Kentucky Repertory Theatre
Closes its doors, dims lights after 36 years
By Sam Terry
After 232 plays staged over 35 seasons, Kentucky Repertory Theatre, perhaps more familiarly known as Horse Cave Theatre, has ceased operation as of last week. Lyn Taylor Long, chairperson of the Board of Directors, announced the board’s decision to close the non-profit venture in an exclusive interview with the Editors of Jobe Publishing on Saturday.
Horse Cave Theatre presented its first production, George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, on June 10, 1977 in the 355-seat theatre formerly used as the Thomas Opera House. In its 36-year history the theatre has had three directors at the helm. Warren Hammack, the founding director, guided the theatre for 25 years before retiring in 2002. Robert Brock served as director from 2002 until February 2011. Christopher Carter Sanderson was the last director before his departure after 10 months on the job.
While the demise of Kentucky’s official repertory theatre has been rumored for some time, Long confirmed that the board chose to end an up-hill battle to stay afloat. “Unfortunately, forces came together that brought us to this decision. It was not a decision we wanted to make,” Long stated.
While never financially successful, nor intended to be a profit-making venture, the operation has struggled in recent years to combat the combined effects of competing efforts, the downturn of the economy, smaller numbers of patrons, the loss of major donors, and significant changes in lifestyles.
Reflecting on the demise of the operation, Long commented, “We’ve been so grateful for all the support that we’ve had. We’ve worked very hard to maintain the theatre on all levels. [The closing] is not anything that anyone on the board wanted to see happen.”
Contacted at their New England home, Hammack and his wife, Pamela White who ultimately became the Associate Director, issued a statement regarding the closing: “Pamela and I are very sorry to hear of the closing of Horse Cave Theatre. We feel that we were blessed to have had more than twenty five years doing what we love in so beautiful a place as Southern Kentucky and among so many people who appreciated and were devoted to the ideal of artistic, professional theatre. Our hearts and minds will always be filled with the most vivid and stirring images and memories.” White also shared her thoughts which Jobe Publishing is sharing on our editorial pages in this publication.
Brock, who now teaches at Lindsey Wilson College where he heads the Drama Department, stated “I’m saddened by it, but everything has a life span. In the 35 years it was a professional equity theatre, it was a miracle that it survived. I felt every day I was involved that I was part of a miracle. It was not just a place, but the people who came together were the driving force. So many came through the doors and made magic happen.”
As for the immediate future of KRT, Long could offer little insight other than that the theatre will not be reopening. Citizens First Bank holds the mortgage on all of the theatre’s property which includes the buildings housing the auditorium and operations center, the old State Bank building which has been used as the theatre annex, the former telephone exchange building which has been used as offices and housing, and a warehouse containing a workshop for set design and storage of props.
The final group comprising the Board of Directors included Long as president, Edward Hatchett as vice president, Sandra Wilson as secretary, Jerry Matera as treasurer, Tom Chaney who was one of the founders, and Rob Stout.
A unique theatre in every way
Horse Cave Theatre was organized in 1975 by local citizens Bill Austin and Tom Chaney who teamed up with theatre professional Warren Hammack to create one of the country’s most unique theatrical organizations. The quaint village possessed a decades-defunct theatre in the center of the town and it would come to be the home of HCT. The addition of Hammack to the scene proved to be a near-perfect injection of inspiration who would become the face and voice of Horse Cave Theatre for its first 25 years of existence.
The initial effort to open the venue and attract professional actors took 20 months until the stage lights illuminated the scene for the first production in June 1977.
One of the long-held features that set Horse Cave Theatre apart was Hammack’s insistence that the actors be professionals who had achieved certain standards as part of the Actor’s Equity Association. Equity actors are assured of a minimum income and other benefits while working in a production. The AEA sets the standards for pay and working conditions for stage performers similar to the Screen Actors Guild in the motion picture industry.
The influx of a hand-picked acting company brought the Horse Cave area a variety of benefits in addition to providing stage entertainment. The actors needed housing for several months each year. The temporary citizens also brought the business of everyday life into the small community.
In its last season, which ended in December 2012, KRT contracted with Ken Neil Hailey of RepALLIANCE to produce its plays rather than retaining a resident acting company.
