Broadway veterans Robin Irwin (Titanic) and Erick Buckley (Addams Family) relocated to Pikeville, Kentucky, one year ago in search of a quality lifestyle and an opportunity to boost Eastern Kentucky’s game in theatre and performance. Then a pandemic struck. Irwin and Buckley discussed the consequences (by phone, of course) with UnderMain’s Tom Martin for his WEKU program, Eastern Standard.
For you theatre buffs out there, the sold-out performances of 33 Variations have been generating a lot of buzz for Athens West, Lexington’s newest theatre company in the Downtown Arts Center. Bo List, the director of the show and a partner in the newly-formed group, has come a long way since his early days growing up in Lexington, where he first discovered and nurtured his love of the empty space. Here to talk with us about the new show, his influences, and the transformative possibilities of theatre, is Bo List.
UM: So, it all started here in Lexington for you?
BL: Yes, I grew up here in the Bluegrass.
UM: When did your life first start to turn toward theatre?
BL: I didn’t do any theatre in high school. I was a shy kid in grade school, so by the time I got to high school, I was happy to be quiet and left alone. I was grateful to be invisible. I didn’t pop out of my shell, but something said to me that I had something to say.
UM: This was at Henry Clay?
BL: Yes. I attended Henry Clay, then went on to UK for Theatre. I decided to take an acting class at UK and a teacher said they were going to do a directing class. I said I would like to be a part of it. A lot of my venturing into theatre was from the desire to not be shy anymore. Theatre has given me the skills to speak up.
UM: Was it then when you decided Theatre was the right major for you?
BL: Well, I realized I like to be near the center of attention, but not right at the center. When I was at UK, I started out thinking acting was the way to go. Not many people enter theatre thinking they want to write or direct. Once I directed and wrote a few things, I realized that’s where I needed to be. Some of the earliest shows I saw were from Joe Ferrell. The local pros inspired me. They made it this wondrous thing that I could never quite achieve. Equus. Debra Hensley and Debra Martin doing the Kathy and Mo Show. These got me off my butt and made me want to do what they were doing.
UM: But you were still dipping into acting, you were still in some performances.
BL: Sure, even nowadays. Every few years people will bully me into being in something. My last thing was a reality TV-host/judge. Every now and then you have to decide that you have to experience being told what to do. Actors have feelings and an ego and they don’t like to be bullied. It’s important to remember that if you spend most of your time writing and directing.
UM: Was it right after UK when you decided graduate work was the right direction?
BL: Yes. I moved to Memphis to pursue an MFA in Directing. They have a great program there. Memphis helped me to develop and make quality theatre. When I finished my undergrad, I felt like I could do this. In Grad school I realized there’s a world of possibilities, techniques and styles. I was improved as an artist in my training there.
UM: Was there something of getting away from the familiar?
BL: Perhaps. I had to go away to find people of like minds, as not many people in Lexington wanted to direct at the time.
UM: It seems people in theatre have to be willing to sacrifice.
BL: I’m fortunate, as I’m not financially motivated. By that I mean, I’m a smart guy. I probably could be president of a bank or something like that, but it simply holds no interest for me. So I feel content doing what I do, being motivated by theatre as I am.
UM: Being away must’ve had a strong impact on you. Not just from the grad school perspective, but you were in totally different environments from Lexington.
BL: I floated around Chicago, Memphis and here. I took advantage of the great Usher program at Steppenwolf in Chicago. I saw Lexington actor Michael Shannon play there. Probably the best acting I’ve ever seen, right in front of me. Really superlative theatre artists. You can see theatre in a huge space one night and you can see something in a room the size of a bathroom the next. The variety is immense. They can spend $5 on a set or a million on it and there’s always something enriching from the experience.
UM: What was it that made you move back to Lexington after these experiences?
BL: I had always wanted a strong theatre scene for Lexington and after years and years and years, I finally realized that if I ever wanted to have good theatre here, I would have to create it. I’d had a front-row seat in seeing how theatre improves the quality of people’s lives. I always had a notion that if something got off the ground and started moving up and kept moving up that you would see a lot of other things flourishing as well. I thought that if some of these companies could make a go of it, we’d see a lot more synergy in the area. Fortunately, Athens is already creating opportunities for actors and out-of-town artists to come in and add to the culture.
UM: Outside of Athens West, you’ve done quite a bit of writing. How did your adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN come about?
