Make the summer scene at open-air theater across the commonwealth
The long days of summer and their clear, starry nights are perfect for enjoying summer theater in Kentucky. Jump in the car and drive in any direction: a cast of characters will be ready to entertain with song, dance, drama, and history at various venues. From Pine Knob Theatre in the west to the far eastern border at Little Shepherd Amphitheater, summer theater offers a variety of plays and musicals that are sure to leave you with a smile and a desire to plan your next theater experience.
Served by Warren RECC, Pine Knob Theatre treats audiences to a family-oriented experience with every performance, according to Honus Shain, its playwright, director, and manager.
“Our cast is out with the audience before and after the shows,” Shain says. “We like to make everyone feel right at home.”
Shain, who returned in 1976 to his home in the Pine Knob community between Caneyville and Rough River Dam State Resort Park, revitalized the small community by writing and eventually producing an outdoor drama about local outlaw Dock Brown. The show, Dock Brown—Legend of an Outlaw, opens its 31st season this summer.
The actors also perform shows throughout the year in Owensboro, Hopkinsville, and Rough River Dam State Resort Park. Shain and his wife, Debby, have added new shows to the repertoire through the years, including Down in Hoodoo Holler, Lucy and Ruth’s Diner, Daddy Took the T-Bird Away, and Be Bop A Lula, drawing visitors from around the country.
Pine Knob Theatre’s summer season runs Friday and Saturday nights, June through September. “It’s theater under the stars,” Shain says.
The outdoor drama Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come is performed at the Little Shepherd Amphitheater in Jenkins—just miles from the Virginia border. Written by Appalachian playwright Fern Overbey Hilton, the show is based on the classic novel of the same title by John Fox Jr.
Audiences are transported to the Antebellum period and Civil War era in Appalachia and beyond through music and drama. In this powerful story of courage, Kentucky mountain boy Chad Buford chooses to fight for the Union while many close to him favor the Confederacy. The drama is performed on the Battle of Pound Gap Civil War site Saturday evenings beginning June 17 and wraps up with a final Friday night production August 25. Showtime is 8 p.m.
The amphitheater, built on 15 acres donated by the Tampa Electric Company, is situated on the side of Pine Mountain. Don Amburgey, president of the Cumberland Mountain Arts & Crafts Council and producer of the drama, has been a driving force in outdoor theater in eastern Kentucky for decades.
The Stephen Foster Story, promoted as Kentucky’s official outdoor musical, begins its 59th season this summer at J. Dan Talbott Amphitheater at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.
Visitors are carried back in time to the mid-1800s to experience the story of America’s first great composer, Stephen Collins Foster. Foster, who wrote more than 200 songs, holds a soft spot in the heart of many Kentuckians because he penned the song My Old Kentucky Home.
The Stephen Foster Story is timeless, about a man who struggles to reach his dream, according to Johnny Warren, managing artistic director of the Stephen Foster Drama Association. Warren says Stephen Foster’s impact on the
fabric of American culture will always be felt through his songs.
“We are telling a story in the place that the story really happened. It’s like walking into a picture—it’s an immersive experience where you are surrounded by nature, under the stars. It’s romantic. It’s fun,” Warren says.
The Stephen Foster Story runs June 10–August 12, with options for matinee performances. During the summer months, the production company also performs Beauty and the Beast, the theater’s “second show” sponsored by Salt River Electric, and presents a Live Music Series.
Audiences fill the 700-seat outdoor James Harrod Theater at Old Fort Harrod in Harrodsburg to watch Brigadoon, June 8–10 and 15–17; and James Harrod: The Battle for Kentucky, July 6–8, 13–15, 20–22, and 27–29.
Ragged Edge Community Theatre, led by managing director and veteran actor Allan Barlow, produces the shows. “I’ve spent 35 years as an actor,” Barlow says. “I have to say that I spent three of the best summers of my life in Harrodsburg appearing in The Legend of Daniel Boone.”
Those warm evenings entertaining visitors on an outdoor stage made an impression on Barlow. His efforts through Ragged Edge Theatre, combined with support from Old Fort Harrod State Park and Friends of Old Fort Harrod, have revived outdoor historical drama in the area.
Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, the oldest outdoor theater in the state, has been called the granddaddy of Kentucky outdoor dramas. It was founded in 1950 by the late Colonel Eben C. Henson. His legacy continues, with his wife, Charlotte, and talented children, Robby and Heather, involved in the daily artistic direction, production, and management of the theater.
“We’ve been a part of this community for so long and the people really support what we do,” Heather says. “My dad encouraged us to follow our dreams.” The Henson family members have all done that—finding success in filmmaking, writing, graphic arts, acting, and singing. Heather adds, “But this theater has drawn us back. It’s truly a labor of love.”
An optional preshow courtyard barbecue dinner is served, with music by Charlotte Henson, Tuesday through Saturday, June 9–August 19. Summer stock actors perform five shows during the 10-week season.
The theater’s Kentucky Voices program, in its 10th year, spotlights the history and culture of Kentucky. This year marks the return of Death By Darkness, a popular murder mystery set in Mammoth Cave, as well as Guarded, by local author Angela Correll.
More outdoor theater
Jenny Wiley Theatre entertains audiences with the productions of Madagascar, June 23–July 8; and Tarzan from July 14–August 5 at the amphitheater at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg. This summer marks its 53rd season.
Central Park in Old Louisville is home to Kentucky Shakespeare. “We believe Shakespeare and the arts are for everyone and we provide it all summer, free of charge to the public,” says Matt Wallace, producing artistic director. Food trucks and a full-service bar enhance the evenings in the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. The season runs May 31–August 13.