Kentucky Repertory Theatre in Horse Cave Closes

After 35 seasons, Kentucky Repertory Theatre (formerly Horse Cave Theatre) in Hart County has turned off the lights. Jobe Publishing reported earlier this week that the board of directors voted to close the organization. 

Under the direction of producing artistic consultant Ken Hailey, the theater staged 14 shows in 2012, but it wasn’t enough to save the theater financially or re-ignite the passion Kentucky and the theater community once held for the official state repertory theater. 

Founded in 1975, artistic director Warren Hammack, along with his associate director (and wife) Pamela White, built the house into a thriving regional theater that was also home to the robust Kentucky Voices new play development program. After Hammack retired, the theater entered a period of slow decline that accelerated rapidly over the last two years. 

I wrote this story on Kentucky Rep for Velocity in May 2011 on the last artistic director, Christopher Carter Sanderson, who moved to Horse Cave to take the reins after Robert Brock, who served between Hammack and Sanderson, moved on to teach at Lindsey Wilson College:

“This institution is well-known outside of Kentucky,” Sanderson said. “People outside of Kentucky know the theater better than anyone in Kentucky because so many actors came through here, and so many tourists have seen shows here, it’s part of the cultural fabric of the United States.”

In 2001 Hammack retired after 25 years, and with the founder went much of the vision that kept Horse Cave in the theater world’s sights for so long. Under the tutelage of his successor, Robert Brock, the theater got a new name and ambitious goals, but financial support declined as tastes changed and the economy suffered two recessions.

When Sanderson arrived in March, the Kentucky Repertory Theatre’s endowment, once $1 million, was down to about $6,000. The season had shrunk to a scant three months, and the company was buried under $380,000 in debt.

Sanderson had big plans for the theater, including an adjacent black box stage and a music series, but left the organization abruptly after only 10 months on the job. Kentucky Rep faced many uphill battles, including the funding fallout from the Great Recession that affected most nonprofit arts organizations and changing tastes in entertainment. Once audiences and donors aged out or lost means or interest during the rebuilding and recession years in the wake of Hammack’s retirement, they were apparently lost. 

Kentucky Rep’s name still had cachet, but the worth of an institution’s name is sometimes only as good as its last few seasons. We have to look at how the regional theatre landscape has changed since Hammack’s heyday in Horse Cave. It’s no longer enough to say “if you build it, they will come.” In the mid-Seventies, the American regional theatre movement was still expanding, and along with it the then-radical idea that vital, groundbreaking theatre could be made outside of New York and London.

Now there are more than 1,800 professional, not-for-profit regional theaters in the United States (see Theatre Communications Group’s 2011 Theatre Facts for an interesting financial survey). So the competition for the writing, directing, designing and acting talent necessary to stage an award-winning level of theater is real. Playwrights, directors and actors want to work at venues that can and will support their work in a way that will help them grow and advance as artists (and pay the bills, of course). Strong artistic leadership can make an out-of-the-way theater into an artistic destination, but without financial support, an institution can’t bring in the talent. And that visionary leadership, of the sort that Hammack provided, is necessary to secure funding. Organizations need artistic leaders who can make the case for supporting their organization. They need a compelling institutional story and the means of telling it over and over in a fresh and vital way. Heritage only takes that story so far.

When I visited Horse Cave to interview Sanderson, he asked me, “what would it take to get Louisville audiences to our theater?” I didn’t have a good answer. Louisville’s small theater scene is bustling, with new companies forming every year. There’s something for every taste — classical theatre, new works, pop culture-inspired shows, improv, women’s theater, LGBT theater, repertory standards. And between Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Broadway Series, Stage One and Derby Dinner Playhouse — all conveniently located in or close to downtown, with plenty of dining and drinking options nearby — we’re not hurting for high-quality professional productions, either. 

Downtown Horse Cave features historic architecture and small-town charm, but no destination restaurants, for example, which would help make a night at the theater an attractive option for visitors driving an hour or more from outside the county. Better to focus on the local audience,maybe, who might be hungry for arts productions in their backyard. But were they? It’s hard to say from the outside whether locals had lost interest in live theater altogether, or just the live theater that Kentucky Rep provided.

In many ways, one of theater’s biggest competitors right now is television. Streaming films on  affordable plasma screens make a movie night in very attractive, and there’s no longer a high/low divide between theatre and TV shows, especially on cable. Playwrights decamp regularly to join the staffs of award-winning shows that continue to push the boundaries of storytelling and character development. So live performance companies need to offer more to convince audiences to leave the comfort of their living rooms. If theaters don’t consistently nurture their audiences and put in the on-going effort to cultivate a culture of live theatre-going in their communities, the living room (or the big-budget touring production an hour away) is going to win every time. 

Kentucky Rep’s demise is a sad ending to a lovely story, but it’s not necessarily the end of the arts in Horse Cave. Our  impulses to create and share are innate. It’s possible those needs are already being met quietly in the community by television, by churches, by live music, by book clubs and writing circles. But if there’s demand, theater will begin to re-emerge in Horse Cave. They won’t be professionally-funded productions — not at first, at least, and maybe not ever. But you don’t need Equity actors, professional directors or a dedicated space to make theater, and mighty experiences can grow from even the most meager shoestring (re) beginnings.

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