BL: When Trish Clark ran the Lexington Shakespeare Festival she used to ask what we should do for our seasons. This went on for years and Shakespeare came and went and then one year she asked me about it again when they were doing a Season of Monsters. We talked about Frankenstein. I said to Trish she should commission me to write it. She told me I’d have to start writing quickly as there wasn’t much time before the season. It’s a beautiful book. It pops right off the page.
UM: Did you find it was popular as a stage play before you got ahold of it?
BL: There were tons of adaptations and they were all terrible, in my opinion. So I started to think about what I was looking for in this adaptation. It needs to have heart with the creature being articulate.
UM: And after the season you were able to publish it?
BL: Yes. Every writer dreams of being published. Of course, publishers are not interested in your work unless it’s been produced or unless you’re famous. I started mailing it off to theaters and got them to produce it. A friend of mine in Chicago works at a theatre that only does literary adaptations; they produced it. So my time of networking and making connections helped a bit – friends who own theaters, etc. But even with knowing people, it’s really an issue of material being good. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter who you know or who produces work.
UM: When I spoke with Kevin Hardesty, we talked about you writing for the Humanities Council.
BL: Yes, I was commissioned to write the two Chautauqua pieces that Kevin is performing currently, one on Jefferson Davis and one on Daniel Boone.
UM: How did they develop?
BL: Trish once again. She had been performing the Mary Todd Lincoln piece for Humanities and they wanted to commission these other pieces. I really liked the idea of telling a story, especially historical pieces like these. When I got to know Jefferson Davis, I really began to like him and I wanted to tell his story in a very fair way. The Humanities Council owns the pieces while they’re under contract and there are a bunch of traveling performances yet to come. Kevin’s great in them.
UM: Did you feel the burden of the figures being so local and so historical?
BL: Yes. There was good and bad in both characters and it was really about getting honest impressions of them.
UM: People do tend to immediately go to the worst thing with characters, don’t they? Whether historical or not.
BL: Yes, and it’s more about giving the character a truthful and tasteful rendition.
UM: How did Athens get rolling?
BL: Myself, Mark Mozingo, Jeff Day, Kate Goodwin, and Meredith Nelson all got together and discussed our vision of how things could work. For us it involved many meetings in coffee shops with people to get our Equity status.
UM: What was that process like?
BL: We called Equity and they were delighted to have a presence in Lexington. There are not a lot of opportunities in Kentucky for Equity actors.
UM: Do you feel there’s a reason it’s been so seemingly difficult to develop Equity theaters in this region?
BL: Being able to identify the needs of the area is important. We announced ourselves as a company and there was never any intention of coming in to fill a niche that other companies were leaving behind. There were always things in the Lexington Theatre scene in the past that probably hampered progress. The undeniable cliquishness in the community in the past. We’re just trying to rise above whatever did or did not happen before and do the best work we can do. We want more good theatre in this town. If there are two professional theaters in town, there’s more for everybody.
UM: Do you feel the climate’s changed politically, socially, economically?
BL: Yes. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the arts community has improved under Jim Gray’s watch as mayor.
UM: There’s an issue of good theatre happening at the right time. A confluence of influences.
UM: Then there’s just the ability to deliver a sheer number of performances. You have, what, three this season?
BL: Yes. We’ll do three next season, too. We’re slated to do four shows the season after next, so we’re growing.
UM: Do all of the shows fit nicely into the Downtown Arts Center location, or is that a consideration?
BL: Athens has certain limitations. Where we are is limited for our purposes, as there are many other things going on there. We roundtable all of the shows and decide on what would be best, what fits for what is going on socially, politically, etc. In the future we’d like to have more of a unifying thread. The three pieces we have this season are rather disparate, though timely, each in its own way.
One reason we did To Kill a Mockingbird earlier this season is because it was timely for ongoing hot topics in the news and Harper Lee’s new book.
UM: How did the current production, 33 Variations come about?
BL: 33 was on Broadway back in 2009. Moisés Kaufman, who did The Laramie Project, wrote the piece. Laramie was a play near and dear to me, and this newer piece of Kaufman’s is fantastic in a different way. I missed seeing it on Broadway, which I regret deeply, as it would have been a unique experience I’m not going to get again. It’s a hard play to read and there’s a lot of music that coincides with the onstage performances.
UM: Janet Scott is in the fictional role of musicologist Katherine Brandt with Robert Parks Johnson as Beethoven. And Tedrin Blair is doing the music for the show?
BL: Yes! I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tedrin could do it? It’s so theatrical, so vibrant when you’re in the room. I had no idea if he would step on board, but he did and it’s wonderful.
UM: How have audience responses been?
