Stage & Dance

SummerFest revives legacy of theater in Woodland Park

Barbara Clifton, Adam Smyth and John Barton work to paint the stage in Woodland Park on a recent morning. Workers from Lexington Parks and Recreation and SummerFest worked to ready the stage for the theater festival, which opens June 30 and runs through July 24 in Woodland Park in Lexington, Kentucky.
Barbara Clifton, Adam Smyth and John Barton work to paint the stage in Woodland Park on a recent morning. Workers from Lexington Parks and Recreation and SummerFest worked to ready the stage for the theater festival, which opens June 30 and runs through July 24 in Woodland Park in Lexington, Kentucky. rcopley@herald-leader.com

As SummerFest artistic director Wesley Nelson talks about the event’s new home in Woodland Park, he says several times that it is a cross between SummerFest’s first home in the Arboretum on Alumni Drive and its base the past two summers at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass Amphitheater.

Like the Arboretum, it is a space that does not always have a stage, so one has to be built each summer. But like MoonDance, the stage is put up by another party, so SummerFest doesn’t have to do it.

Like MoonDance, the event is surrounded by a residential community. But like the Arboretum, the natural surroundings are part of the appeal.

The irony is that it is Woodland that was the original home of summer outdoor theater in Lexington when Shakespeare in the Park, later dubbed the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, launched in the space in 1982. Save for a few diversions to Bell Court, the event stayed in the park until it moved to the Arboretum in 1996 for space and other concerns.

Now, 20 years later, the stage is once again being set in late June in Woodland Park for SummerFest’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which opens Thursday night and runs through Sunday, and returns July 14 to 17. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar will run July 7 to 10 and 21 to 24. Painters are putting broad strokes and fine touches on the stage while sound technicians hang speakers from poles towering over the stage and Nelson consults with representatives from Lexington Parks and Recreation about logistics.

The move was the idea of Parks and Recreation, which also manages its previous home at MoonDance.

“We were shocked, because we hadn’t thought about moving,” Nelson says. “We were set to stay at MoonDance. But the more we thought about it, the more it felt right. Sometimes there is just a feeling of yes, this is what we need to do.”

Discussing the move when it was announced in April, Lexington Parks and Recreation Department Cultural Arts Manager Amber Luallen said it was a result of contemplating how to better use resources. While SummerFest has been at MoonDance, the Beaumont Circle venue has grown in popularity as a music venue. But SummerFest’s presence meant the Summer Nights in Suburbia concert series had to go on hiatus for six weeks while SummerFest was there.

Now, the amphitheater can rock right through July, and also maintain performances of the Southland Jamboree on Monday nights, the Jazz at Ecton Park series Tuesdays and other performances.

“We hope to expand even more with some local and regional concerts,” Luallen says.

Parks and Recreation gets what is tantamount to a summer season in Woodland Park, with SummerFest running through July, followed by Ballet Under the Stars Aug. 4 to 7 and the Woodland Art Fair Aug. 20 and 21. Ballet Under the Stars and the Shakespeare Festival used the same stage back in the early days of each event, and the dance event continued even after Shakespeare moved on.

Now, Summerfest and Ballet Under the Stars directors, and even Woodland Art Fair folks, are coordinating and even sharing costs of services such as lighting and sound that have been brought in for both events.

“It’s nice to have a sense of organization and partnership between the groups,” Nelson says.

He also notes that it was a somewhat unique situation where the group made a move due to opportunities that benefit the former and new venue, with no negative elements — no displacement or hard feelings.

Nelson does acknowledged that SummerFest is not the same organization as the Shakespeare Festival, which was the last company in the park.

In 2006, the Shakespeare Festival announced it was closing due to financial troubles. But the next summer, SummerFest arose in its place, utilizing many of the same resources, including the stage, which Nelson says the festival board — which remained together to disperse remaining money — gave to SummerFest. Over the years, Nelson says SummerFest received several grants from the Shakespeare Festival, and when the board finally dissolved two years ago, it received the festival’s archive.

“Yes, we are a separate organization, but we are continuing their legacy,” Nelson says. “They started this, they continued it much longer than we did, and this is just continuing their legacy of quality outdoor theater.

Now, that includes the legacy of theater in Woodland Park.

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY.

IF YOU GO

SummerFest 2016

As You Like It June 30-July 3, July 14-17

Jesus Christ Superstar July 7-10, 21-14

Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.

Tickets: $10 general admission, $5 with chair rental.

Online: Mykct.org

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