Successful Horse Cave Theatre Jazzes Up Kentucky Arts Scene
Small-town stage is just one of many cultural sites
HORSE CAVE, KY.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.