Successful Horse Cave Theatre Jazzes Up Kentucky Arts Scene

Small-town stage is just one of many cultural sites

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Back in the 1970s, residents of tiny Horse Cave, Ky., thought up the idea of opening a theater to boost the economy. Twenty years later, their fantasy has grown into one of the most respected and provocative arts institutions in the region - and one of several noteworthy cultural sites in rustic areas of Kentucky.

In 1978, Janet and Bill Austin headed a group of area businesspeople that hit on the theater idea. The committee they helped form called on Warren Hammack, a Kentucky native who had had experience in acting and production work at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, a stint with Jon Voight's theater projects, stage appearances in New York, and a Fulbright Scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Mr. Hammack forged a plan that now includes a five-month repertory season, a commitment to produce plays written by Kentuckians or about the state, and a reputation for outstanding productions.

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His dedication paid off. This season features mainstream selections such as "On Golden Pond" and "The Miracle Worker," a new adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw," the British farce "It Runs in the Family," the Beckett avant-garde classic "Waiting for Godot," and the premire of Kentuckian John Howell's "Raven's Gift."

A $1.3 million renovation of the 348-seat theater expanded the backstage and lobby areas and added 12 cut-glass panels to the entranceway, designed by state artists Ellsworth Strickler, Joyce Britton, and Marvin Jarboe. The thrust stage sits directly below the original Thomas Opera House, which hosted touring companies, musicians, and lecturers at the turn of the century, and was operated by Austin's grandfather H.B. Thomas.

Big audience potential

Audiences, which last year numbered more than 25,000, come primarily from nearby communities. Only 15 percent are tourists. "Horse Cave is a little town," Hammack says, "but in a 50-mile radius there are 650,000 people."

Hammack recalls one story that illustrates the impact productions have. "We had a guy come and see 'The Crucible,' a businessman in his late 40s. When it ended, he almost ran to his car, he was so upset. He came back two or three times to see that play. He made the connection."

"Our long-range goal is to play up until Christmas, and open the season in March," Hammack says. And Ann Myers, relaxing with lemonade on the theater's front porch before a show, adds, "I come to all their shows. By now, they all feel like family to us."

Budding tourist attractions

Named for a deep cavern that was a tourist attraction in the 1800s, Horse Cave decided several years ago to preserve the cave site, which had long since become a waste dump. Fund-raising and scientific interest combined to generate a renovation effort.

As much an educational experience as an adventure, the new American Cave Museum and Hidden River Cave now regularly lure vacationers. And the Austins added another unique feature to the area. An environmental theme park called Kentucky Down Under reproduces Australian terrain, home to native species such as loping emus, high-jumping kangaroos, furry wallabies, and dazzling lorikeet birds.

Three hours' drive to the northeast, a very different theatrical experience unfolds every summer in Danville, Ky. The Pioneer Playhouse, nestled in a rustic setting, presents comedies and dramas combined with a Southern barbecue dinner before the show. Now in its 48th season, the playhouse was founded by Eben Henson as the first outdoor theater in the state.

From mid-June to the end of August, rain or shine (a vast indoor eating and performing pavilion sits next to the amphitheater), selections such as "Moon Over Buffalo," "Summer and Smoke," and the French farce "A Flea in Her Ear" provide a delightful evening of entertainment.

More traditional Kentucky culture, in the form of Appalachian-style handcrafts, peppers the area around Berea along the edge of the mountain range. Since Berea College was founded in 1855, it has grown into a leading liberal-arts institution, specializing in a work-study program that places students in the community, such as the historic Boone Tavern Hotel, opened in 1909, and staffed largely by students. Another outgrowth is the blossoming arts-and-crafts community that surrounds the campus.

Along College Square, shops and galleries such as Pamela Corley's Upstairs Gallery stock intricate handcrafted wood items, fabric landscape wall hangings, prints, and toys. Appalachian Mountain dulcimers, carved and constructed by Warren May, highlight his corner shop. Clever ceramic creations by Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge at Tater Knob Pottery, original designs of chairmaker Brian Boggs, and Ken and Sally Gastineau's jewelry typify the way Appalachian craftspeople marry beautifully fashioned workmanship to practical applications.

Outdoor gospel bluegrass

More than 20,000 people are expected Labor Day weekend at another Kentucky tradition: outdoor gospel bluegrass concerts at Breaks Interstate Park, at the eastern edge of the state. While Nashville country music remains as popular here as anywhere else, this style, combining religious messages with bluegrass melody rhythms, brings together families to share a musical and a spiritual experience.

"We've been doing this kind of thing since the early 1950s," says Carl Mullins, director of the park. And Tim Wallace, stepping to the side of the road as vans, motorcycles, and cars stream past, says, "I hate the idea of driving into cities, especially with the kids. This is the kind of place that's perfect for us."

Back at Horse Cave Theatre, Hammack reveals plans to turn the original upstairs theater into a museum focusing on the region's theatrical heritage. He strongly believes that his organization's mission is to bring cultural experiences to the residents.

"You don't know who you're going to wake up," he notes, recalling his boyhood days listening to classical music and radio dramas at the urging of his father. "Looking at the world through creative eyes opens up a whole new way of seeing yourself - and everything. I've seen that happen to people. That's what it's all about."

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