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Theatre Expansion to Help Return Kentucky City's Downtown to Life

Walking through downtown Pikeville five years ago would have been a bleak, dusty experience. The landscape was littered with crumbling brick and worn-down storefronts, a cocoon-like time capsule of small town America. For years the city grew tall around it, insulating the abandoned downtown with opportunity and progress. The snug streets of downtown had untapped potential, but no vision to make them glow again.

In winter 2012, Jenny Wiley Theatre board of directors attended Pikeville City Commission meetings and started a plan that had been in the works for over a decade.

The Jenny Wiley Theatre Company has gained an esteemed reputation from being the only professional theater company in Eastern Kentucky. Based out of Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, Jenny Wiley has staged productions in its amphitheater every summer for the past 50 years. It is now, on their 50-year anniversary, that a big change is occurring. An indoor theater is in the finishing stages of being built on Second Street in downtown Pikeville.

“This is a big step for the company…we so appreciate the city for having this much vision,” said Carrie Cinnamond, a member of JWT board of directors. Cinnamond has served on the board since 1993, but has been involved with JWT since the beginning. She performed in the company’s first show, South Pacific, in 1964 at the young age of 17.

Cinnamond said that when the expansion plans were released, Floyd County residents were afraid JWT would be abandoning its roots in Prestonsburg. But the board of directors insists this expansion is just that: an expansion.

The summer 2014 season will open in Pikeville with A Second Helping, a sequel to Church Basement Ladies, which was performed earlier this year. The hope is to eventually have two full seasons running in both locations at the same time. Both Peter Pan and South Pacific will take place at the amphitheater in Prestonsburg this summer, while the rest of the performances will take place on the main stage in Pikeville.

“Jenny Wiley belongs to Eastern Kentucky,” Cinnamond said, “Not just Prestonsburg or Pikeville.”

The company has always been a collaboration between multiple surrounding counties, Cinnamond said. JWT has had actors and stagehands come from Pike County, Johnson County and Knott County throughout its tenure in Eastern Kentucky. This expansion will just broaden the span of people the theater can reach.

JWT casts locally first before opening up opportunities for regional and state auditions, Cinnamond said. This gives any local, young or old, the opportunity to explore the possibility of talent.

“Just because someone is a housewife or a school teacher doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there,” Cinnamond said.

That same philosophy makes up the foundation of Footlights Theatre, the youth theater program at Jenny Wiley. A year-round season provides an abundance of opportunities for local youth to exercise their talents in a theater environment that may not always be available through school drama departments.

Kim Willard, director of the education program, said it’s important for kids to have a professional, yet low-pressure experience as they start exploring their dramatic potential.

At the Footlights Theatre summer camp, students learn what it’s like to audition and rehearse for a production while also learning stage management skills and how to work behind the scenes as part of the stage crew.

“We put on a show in just a week,” Willard said, “but we have a core of kids who help each other and by the end they run the show like clockwork.”

Footlights Theatre has been around for a while, but has grown bigger along with the expansion to Pikeville. Willard said the program used to only offer acting workshops, where youth could learn basic drama skills, but did not actually put on a show.

“I don’t think you can learn about theater without trying to do it,” Willard said.

Willard has been the unofficial director of education for the past few years. She and her husband, Darryl Willard, moved to Pikeville with their two daughters three years ago with the JWT expansion in mind. Darryl took the technical directing position so that he could be part of the positive change in Pikeville.

“It’s an amazing thing to me, it doesn’t happen nowadays that a city builds a theater,” he said.

Willard said that even though the Pikeville Main Street Renaissance Program has been doing a great job revitalizing downtown Pikeville, there has been an obvious piece missing from the puzzle.

“The city wants theater to be the anchor,” Willard said, “with coal moving out, this is a good thing.”

JWT in Pikeville is currently working on business partnerships that would connect the small shops and restaurants with the revitalization effort.

“We’re working out discount dinner packages with Bank 253 and Blue Raven. It’ll make Pikeville a lot like Gatlinburg or Abingdon in that people can come downtown, eat dinner, walk through all the little shops and then go see a show. That’s what we’re banking on,” Willard said.

Stef Ratiff, the art director at JWT and Pikeville native, said the position at the theater just happened to her.

“I had the opportunity to live anywhere, but I chose to come back here. I hate to hear people complain about not having things at home,” Ratliff said. “We can still have amazing things in a rural environment.”

After graduating from Morehead State University with a degree in studio art and a concentration in ceramics, Ratliff wanted to come home to be closer to family. She has been employed by JWT for two years.

“I am so thankful to have a traditional art job; I get to paint every day,” Ratliff said, “Now all these young and old artists have a place to come back to…nothing was happening here when I graduated from high school.”

Ratliff said the teamwork at JWT is something she hasn’t experienced anywhere else.

“We’re more like an artistic crew than a technical crew,” She said of herself and the five other full-time Jenny Wiley employees. The six employees work both the Pikeville and Prestonsburg locations for the time being. This crew expands to 15 or 20 every summer but will increase even more with the expansion.

This sense of teamwork and collaboration is the way both the professional and youth programs are run, and it’s intended to stay that way.

“We teach kids to step in and fill roles that need to be filled, and that’s a life lesson that applies outside of theater,” Willard said, “We have no divas around here.”

With the theater lobby strewn with drop cloths, ladders and stray pieces of plywood, the crew of six is hard at work making their dreams a reality.

“Like those people in there,” Willard points toward the seating area, “They’re cleaning. That’s not their title, but that’s what needs to get done.”

Willard said this humble, collaborator attitude is important and should be instilled at a young age. She said Footlights Theatre has already brought kids together from surrounding counties that would not have been friends otherwise, and has taught them this lesson.

“Relationships form even in multiage shows. They watch out for each other and become a little family,” Willard said.

Willard said she and her husband can’t decide if they’re good at what they do or just good at convincing other people they can do it.

Jenny Wiley is an empowering environment, she said. The vision is all about getting people to try something they think is beyond them.

“It’s vital that we teach kids to love the arts, because this is a gift to the community. If kids love this, they will invest in it’s future financially, emotionally and personally. We gotta bring in the new generation,” Willard said.

For more information, click here.

Tara E. Leisure wrote this story for The Kentucky Project, where it first appeared. (Via KY Forward)

Photo: Artist's rendering of theater

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