Horse Cave Theatre was envisioned as a true repertory theatre offering different plays on succeeding nights. Initially, the organization offered three different productions staged over a summer season. As time passed and the demand for more offerings increased, the number of productions per season was gradually increased. At the conclusion of the 2012 season, the organization had staged 232 productions over 35 seasons. At one point, as many as 30,000 people saw plays in a single season.
The effort attracted the attention of not only residents of south central Kentucky but it exploded beyond the confines of the Commonwealth in every direction. Actor Jon Voight made the trek from Hollywood for the 1977 opening show where he was joined by then-Governor of Kentucky Julian Carroll. Other stars of the silver screen and television who built associations with the theatre included Kentucky native Annie Potts and Sally Struther. A review of KRT’s archives illustrates the virtual parade of the well-known, the significantly wealthy, a throng of government officials, and scores of buses filled with tourists all mixing with the residents of rural Kentucky coming together to experience theatre.
In 2004 Horse Cave Theatre began operating as Kentucky Repertory Theatre at Horse Cave and later that year Gov. Ernie Fletcher proclaimed it the official State Repertory Theatre. USA Today included the operation in its top 10 list of places in the United States to see theatre outside of New York’s Broadway. In 1995 Hammack was awarded the Kentucky Governor’s Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. The theatre itself was one of nine recipients of the prestigious Governor’s Awards in the Arts in 2008.
Changing lives through education and the arts
A hallmark of Horse Cave Theatre from its inception has been performances that enhanced education using the unique capabilities of theatre. In its first season HCT offered a Children’s Theatre Workshop which grew into a full-fledged outreach program. Over the past 35 years the educational outreach offerings have evolved right along with the ever-changing needs, interests, and requirements of area schools. According to Long, over 250,000 students have been touched by the theatre’s programs and in one recent year, 15,000 students in 30 counties were exposed to theatre through the programs.
One of the memorable features of the theatre seasons were annual productions of Shakespeare plays. Hammack’s creativity combined with his admiration of Kentucky’s distinctive culture brought about the concept of staging premieres of new plays, particularly those by Kentucky writers and/or set in Kentucky. The idea became another of the signature features found only at Horse Cave Theatre. Nineteen new plays premiered on the stage over the years. The Kentucky Voices program also brought together would-be playwrights for workshops designed to hone their craft, encourage Kentuckians to enhance their creative writing skills, and to contribute to Kentucky’s literary and theatrical heritage.
Long shared with our Editors that she once met a Larue County adult who, in the course of conversation, learned that she was one of the theatre’s board members. The gentleman shared with Long that his first exposure to live theatre was in Horse Cave when he and his classmates were taken to a play. After a pause, the man commented, “Horse Cave Theatre changed my life,” by introducing him to a world he hadn’t realized was within his grasp.
Competition for dollars and patrons
Long cited Glasgow’s Plaza Theatre, the Historic State Theatre in Elizabethtown, and the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center in Bowling Green as examples of similar efforts that lessened the role of the Horse Cave organization. At the time Horse Cave Theatre 76 was incorporated, there were few venues for cultural arts productions in the region. Professionally-produced theatre was not being provided anywhere in the region and the nearest competition for similar stage productions was Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.
The rescue of the Thomas Opera House on Horse Cave’s Main Street inspired numerous efforts in historic preservation, adaptive reuse of buildings, the revitalization of small downtowns, and brought a focus on the role the cultural arts in society. The concept of accessible theatre inspired the revival of Glasgow’s Far Off Broadway Players and Bowling Green’s Fountain Square Players, and the formation of Edmonton’s Barn Lot Theatre. Each of those groups continues after decades of service but with community volunteers mounting the productions rather than professional actors and theatre personnel.
The 2008 economic crisis in America caused longtime donors to contribute more cautiously not only to KRT, but everything in general. While some non-profits report that they see improvement in recent years, giving remains less than earlier levels. In the case of KRT, the loss of major supporters such as donors and underwriters of productions, has had a profound impact. Long noted that KRT lost two of its most generous donors in 2012 and the prospects for replacing the money was highly unlikely.
Fund raising organizations such as the National Society of Fundraising Executives have long noted that America’s Baby Boom generation and those since are not as generous as their parents and grandparents were. Instead, expendable income tends to be used for acquiring more expensive items such as luxury automobiles, larger homes, and other items that directly impact the individual. The generation prior to the Baby Boomers tended to be more altruistic by donating expendable money to community causes, religious organizations, and the arts.