BL: We sold out opening night and almost sold out the following two performances. It’s a drama, a downer, very serious work, but compelling. I don’t know if it’s because of Mockingbird’s run, or Tedrin or whatever. I hope it’s because there’s an appetite for good, serious, new and interesting work. We’re inventing this as we go along.
UM: Surely you must need to unwind from the intensity of the work.
BL: I’ve been doing a lot of 30 Rock lately. I go to the Re-Store. I collect ugly old lamps. Being in a place where my brain is occupied with other stuff is essential at times.
33 Variations finishes its run this week, running February 18th through the 21st, with evening shows at 8pm and a 2pm matinee on Sunday. Find out more about the show, tickets, and Athens West next season at: athenswest.org, or call (859)425-2550.
For many years in the Lexington community the name Joe Ferrell and theatre have been synonymous. Joe has helmed many productions, ranging from Shakespeare to the modern classics, under a myriad of venues. The deep and abiding love Joe has for good theatre and artistic process is rivaled only by his love for family and the friendships he’s developed over a five-decade career. His wife, Sheila Omer Ferrell, is the Executive Director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in Lexington. Their daughter, Hannah, has grown up in Lexington after her parents settled down here to start a family in the 80s. Joe speaks candidly with UnderMain contributor Charles Sebastian about family, theatre, and his newest project as director, the Woodford Theatre’s current production, Of Mice and Men.
UM: Let me start by saying I’m sorry the snow affected opening night for Of Mice and Men. The show’s slated to run three weeks, correct?
JF: Yes, the show runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at Woodford until February 7.
UM: How did the show take shape?
JF: I had directed the show at Actor’s Guild in the late 90s. I hadn’t directed it up to that point. I had played Lennie doing some scene work for some of my graduate courses. It’s a remarkable piece of work. I like to do so many different kinds of things as a director. That period of time was so difficult for people, especially in the mid-West and West Coast regions. There was a lot of difficulty just in staying alive.
UM: We’re talking 1930s, when Steinbeck was writing.
JF: Yes. Steinbeck talks so strongly in the play about loneliness and the difficulty of living. The loneliness, I feel, is a central theme of the work. The need for individuals to not just relate to one another, but to really be connected. The guys in the play were almost envious of their relationship between George and Lennie.
UM: Even though it is rocky and unpredictable at times.
JF: The relationship between the two has all of the ins and outs, ups and downs. It deals with, in 1936 terms, what was then called the American Dream. The two characters wanted to follow their own muse and not be under the thumb of a boss. The inherent failure of that for the characters is heart-breaking.
UM: There is something universal about the relationship, isn’t there?
JF: George and Lennie have their dream about where they’re going and what they’re trying to do, but Lennie’s unpredictable and essentially is just interested in petting things. George can’t let Curly just run off and assassinate Lennie, so he decides to put Lennie out of his misery.
UM: A mercy killing.
JF: Yes. There’s just no way George can protect Lennie after a time.
UM: There’s a sense of it being better being put out of your misery by someone you know, someone who cares about you, instead of some random executioner.
JF: And that makes for a very sad and touching situation.
UM: A lesser of two evils situation.
JF: Yes. Hard decisions. Life was a lot harder in Dust Bowl, 1930s America.
UM: It’s interesting that the play focuses so much on male relationships, though there is the one female character.
JF: There’s only one woman in the play, and she’s constantly referred to as the tart.
UM: Courtney Waltermire plays Curly’s wife.
JF: Yes. Courtney has the kinds of things that all of us who try to do good theatre are born with. Instincts. A lot of this is an openness to trying new things. Courtney could have a career, if that’s what she wanted. Curly’s wife is portrayed as a lot of women were at that time: not particularly smart and longing for somebody to talk to; she has her own version of the American Dream. She feels pretty and someone from Hollywood told her she was pretty, so she’s concocted her own dream of being found.
UM: The old Veronica Lake, discovered in a bar deal.
JF: Right. She’s sorry that she got married to Curly, and Curly isn’t a very nice guy.
UM: She’s looking to escape.
JF: All the men are living hand-to-mouth, living in a bunkhouse. Curly is one of the smallest of the men; one could say he has short man’s syndrome. He’s always uptight.
UM: Is research and dramaturgy a big deal on a play like this, one that has seen so many performances and is so well-known?
JF: Absolutely. I research the play and we have a rehearsal period, just talking about the play, including its historical significance. I’m always encouraging the actors to research and know the period and place on their own. Two people could come up with two different viewpoints on what the play is and how to manage it.
