The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
SummerFest, the annual July theater festival in The Arboretum, will get an extreme makeover this year. Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, which presents SummerFest, has announced the next two summers of shows in a schedule that will reduce the number of productions and expand the number of weeks.
Instead of the usual three shows, there will be two shows this year, each for a two-weekend run: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, July 5 to 14; and A Chorus Line, July 24 to Aug. 4. The summer of 2014 will have Romeo and Juliet, July 5 to 13; and The Color Purple, July 23 to Aug. 3.
“This is a change that has been a long time coming,” said theater general manager Wesley Nelson. “For a long time, the feedback we were getting from designers and technicians and a lot of other people involved was that we needed to take it down to two shows.”
Nelson says the revised scheduling addresses several problems that have haunted the festival over the years including spates of bad weather that have plagued some productions and the pressure two-day changeovers put on productions, particularly the later ones.
“Two solid tech rehearsals was the best you could hope for,” Nelson said, “and by the time you got to that third show, the crew was just worn out.”
The new schedule leaves an open week between productions. Nelson said there was concern that having an open week between shows might interrupt the momentum of the festival, which has previously been presented on three consecutive weeks. “But we decided the benefits outweighed that,” he said, noting that with two-week runs, shows could now take advantage of positive word of mouth from audiences.
Nelson said in future years, SummerFest might present a concert or other sort of presentation in the Arboretum on the open weekend, but for this year, it will remain unscheduled, “so we can see how this new system works,” Nelson said.
He said KCT is announcing summer 2014 for several reasons.
“We knew that some people might see we were going down to two shows and think that means we’re in trouble, and we’re not,” Nelson said. “So we hope by announcing next summer, people will see we are planning for the future.”
He also said that directors wanted to assure fans of Shakespeare that the Bard will still be part of the festival, just not every year. SummerFest’s predecessor was the Lexington Shakespeare Festival. The Shakespeare Festival folded in 2006; SummerFest was created to fill its void.
Nelson said SummerFest is also being considered part of the Kentucky Conservatory Theatre season, which will run on calendar years instead of school years, contrary to the practice of most Lexington arts groups. Along with the SummerFest announcement, KCT announced its lineups for the next two seasons. Excluding SummerFest, they are:
March 2, Blackbird’s Evening of Dance: The premiere of KCT’s dance ensemble, led by choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick.
April 20, 24-Hour Theatre Project: High school students work with theater artists to create five original 10-minute plays in 24 hours.
Aug. 30-Sept. 1, The Girl Project: An original theater work created by area high school girls.
Nov. 8-14, The History Boys: Alan Bennett’s play about boys in a British boarding school.
Feb. 7-23, The Real Thing: Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play about reality and honesty.
April 29, 24-Hour Theatre Project.
Nov. 7-23, Cabaret: The classic John Kander and Fred Ebb musical in the version of the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Broadway revival.
Read and see more:
- Feature: When Evan met Ellie
- Notebook: Comparing Streetcars
- Gallery: A Streetcar Named Desire
- Video: Scene from Streetcar
Rain and lightning finally cleared away enough Friday night for SummerFest to open its production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Still, steel gray clouds and gusty winds made for an appropriately stormy atmosphere for one of the American stage’s greatest works and one of its greatest drama queens, Blanche DuBois.
The Arboretum stage has not hosted Williams before, though it has presented many great Shakespearean tragedies including King Learand Macbeth. Streetcar certainly deserves to be on the same stage, and all three have been helmed at the Arboretum by Lexington’s master of drama, director Joe Ferrell.
The play is tough stuff, made all the more searing by Williams’ ability to create excruciatingly human characters and put poetic truths in their mouths. See the first scene between Blanche and her little sister Stella. As Blanche tells Stella how she lost their family home, her self-defensiveness is at an aggravating fever pitch, but she describes enduring the deaths in her family with vivid truthfulness.
