November 14, 2008

With a new theater in Pike County and a world premiere play based on the work of Jesse Stuart in Greenup County, fine arts agents with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service are providing local drama opportunities to residents of eastern Kentucky.

Stephanie Richards, Pike County Extension's fine arts agent, and Cora Hughes, fine arts extension agent in Greenup County, said bringing these opportunities to the area has been a goal of theirs since they became extension agents. This region has long been known for producing quality artists, but many have had to leave the area because of the lack of opportunities to locally practice their art forms.

"We're not birthing the arts in eastern Kentucky," Richards said. "We're organizing it. We're finding a way to get it to the people and get the people onto the stage, whether that is visual art or performing art. And that's one of the most beautiful things."

In Greenup County, actors, singers, musicians and folk artists recently performed the world-premiere of the play, "A Penny's Worth of Character" at Greenbo Lake State Park. The play was based on Stuart's book by the same name.

It was Hughes' idea to turn one of Stuart's works into a play as a way to honor the Greenup County native.

"The thing about having it here at Greenbo is these are the hills that Jesse Stuart talked about walking in. So it's really special to a lot of people," she said.

After receiving approval from the Jesse Stuart Foundation, Hughes commissioned University of Kentucky Theatre Professor Emeritus James Rodgers to write the adaptation and Jay Flippin, associate professor emeritus of music at Morehead State University, to compose the music. Damon Farmer, a sculptor from Versailles, constructed the large folk art puppets for the play's scenes, and parents of the students in the play built the set based on Farmer's design.

"It's a great little story that includes lots of details about this area," Rodgers said. "You not only get to know four characters really well and a feeling for this beautiful area, as a bonus you get a wonderful moral about the importance of honesty."

The cast included about 70 members, all from northeast Kentucky. Cast members included the Raceland-Worthington Concert Choir and Chamber Singers, Greenup County Children's Chorus, puppeteers, musicians and actors.

Most of the students growing up in Greenup County learn about Stuart in schools. In fact, many of the teachers require the students to read some of his works. Anne Stephens, assistant director of the Greenup County Children's Chorus said they have had many requests to perform the play for school groups, and the young people participating in the play enjoyed learning the music and about Stuart.

"The kids have had a really good time singing this music," she said. "They love that fact it's all original. Nobody's ever sung this before. It's familiar; yet at the same time it's something you've never heard before."

In Pike County, the Artist Collaborative Theatre recently debuted its second production, a children's play titled "The Still Life of Iris," in the new facility in Elkhorn City.

             Between a full season of plays, after-school acting classes and musical performances, the theater is loaded with opportunities for area children and community members to explore the arts.

"I grew up in Pike County and there was nothing like this for us to do as children," said Cheryl Ramey, president of the Artists Collaborative Theatre. "I have a 13-year-old daughter that participates in this, and she just absolutely loves it."

It is the goal of the theater to not only support the area artistically but economically.   

"Through economic challenges and social challenges, we've hit a wall in the growth and development of Elkhorn City, and we've been witnessing its decline for the last 20 years," Richards said. "Hopefully, by rebuilding the community through the arts, we'll be able to have a positive impact on the overall health of the county."

Even though it's been open only a short amount of time, the theater is already seeing tourism opportunities.

"We had white water rafting here for the month of October, and we did have a lot of the rafters come in and enjoy our Patsy Cline show," Ramey said. "They were very, very appreciative that we did have something for them to do in the community while they were here."

            The state's arts community has also taken notice of the extension agents' efforts.

            "It (fine arts extension) is wonderful because I think it shows that the arts can work in more ways than just with arts organizations," said Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council. "They can be throughout communities, and there are lots of different people that can work to make the arts happen in a community."

The agents plan for the theater productions and fine arts opportunities to continue and grow in the area.

Hughes said the goal is for the Greenup County play to be performed regularly at the amphitheatre at Greenbo Lake State Park during the annual Jesse Stuart Weekend, and there is the possibility of it appearing several times next summer at the park. She also plans school performances of the play next year.

With the construction of the theater, the fine arts program in Pike County has completed its third of five area development projects. Two other projects for the Shelby Valley and Phelps areas of the county are in the planning stages. There is a coal heritage museum organized by members of Stone Heritage in the northern part of the county and downtown Pikeville has Pike County Artisan Center.

While Hughes and Richards are currently the only two fine arts extension agents in the state, the movement is spreading west. Muhlenberg County plans to add a fine arts extension agent after the first of the year.

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