UM: You’ve worked with many of the actors in this production often over the years. Walter Tunis, Paul Thomas, Jeff Sherr, Kevin Hardesty. Does having a history with actors make the process easier?
JF: Absolutely. Trust is such a big issue with being able to play and explore. If you already have a relationship, it makes things move faster and makes getting to some truth much easier. Knowing a lot of these actors helps so much with trust. You have a good idea of where they can go. It doesn’t have to start from the ground up. You know where you are and how to work. You have a good idea of how they can move through process.
UM: How did you come to Lexington theatre, Joe? You’re originally from out west, right?
JF: I was born and raised in Montana and went to the University of Montana. I went on a football/academic scholarship and I came out of a town where all you did was play sports. The University of Montana was not all that big, but it had so many courses and areas for a kid like myself. No one in my family had been to college. I had an advisor in the English Department named Walter King, who was a Shakespeare scholar. I became an English major and Shakespeare was my focus then, with a minor in speech. We were on a quarter system, and the last quarter I had a speech teacher ask me to be in a play he was doing for the Theatre Department. I absolutely loved the experience and I felt like doors had been closed all my life and now they were somehow opened. I intuitively knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was sent to Korea during Viet Nam and made arrangements when I got back to go to do Masters work in Theatre; I saw the opportunity to plunge in and get involved as much as I wanted to. I hadn’t had that kind of experience or drive for anything up to that point. I had been in a class play in high school, but it was nothing compared to the experience that came later. I feel overall I’ve been very lucky with the course my life has taken.
UM: What prompted the move to this area?
JF: I came to Kentucky when I was in the first year of my doctoral program at the University of Iowa. I finished the doctorate at Indiana, as I wasn’t that happy with the program in Iowa. Georgetown College hired me. This was around 1971. They had an old theatre where the administration building is now. The Falling Springs Recreation Center. They had what were called “resistance dimmers” in the old theatre then. Sparks would fly out when you used them. Dangerous.
UM: Was the program progressive at the time?
JF: They had a small theatre curriculum at the time and wanted to expand. We developed a lot of great productions over those years. The kids who came were smart and ambitious. Some went on to do film, television, Broadway. J.C. Montgomery, who’s done a lot of Broadway and film work at this point, came out of that time.
UM: When did you make the transition to teaching at UK?
JF: I came to work at UK around 1979-80 from Georgetown, which gave me the opportunity to focus on acting and directing. I was doing a lot of other stuff at Georgetown. I was the only full time theatre guy at UK. It was my time to learn and develop ways of doing things that were essential. I didn’t have people looking over my shoulder and telling me I was doing everything wrong. It was good to be able to spend time at UK.
UM: You were at UK for awhile.
JF: Yes. Then, around 1985, Sheila and I married and we went to New York for 5 or so years and I did a lot of off and off-off Broadway. I loved New York and going to the shows. I finally looked at where we were and what we were doing, and we thought the thing to do was come back here, as we wanted to have a baby.
UM: Your daughter, Hannah.
JF: Yes. We thought this would be a better location for family.
UM: That was around the time I met you.
JF: I got a call from the people in Lexington. They were asking me to come and do Shakespeare in the Park.
UM: 1989. You directed King Lear. My first show with you. Shakespeare in the Park at Woodland. Fred Foster as Lear. Joe Gatton. Roger Leasor.
JF: That was the first show I did after we moved back.
UM: Were you able to plug back into UK when you returned?
JF: Actually, Fort Knox had just built a huge program. Not many people know this, but there are some posts around the country that have Department of Defense Education Activities, and Fort Knox was one of them. Sheila and I were doing theatre in Louisville around this time, and she was also offered a job in the Fort Knox area. Later, somewhere in the 90s, I started the Phoenix Group Theatre with Kevin Hardesty, Sheila, Joe Gatton, Walter Tunis, and others at the downtown library. Sheila was pregnant with Hannah.
UM: You continued at Fort Knox for quite some time?
JF: Yes. I retired from Fort Knox around 2008 and essentially have been doing what I want to do – Woodford Theatre and other projects.
UM: Do you try to stay current with newer theatre trends?
JF: If you’re going to do this stuff, you have to be looking at what’s out there. Examine what’s going on in different theatre scenes.
UM: But do things change a great deal overall?
JF: As a director, I’m one who wants to explore, instead of coming in and just blocking it out. I believe just line interpretation winds up not coming across well. Creating a safe space to explore allows actors to build and be fearless when they see a new way of doing it.
UM: Do you find that shows that keep coming around, like Of Mice and Men, for instance, have a universality absent in many pieces?
