Vic Chaney couldn’t resist the chance to direct August: Osage County at UK

UK Theatre Department graduate and former Actors Guild of Lexington artistic director Vic Chaney is directing the UK Theatre's production of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," Feb. 22-March 4 at the Guignol Theatre in the UK Fine Arts Building. © Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Vic Chaney says he was joking when he sent the email.

University of Kentucky Theatre had announced a 2011-12 season, and he saw that it had Tracy Letts’ Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County on it. Chaney had seen the show a couple of times on Broadway and loved it, so he sent UK theater ­department chair Nancy Jones a message.

“I said, as a joke, ‘Who’s ­directing it, and if they happen to go missing, don’t blame me — ha, ha,’” Chaney says. “And she said as a matter of fact, they needed somebody.”

He could have the gig if he wanted it.

Initially, he thought there was no way he could do it. First off, he lives almost 2,500 miles away, in San Francisco.

Chaney, 51, has deep roots in Lexington theater. He’s a graduate of the UK theater department and was a founding member of Actors Guild of Lexington, where he was the ­artistic director until a 1998 ­financial upheaval prompted the board to clean house. Chaney, who directed many of Actors Guild’s ­triumphs, including the 1997 production of Angels in America, moved to San Francisco in 1999 with his partner, ­DeWayne ­Spalding, himself a veteran of Lexington theater. Both men also are former Herald-Leader staff members.

Despite the ­unpleasant circumstances of his ­departure from Actors Guild, Chaney has maintained close contact with friends and family in Lexington and a respected position in the theater community.

But was he going to have time to come home to direct his first show here since he worked with the School for Creative and Performing Arts during the 1998-99 school year?

“It’s worked out ­really well,” says Chaney, who decided he could make room on his free-lance schedule to direct August: Osage County and re-enter some of the stages and corridors he walked as a student.

“It was strange the first few days here, but now it’s totally fun,” Chaney says. “The weirdest thing is that when I was here before ­directing, I knew most of the people. There might be one or two people I didn’t know, who were new.”

Now, he is working with a mostly student cast to bring to the stage a play that is widely considered a modern American classic.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play that made me laugh and moved me and just seemed so big, so epic and personal all at the same time,” Chaney says of August: Osage County. “Most plays that are being written today are small, simple set, a few ­characters. It just seemed to defy ­everything that is being done in contemporary theater — and I see a lot of ­contemporary theater. It seems like something ­Tennessee Williams would have written or Eugene O’Neill would have written if they were writing today.”

Originally produced in 2007 by Steppenwolf ­Theatre Company in ­Chicago, ­August: Osage County is a dark ­comedy that focuses on the ­breakdown of a Southern family after the death of its patriarch, a revered 1960s poet who never regained his counterculture stride. ­Kentucky ­Conservatory ­Theatre presented a ­production of the play at the Downtown Arts Center in October.

Chaney observes actors Chris Floyd and Jen Arnold working through a difficult scene in an "August: Osage County" rehearsal Feb. 14.

For his return, Chaney ­assembled a cast that includes several fellow UK alumni: Erin Chandler, an alum and current graduate student, plays pill-popping matriarch Violet; Teresa ­Willis, who has moved back to Louisville from Los ­Angeles, has the role of ­Mattie Fae, Violet’s caustic sister; Brad Wills, who has moved back to Lexington after 20 years in New York working on Broadway and national tours, portrays ­Mattie Fae’s husband, ­Charlie; and longtime UK theater professor Russell Henderson is the deceased patriarch, Beverly, who ­appears only in the first scene.

“I thought the four ­oldest characters in the play needed to be older than the students — typical students,” Chaney said. The student actors might benefit from spending some time with people who were once in their shoes, he said.

After more than a decade away from Lexington, he has advice of his own to give.

“I want them to find a way to use what they know from theater in the for-profit world in order to fund what it is that they need to be ­doing,” Chaney says.

That’s essentially what Chaney does these days.

Since moving to San ­Francisco, Chaney has ­directed and produced shows, but not anywhere near a volume or frequency that could generate a living wage.

When he moved to ­Northern California, Silicon Valley was in the midst of the dot-com boom, and work was easy to come by. He started in ­administrative jobs and moved up to ­marketing positions, drawing on his ­experience marketing ­theater.

Then the dot-com bust came.

“It was like the Great Depression,” Chaney says. He held onto his job longer than most people he knew. “You couldn’t even network, because nobody had a job. It was scary.”

In fact, he said, he came close to moving back to Lexington, but then things started to turn around. Spalding found work and he got free-lance jobs ­creating PowerPoint ­presentations, writing ad copy and ­anything else he could do.

He says he kept telling people he was unemployed until Spalding said, “You’re not unemployed. You’re working all the time.”

Chaney says, “It never occurred to me that you could be working but not have a regular paycheck. But the next year, when I did my taxes, I found I was making more money than when I was working for someone.”

One of his specialties, he discovered, was coaching corporate speakers.

“It wasn’t a whole lot different than doing theater, except I had to handle people with more kid gloves,” Chaney says. “Theater people are used to taking criticism, but a lot of other people are not.”

Maybe best of all, the life of a free-lancer allowed Chaney room to come home to Kentucky to direct a play he really wanted to direct at his alma mater.

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