Stage & Dance

After upheaval, Lexington’s theater landscape is settling

Shannon Baker played Sister James and Jeff Day was Father Flynn in “Doubt,” the inaugural production of AthensWest Theatre Co.
Shannon Baker played Sister James and Jeff Day was Father Flynn in “Doubt,” the inaugural production of AthensWest Theatre Co. Herald-Leader

This time a year ago, theater in Lexington was reeling from the double-whammy loss of Actors Guild of Lexington, which went into indefinite “hibernation” after after three decades, and the possible loss of Balagula Theatre, which had laid off its paid artistic staff.

As 2015 approached, theater followers had more questions than answers. What lessons could we learn from the plight of AGL? Would Balagula survive?

Adding to these questions was speculation about two new theater groups that had the potential to be game-changers: The Lexington Theatre Co. and AthensWest Theatre.

Would these new groups fill the void left by AGL? Could they accomplish the one thing that has continued to elude Lexington for years by succeeding as professional theaters?

One year later, some of these questions have begun to be answered, and the shifting landscape of Lexington theater seems to have tentatively settled.

The Lexington Theatre Co.’s summer production of 42nd Street brought Broadway talent and glitz to the Opera House, not to mention a high-profile media blitz that placed the inaugural production of the company on the mainstream public’s radar. The troupe’s founders, Lexington native-turned-Broadway performer Lyndy Franklin Smith and her husband, fellow professional performer Jeromy Smith, succeeded in not only directing and producing a Broadway caliber show but in the more difficult political task of combining local talent, including Robert Parks Johnson, with celebrated national talent, notably Tony winner Karen Ziemba, and collaborating with local universities to create educational opportunities for the region’s performing-arts students.

Both of these companies are still very new, but the quality and professionalism they exhibited in their early shows are hopeful signs of a new era of increased quality, opportunity and growth for Lexington theater.

Candace Chaney, Theater Critic

One argument against professional theater in Lexington has been the fear that it might reduce the amount of work available for local actors who aren’t Equity members. The Lexington Theatre Co, called The Lex for short, addresses this qualm byembracing talented performers at all levels of career development.

AthensWest is taking a similar approach, employing Equity actors side by side with local non-Equity actors. The company’s inaugural production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt in February proved to be a successful small-scale test of this model. Its success spurred leaders to offer a three-show 2015-2016 season, which opened with a production of To Kill a Mockingbird that included actors from Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati and beyond.

Both of these companies are very new, but the quality and professionalism they exhibited in their early shows are hopeful signs of a new era of increased quality, opportunity and growth for Lexington theater.

Studio Players, with its seven decades of stability, is the safety net of Lexington theater and is vital to the artistic development of a huge cross section of local theater artists.

Candace Chaney, Theater Critic

If 2015 was a year of new opportunity for The Lex and AthensWest, it was a year of endurance and determination for Balagula Theatre, which forged ahead with an all-volunteer staff lead by newly minted artistic director Rachel Rogers. Despite its financial struggles, Balagula did not scrimp artistically, mounting compelling productions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Harold and Maude. They even enjoyed a visit from Tony-award winning playwright Alfred Uhry during their collaboration with Bluegrass Opera Theatre for their most recent production, Lovemusik. However, the troupe did not announce a complete season for 2015-2016 and instead has announced new shows on an individual basis. As 2015 closes, Balagula has yet to announce any shows for 2016, and its website is no longer active.

New ventures might have dominated the changes to the 2015 theater landscape, but established institutions including Studio Players proved to be a safe haven for theater artists to experiment. Whether mounting local playwright Ross Carter’s comedy What Would Jesus Pack?, hosting both a Ten Minute Play festival anda local playwright’s showcase or tapping local directors to help select each season’s lineup, Studio Players, with its seven decades of stability, is the safety net of Lexington theater and is vital to the artistic development of a huge cross-section of local theater artists.

Speaking of theaters on solid ground, both the Lexington Children’s Theatre and Woodford Theatre continued to turn out top-notch productions in 2015. They included LCT’s spring production of A Thousand Cranes and Woodford Theatre’s most recent production, A Kentucky Christmas. Professional theaters offering fare for all ages are new to Lexington, but Children’s Theatre has operated as fully professional Lexington theater for years.

In addition to theaters that offer full seasons, Lexington is peppered with smaller theater companies that produce work intermittently, presumably when timing, content and schedules magically converge. Among those are On the Verge, whose production of Legacy of Light was one of the highlights of 2015, andMessage Theater, a blacktheater troupe whose Breeder’s Cup-timed performance of the Isaac Murphy-centric show I Dedicate This Ride, penned by former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker, filled the Lyric Theater in the fall. Eric Seale, former artistic director of Actors Guild, also mounted an ambitious independent production of The Silent Woman, winner of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference’s prize for women playwrights.

A newcomer to this category in 2015 was After Culture Theater, a new immersive theater venture by young Governor’s School for the Arts alums Taylor Schultz and Samuel Lockridge. Their production of Sartre’s No Exit encouraged audiences to participate in the storytelling, including donning veils and rifling through characters’ coat pockets and furniture.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.

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