the run of a show. But it has long been an article of faith that Equity shows are unattainable in Lexington; that the costs of honoring Equity contracts is too high for a Lexington theater to consistently provide those contracts, pay all the other necessary bills, and stay out of the red.
Over the years, it has been suggested to me that the only way Lexington could support an Equity company is if the University of Kentucky played some role to give it a financial base.
There have also been some fears expressed in the local theater community that Equity shows would bring an influx of card-carrying out of town actors taking up all the good roles. This usually comes with the disturbingly provincial suggestion that people just come to local plays to see their friends act, which is certainly not a model on which you can build a thriving theater scene.
But evidence has seemed to suggest otherwise.
For many years Horse Cave Theatre and later Kentucky Repertory Theatre presented Equity shows in the town of Horse Cave, which is much, much smaller than Lexington. Granted, that theater has since closed because of financial travails, among other things. But there are examples all around the country of communities Lexington's size and smaller that support Equity houses.
After Tuesday's announcement, actor Mark Mozingo, a Central Kentucky native who will reprise the role he created in New York in AthensWest's production of Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, said, "I have been jobbed into smaller communities than Lexington under Equity contracts, and I wondered, 'Why can't we have that in Lexington?'"
Some people have tried.
Under artistic director Rick St. Peter's watch, now-hibernating Actors Guild of Lexington brought in several actors under Equity contracts and even announced a broader Equity plan right before the theater was crippled by a financial crisis in 2009.
And AthensWest's debut production, a February presentation of Doubt at the Downtown Arts Center, was presented with two local Equity actors in the leads: Jeff Day, who is also the theater's co-producer, and Leslie Beatty. In working with Equity, Day and co-producer Bo List said they have been satisfied that they can offer two Equity contracts per show and that is the model that they want to move forward under. They may expand that offering in the future, but still see it as a mix.
"We don't see a time when we go to an all-Equity format like (Louisville's) Actors Theatre or (Cincinnati's) Playhouse in the Park," Day said after Tuesday's announcement. "We always want to do shows with Equity and non-Equity performers, and in that way give our local Equity members a chance to perform and others a chance to work in that environment."
Similarly, Lexington Theatre Company's model is a mix of professional performers on stage with community and student actors. Performing musicals in the Opera House, the company is in a venue and genre that has a broad audience, as the annual Broadway Live series and recent musical productions by UK Opera Theatre have proven.
Certainly, Equity is not a guarantee of higher quality, but it does bring that expectation. After years of desire and conventional wisdom about the viability of professional Equity theater in Lexington, we now have two companies set to give it a shot.
It will be interesting to see how these stories turn out.