In a small town 80 miles south of Louisville in south-central Kentucky's cave country, one exit away from the kitschy tourist district of Cave City, where Dinosaur World, the Wigwam Village and Redneck Golf explode at the mouth of Mammoth Cave National Park, a world-class theater sits poised on the brink of dramatic reinvention.
If you want a photo of yourself with a fiberglass statue of Yogi Bear, then Cave City is your stop. By contrast, nearby Horse Cave is a sleepy rural town, its downtown comprising two blocks of historic buildings housing a handful of small, locally owned businesses. The ice-cream shop is closed, but the natural museum at the mouth to the Hidden River Cave is open. If you drive two miles in any direction, you're back in rolling farmland, studying the signs for the upcoming goat auction while idling behind a rural postal truck.
Horse Cave is more than 800 miles removed from the neon lights of Broadway, but to Christopher Carter Sanderson, the newly minted executive director of its venerable Kentucky Repertory Theatre, the small Hart County community is the new center of the universe.
“This is less of a job than a calling,” he said.
Sanderson, who founded New York City's Gorilla Repertory Theatre Company in 1992 to stage free productions of classical plays in public spaces like Washington Square Park, has brought his populist artistic vision all the way down to Horse Cave, where he plans on revitalizing the once-thriving theater, one production at a time.
“What we're building here is a pre-eminent center for performing arts in the country,” said Sanderson, 46, who began his tenure as executive director on March 5.
“It'll be the very highest quality theater presented here to the delight of the local populace, and we'll be doing it so well that we'll be attracting people from around the commonwealth, the region and the country. We'll do it so well that we won't be able to serve all the people who want to see shows in our little 200-seat theater, so we'll have to send shows to Louisville, to Chicago, to New York. To Tokyo? I'm game.”
The only thing Sanderson seems to fear is thinking small. He doesn't believe in flying under the radar.
“We have to build,” he said. “It's grow or die.”
A new challenge
At first glance, Horse Cave appears to be the kind of town young people leave behind to pursue the stage lights and big promises of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. But in 1976, actor and director Warren Hammack returned to his native Kentucky to open a world-class professional theater. Under Hammack, Horse Cave Theatre (the name was changed in 2004) staged both classics and new plays, including the Kentucky Voices series, to national acclaim.
Hammack's vision — a stage that could produce new work by Kentucky playwrights as well as acclaimed contemporary dramas and classical works from the theater world at large — came to fruition in the heyday of the American regional theater movement. But Horse Cave Theatre remained a bit of an anomaly still — a professional dramatic oasis in the middle of rural Kentucky.
“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 $1million, 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 was bluntly critical of his predecessor's management strategy.
“I don't think it takes a lot of speculation to say that in the last two years, the leadership's philosophy was to encourage people to support the theater by blowing every penny possible and going deeply into debt, figuring that people would just decide to rescue them,” he said.
Reached at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., where he is now an assistant professor of theater, Brock was diplomatic in his response.
“During the last two years, Kentucky Repertory Theatre, like many arts organizations in this distressed economy, has been in a struggle for its very existence,” Brock said. “The leadership, by way of many difficult decisions such as cutting expenses, layoffs, etcetera, was able to continue to produce quality theatre and educational programming and to reduce the deficit by half. I know the theater continues to struggle. I wish the new leadership well.”
Sanderson aims to turn all of that around — and keep going further. As executive director, Sanderson is responsible for both the artistic excellence and the financial solvency of the theater, two pillars of the organization that in his mind are firmly intertwined.
“I can win these people's loyalty and love back,” he said. “This isn't my theater or the board's theater, this is their theater. We'll be making it clear to everyone that we serve the local community first, then the area, then the region, then the commonwealth, then the country and also the world.”
It sounds like an uphill battle, but Sanderson, who called living and working in the competitive, ambition-fueled New York theater world “too easy,” welcomes the struggle.
“I needed a challenge,” said Sanderson before ticking off a list of accomplishments that includes plays reviewed by The New York Times, warm notices in American Theatre magazine and his book on theater. “I kinda did it. To continue my artistic growth and development, I needed this.”