That is Blanche, a woman who is infuriatingly arrogant but also clearly a victim of the circumstances of her life, raised in the refinement of a Southern plantation but now facing a much less accommodating world. She expresses astonishment that Stella, who is not having similar problems adapting, does not have a maid for the two-room apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter she shares with her husband, Stanley.
That sets the tone for the world Blanche longs for compared to the one she is in.
Stanley exemplifies that new world as a self-assured, sometimes primal and violent man for whom Blanche is really no match, particularly as her stories begin to unravel.
Stella has the unenviable task of refereeing these two, who are constantly pulling her to their sides. Ellie Clark makes Stella a self-assured woman who still has to bend to the wills of these strong personalities. Bergman plays Stanley as a gregarious fellow who too easily slips into his dark, violent side. But through his charisma, you see why people are attracted to him, from his bowling buddies to his loyal wife.
Bergman and Clark are a real-life couple, and they bring palpable chemistry to their performances. They lead two of this production’s best scenes: when Stanley airs his suspicions about the loss of Blanche and Stella’s family home, and later, when Stanley tells Stella what he has learned about Blanche’s life back home in Laurel, Miss. In both instances, Bergman manages his tone beautifully to highlight key portions of the scenes and come across as reasonable, albeit barely.
We have no doubt he does not like his sister-in-law.
And in Bess Morgan’s performance, Blanche is really hard to like.
Moments after appearing, she is operating at a shrill tenor, and for the most part stays there through Act I. Blanche is histrionic, but this one-note interpretation makes it difficult to muster much sympathy for her, something we really need for the play to have its full impact. Act II brings more nuance from Morgan, and a couple of engaging scenes including the one when she makes advances on a paperboy (Rob Schrader, acting appropriately weirded-out) and her recounting of her husband’s death. But Blanche’s charm never comes through the mumbling drawl Morgan developed for her character.
Tim Hull is perfectly cast as Stanley’s friend and Blanche’s sad sack suitor Mitch, one of numerous victims in this tragic tale.
The design team, including set designer Dathan Powell and costumers Joyce Anderson and Dennis Smail, give the show a solid but unobtrusive look. One great prop is the old-fashioned fan sitting atop the refrigerator, which on Friday frequently turned at full speed powered only by the wind.
In Streetcar, SummerFest has brought a good production of an American classic to the stage, but it would help if it, and particularly its leading lady, operated more like that fan that occasionally slowed down when the winds let up.
It occurred to me Tuesday watching the final dress rehearsal of SummerFest’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that this is the first time in 14 years covering theater in Lexington I have seen the same show presented two times by the same director.
Joe Ferrell directed Actors Guild of Lexington’s production of Streetcar in 2003 at the Downtown Arts Center’s black box theater, and he is directing the production that is trying mightily to get going in the Arboretum – the first two attempts at an opening night, Wednesday and Thursday, have been scuttled due to rain and lightning.
Rehearsals are not performances and this is not a review, but looking at this production, it was striking how similar yet different this show was from 2003.
There certainly was that signature Joe Ferrell style — a reverence for the playwright’s words and eye on crisp storytelling. You always know with a Ferrell show that everyone onstage will know what they are saying and why, and interesting interpretations will come out of that.
Contrasting the productions speaks to the impact casting and venue have on a play.
Ferrell noted in an interview earlier this summer that as big a title as Streetcar is, it is something of a small, intimate show for the vast Arboretum stage. The essential drama plays out between four people — Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch — and there are just a few other ancillary characters. The setting of a modest New Orleans apartment is also fairly low-key for SummerFest.
But Tuesday, lead actors Evan Bergman as Stanley and Bess Morgan as Blanche (photo, above) were crafting big performances that filled the space and maximized the drama. Nine years ago, Kevin Hardesty and Lisa Thomas were giving decidedly different interpretations of the same characters. Hardesty’s Stanley was more arrogant than primal, making Blanche’s characterizations of him seem to be part of her fantasy. Thomas’ portrayal was less demonstrative and she and Hardesty seemed to be engaged in more of a psychological struggle.