JF: One of the things I’ve always liked about a good play and the people who write the good ones, is that the speeches are all words we recognize, but written in a very special way: the language in the play is created by dialogues and speeches that are designed to take you in a certain direction. We can have a random conversation any given day, but in a good play, the world is being built by these conversations.
UM: Are you pretty much keeping the same schedule you always have?
JF: I did three plays last years and Mice has been the only one this year. I would like to see something spring to life in Lexington again. Athens West could be the answer. It’s challenging being an Equity theatre, so it’s going to be great to see where they go. I loved teaching in college and loved teaching all of the stuff that I had learned. We have lots of serious theatre-goers who see what’s up on stage. I sometimes worry about where our audiences are going.
UM: Are you referring to the “dumbing down” that’s been happening gradually in the arts in general?
JF: Yes. Things are just different today. So many of the plays remain relevant, but it seems like audiences respond differently today to some things.
UM: Are there certain works you look to as seminal or influential on your life and career, Joe?
JF: The Empty Space by Peter Brook comes to mind. Uta Hagen’s work and a lot of the stuff that came out of the Group Theatre. Clurman. The Stanislavski stuff that eventually paved the way for the Actor’s Studio. Many books have been written on that, of course. A lot of those people wound up turning theatre on its edge.
UM: Roughly a hundred years ago. The “Russian Invasion.”
JF: Right. The end of the 1800s was so overblown in terms of acting.
UM: You’re speaking of the Declamatory style?
UM: Nowadays you just see it done for laughs, just for the sake of being stodgy.
JF: Getting past that and to a deeper truth makes for much better work.
UM: Are you excited by certain playwrights? Are there plays you would like to do that you haven’t yet?
JF: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was astonishing for its language at the time. Of course, that’s been awhile ago now. A Winter’s Tale would be interesting, and doesn’t get played often. Neil Simon hasn’t been done as much here as I would like to see. Williams is important. I’ve done Glass Menagerie three times, but that material can always be revisited. O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night. The trend for heavier and longer plays doesn’t seem to be too much on the scene of late, though. It was wonderful we were able to do Venus and Fur at the Farish Theatre, through Balagula. That was one I had wanted to do for awhile.
UM: The theatre for you and the people you work with: it all seems to have a very family feel to it.
JF: You come out of these projects making close friends. Ultimately, good plays are about the relationships that drive us in life. Any of the good plays show how people interact, betray one another, love each other. There’s always the standard conflict stuff, that should be in any good play. I’m as fascinated today by what we can create onstage as I was all those years ago when I started. It’s just amazing what comes out of the rehearsals and what you wind up with as a final product. It affects people in so many ways and I’m affected by it.
UM: Sounds like it’s really about people for you.
JF: The important thing for me is always the people. Designers, actors, all of the making-of process, with so many wonderful talents: that’s what really drives me.
Please visit either of the following sites for tickets or more info on Of Mice and Men:
This is not to suggest that it hasn’t always been there, but networking or “cross-pollination” among various arts disciplines seems to be happening with more frequency lately in Lexington.
As some wise person once said: “more ‘o that!”
Writing in ACE Magazine several years ago, Candace Chaney noted Lexington’s rich literary history and the presence of a serious, if struggling, theatre community and suggested that cooperation and collaboration between the two might give rise to homegrown playwrights. This inspired idea remains a long way from yielding onstage results – although we have seen growth and development in local theatre production. But the concept has taken hold in other areas and we think it’s worth noting.
Recent examples include the mid-June production at the Downtown Arts Center of The Broken Queen, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between Blackbird Dance Theatre and a reunion of the Lexington band Chico Fellini.
And Story Magazine has launched its “Story Sessions” series – intimate concerts that engage a variety of talents and skills ranging from music and sound production to communication and publishing.
Coming up later this month, on June 27, is the Lexington Art League’s CSA LIVE: An evening of story and song, billed as a convergence of Lexington’s literary, music and visual arts scenes.
These productions and events join The Carnegie Center’s Carnegie Classics, and Balagula Theatre in inviting varieties of artists to share talents and skills in collaborative settings.
This departure from limiting our arts scene to the pitting of one discipline against another to grovel for scarce financial lifeblood is healthy and promising.
The question is, what does it take to establish a “go to” network to enable vital communication between, perhaps, a videographer and a sound-designer, or a performance artist and a sound and lighting talent? Is this a function of some independent non-profit? Or should our municipal government establish such a role?
Wouldn’t it be great if we figured out how to sustain arts production in Lexington?
Please offer your thoughts on our Facebook page.