Something for everyone
Sanderson hit the ground running, vowing an immediate return to year-round programming. He opened the season's first show in April, and he hasn't taken a break since. He's drawn on the relationships he's built with artists across the country to jump-start Kentucky Rep's reboot with performances of a one-man “Hamlet,” the acclaimed Cashore Marionettes and the fast-paced comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” A live music series has already begun with concerts by local musicians and New York-based director Andre Mistier's acoustic trip-hop band The Adversary. A dance series is also in development.
“We present music, we present puppets, we present dance, we present stand-up comedy, but we are Kentucky Repertory Theatre, so clearly the core of our reputation's going to be based on the productions we originate,” said Sanderson.
Coming up this summer are the comedy “Gutenberg! The Musical!” originated by the adventurous New York comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade; an outdoor production of “Macbeth” directed by Sanderson and staged at the mouth of Hidden River Cave; “Oregon Trail: The Musical,” inspired by, of all things, a vintage educational computer game; and, in honor of the playwright's centennial, Tennessee Williams' “Summer and Smoke.” Holiday programming will include “A Tuna Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol” running in repertory.
With this diverse slate of programming, Sanderson envisions a theater dynamically woven into the fabric of the local community whose artistic achievements are felt across the country. For as broad of an audience as he wants to serve, Sanderson will aim for a something-for-everyone approach, with hope than an engaged audience will also take the occasional risk.
“When someone feels particularly served by a show that they loved, that might embolden them to seek out a show they might not have thought to go to, thereby expanding their cultural palate,” he said.
And he means everyone.
Sanderson acknowledged that in the theater's 35-year history, Hart County's African American community has been dramatically underserved, an oversight he plans on addressing as the theater moves forward. In February, Kentucky Rep will produce Lorraine Hansberry's classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” with more plays by African-American writers to be woven into the theater's repertoire going forward.
“This theater's never done a black play, a play written by a black artist and considered a classic,” he said. “Maybe this is one of the elephants in the room, but that's a railroad track across the street. People who live on that side of the track are black, people on this side of the tracks are white. I have to find ways to reach across the tracks. I'm not saying I'm doing it well. It's awkward and it's hard, but I won't stop until we serve everybody.”
Kentucky's got talent
Serving the community of Horse Cave goes beyond programming for Sanderson.
When he heard local politicians discussing the need to attract young people and young families in order to thrive, he recruited a young technical director from New Orleans and moved him into the theater's artists' quarters, where he will also serve as building superintendent. As Sanderson raises money to begin hiring more staff, he has his eye on energetic young theater professionals who are looking for a big challenge in a small town, like himself and his wife, actress Frances You, who dream of the family they'll raise together in the rambling, ramshackle house Sanderson is restoring next to the theater.
Sanderson's vision includes a community of theater professionals who call Horse Cave their home base, living in town while spending a month or two in New York or Los Angeles working on projects, rather than the other way around.
“I'm looking to be so big, and hire so many people, that actors want to live here just so they'll have a shot at working here,” he said. “We're going to turn Horse Cave into a destination for professionals.”
And for the playwright looking for a workshop for his hot new project or the renowned actress looking for a bucolic working getaway? Come on down to Cave Country, says Sanderson.
“To top-quality professional actors in New York, this looks like a combination of the Fresh Air Fund and some kind of locavore food channel show,” he said with a laugh. “They can go away being nourished as an artist and nourished as a person.”
In other words, this is an easy sell for Sanderson, who believes Kentuckians typically sell themselves short in the self-promotion department.
“Kentucky is one of the finest places to live in the world. It's like this weird Oz full of talented people who don't think they're that talented,” he said. “It's like, ‘Oh, I play a little fiddle,' and they'll bust out Paganini.”
Sanderson, who earned a master of fine arts degree in directing from the Yale University School of Drama in 2005, also envisions Kentucky Repertory Theatre becoming an incubator for theater education. He hopes to partner with one of the state's universities to offer an unparalleled graduate degree experience in Horse Cave.
“We want to provide a drama school that provides more MFAs in one school than any other MFA program in the country, thereby equipping people to go out and be the leaders of the same kind of turnaround that we've created here,” he said. “This needs to replicate itself. There's another rural place in Appalachia, there's another rural place in Africa, there's another rural place in California that needs this to happen.”
But for now, his sights are set on funding positions for an artistic director and a managing director, so he can maybe take a day off now and then to take a hike, forage for morels or start a garden.
“I've had 10 hours off in three months,” he said. “I'm just trying to walk the walk.”
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