And that really worked for the black box, a a venue that seats a couple hundred at most and fewer, I believe, for the Streetcar production. That take may have been lost in the Arboretum, but that is where venue comes into play. And good actors know where they are playing and make adjustments accordingly — both Thomas and Hardesty have brilliantly led productions in the Arboretum, as have Bergman and Morgan in the Downtown Arts Center.
It really speaks to the elasticity of a script. It sets out the words and essentially the story and emotions, but it is when the director, actors and designers come together that the play really comes to life, and it is different every time, even when some of the same people are involved.
SummerFest’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire plays through July 22 at at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive. Here’s a scene from the show in which Stanley (Evan Bergman) tells his wife Stella (Ellie Clark) that he suspects he sister has swindled her out of their family’s plantation.
One of the features of SummerFest’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is original music. We talk to director and composer Adam Luckey and Kentucky Conservatory Theatre student composers Sarah Webb and Cameron Taylor about their contributions to the show.
If you want to play in the park this summer, particularly play a character such as Puck, Stanley or Elle Woods, then get thee to SummerFest 2012 auditions this weekend.
The annual July theater extravaganza in the Arboretum on Alumni Drive will be holding tryouts through the weekend for this year’s slate of shows:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Adam Luckey, July 11-15
- A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Joe Ferrell, July 18-22
- Legally Blonde: The Musical, directed by Beth Kirchner, July 25-29
Auditions are 7-10 p.m. April 13 and 1-4 p.m. April 14 and 15 at the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, across from the Singletary Center for the Arts on the University of Kentucky Campus.
Actors auditioning for Midsummer or Streetcar need to come with a 30-second Shakespearian, classical or contemporary monologue prepared. Legally Blonde auditioners don’t need to have anything prepared in advance as they will be shown everything they need to do to audition on site.
Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest and the University of Kentucky Theatre both announced lineups for next season, today. For KCT/SummerFest it is the first time announcing a year-long lineup. The SummerFest lineup also boasts the first local production of Legally Blonde – The Musical, the show that catapulted Lexington native Laura Bell Bundy to a Tony Award nomination when she originated the role of Elle Woods in 2007.
Neither announcement came with dates, but you will notice one show is on both of them.
University of Kentucky Theatre
- Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton
- On the Verge (or the Geography of Yearning) by Eric Overmyer
- Winter Dance Concert
- Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman
- Spring Awakening – A New Musical, music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest
- 24 Hour Theatre Project – An event in which theater artists will create a 10-minute play in 24 hours.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
- A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
- Legally Blonde – The Musical, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and book by Heather Hach
- The Girl Project – Original works created by conservatory students and mentors.
- Spring Awakening – A New Musical, music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater
Oct9Filed under: Studio Players, SummerFest, Theater, Transylvania University, UK, Woodford County Theatre; Tagged as: Actors Guild of Lexington, Almost, August: Osage County, Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theater, Joe Ferrell, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, Maine, Project SEE Theatre, SummerFest, The Rocky Horror Show, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky Theatre, Vic Chaney
When I heard that Central Kentucky was going to get a production of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County in the 2011-12 arts season, I was excited … the first time it was announced.
That was the University of Kentucky Theatre’s production, scheduled for February and directed by former Actors Guild of Lexington artistic chief Vic Chaney.
Then, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest announced it was going to mount its first indoor, school-year performance … of August: Osage County.
I am by no means suggesting that this production, which opens Thursday, will be a letdown. It is being directed by the dean of Lexington theater directors, Joe Ferrell, features an all-star cast of Lexington actors and an innovative set design. On paper, this is a great production.
And I am not trying to suggest that anyone was trying to bigfoot anyone with these productions – when this happens, it’s not always clear who had dibs on the show.
But I will say without reservation that it is indicative of a tiresome trend: multiple theaters in Central Kentucky putting up productions of the same show within a relatively short period.
Earlier this year, we had Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theater and Actors Guild of Lexington co-producing The Rocky Horror Show, closely followed by SummerFest presenting The Rocky Horror Show. A little later this fall, Project SEE Theatre and Transylvania University will present John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, a show The Woodford Theatre already has scheduled for early next year.
Seeing so much duplication makes me ask: Are there so few published plays available that theaters think they have no choice but to program the same show another company is already presenting?
It’s just a jump down to Buster’s Billiards and Backroom on Oct. 30 and 31 to see SummerFest’s production of The Rock Horror Show a couple more times.
The outdoor summer theater fest presented the stage version of the iconic show July 21, 22 and 24 at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive, but lost performances the 23rd and 25th due to rain. That will not be a factor inside Buster’s, where a concert version of the show will go on at 9:30 each night. The Sunday, Oct. 30 show will be an all ages performance.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay gave the summer production a rave review in the Herald-Leader:
The cast is superb. Their singing is on a much higher level than this rock musical usually obtains, and they all create complex characterizations that go beyond the usual campy exhibitionism. It takes real bravery to explore brazen sexuality in front of an audience, and the whole company is to be commended for confronting this difficult material in such a way as to make it meaningful rather than tawdry.
The Johnson Brothers Band, which provided the music for the SummerFest show, was not available for this production so area rockers Chico Fellini will step in. Tickets are on sale for the production now.
In other Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest news, Rocky Horror director Wes Nelson has been named as the new general manager for the organization. He succeeds Martha Campbell, who served for a year as interim director following the departure of Joe Cannon Artz in 2010. Nelson comes to SummerFest after work at Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg and The Woodford Theatre, where he will direct Scrooge! The Musical! in December. Nelson is currently producing SummerFest’s first-ever indoor, school-year production, August: Osage County, which runs Oct. 13 to 23 at the Downtown Arts Center.
Two of Kentucky’s longstanding summer theaters have announced plans to expand their offerings around the calendar.
In Lexington, SummerFest will produce its first indoor, school-year show with a production of Tracy Letts’ Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County, Oct. 13-23 at the Downtown Arts Center. Sumerfest and its predecessor, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, have produced indoor shows in the past, close to the time of the outdoor festival in July at the Arboretum. The most recent was June’s presentation of Spencer Christensen’s The Impersonation of Being Earnest by SummerFest’s parent group, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, at the Downtown Arts Center. And there have been talks of year-round offerings in the past, but this will be the first venture outside the summer months.
The University of Kentucky Theatre has previously announced a production of August: Osage County at the Guignol Theatre Feb. 23 to March 4. It will be directed by former Actors Guild of Lexington director Vic Chaney.
There’s a Lexington connection to Letts as one of his frequent collaborators is one-time Lexington resident and Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon.
In Pikeville, Jenny Wiley Theatre has some huge ambitions, signing an agreement with the city to build a new space in downtown Pikeville that will offer productions in the fall, winter and spring. According to a news release, the fare will include, “musicals, comedies, children’s theatre and educational programs, as well lunch/dinner performances. The indoor facility will also be available for area meetings and conferences. The new facility will also house a box office, gift shop, rehearsal space, and the possibility of a café.”
It is billed as a mutually-beneficial move, expanding cultural offerings in Pikeville and giving the theater, based at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, a chance to expand its year-round offerings. It has been offering some school productions and educational programs.
“Jenny Wiley Theatre has been an important contributor to the culture, tourism and economics of Eastern Kentucky for almost fifty years,” Executive Director Martin Childers said in a news release. “We want to ensure that we continue to adapt to the needs and circumstances so that we are here for another fifty. The ability to produce shows all year long is an important step in that direction.”
The Pikeville space, a 300-seat theater, is slated to begin construction in January and be completed by December 2012.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich