Coming back one play at a time

Published 6:03 am Friday, July 2, 2021

By Bill McCann

Chad Hembree, artistic director, house manager, finance manager, teaching artist, film maker, and janitor of Spotlight Playhouse in Berea knew that his community and children’s theatre was in trouble in January 2020 when the looming pandemic caused all of the members of his adult-cast show to walk out. Only in the last 13 weeks have things improved such that he and his wife Leatha are hopeful about the theatre’s future.

This complex Hembree explained is “13,000 square feet, two theatres,” a lobby and storage spaces that “cost $15,000 a month.” The day before the pandemic hit his theatre he had 200 students and was producing 31 plays annually. As of 24 June he had come back from a low of 60 students to currently 120 students and had produced 11 plays (beginning with “Steel Magnolias”) back in April, 10 of which had made money–“Arsenic and Old Lace” was the exception.

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Leatha Hembree is a music teacher in the Berea Independent Schools; her husband works at the theatre where his salary is so small that it “wasn’t worth” applying for unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, 60 of Spotlight’s students—grades K-12—“stuck with us.” Their parents wanted their children to “have a social outlet” since their schools and churches were closed due to the pandemic.

“So we required everyone to mask up, stay six feet apart and follow all the CDC guidelines. We took temperatures and asked anyone who had a cough or any sign of illness to stay home. No one got sick. We were not contacted about contact tracing. No one passed illness on to anyone else.

“Our parents,” Hembree said, “have been so supportive. We have had rehearsals and we made a film early this year, but there were no plays to help us financially.” Two weeks ago the theatre had its traditional summer camp; it too was successful.

Also supportive has been Spotlight’s bank. “Without productions and with so few students finances have been ‘difficult,’” Hembree said. “Our current production, “Oh, Those Summer Nights,” a review from musicals that include “Grease,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Hair Spray,” and “Jersey Boys” goes up tomorrow for the parents and Saturday for the community. I called my banker and told him about the events of this weekend. Saturday’s events include a vintage car show, vendors, an Elvis impersonator, and outdoor performances both Friday and Saturday. With a good turnout from both shows and the success of our other shows this spring we should be able to “make a dent” in our debt.”

Hembree has also decided that the theatre will produce all of the shows originally scheduled for the 2020-2021 season before taking on new shows. Consequently, beginning in August the ‘new’ season begins with adult cast shows for “Pride and Prejudice,” then “Harvey” and every weekend will feature at least one adult or children’s production all the way until Christmas.

It’s been a long pandemic, but for at least one Kentucky theatre, things are looking up.

Live plays by Kentucky playwrights

Kentucky playwrights have been busy in the past year. Many have had readings or performances on Zoom, Facebook Live or other online venues. But I am happy to report that new plays are also being performed in front of live audiences as well. Theatre Workshop Owensboro is presenting  its “Summer Shorts” festival July 30 – August 1. Visit  August 20-22; Village Players of Ft. Thomas will present an evening of 10-minute plays by playwrights from Kentucky and Cincinnati. For more information see

Staged readings of new plays    

Often times a staged reading of a new work is the first step before a play is given a full production. This year Ragged Edge Community Theatre is doing readings of plays as part of its New Play Festival August 6-8, in Harrodsburg. Playwrights are Father Al DeGiacomo, “Seeking Henry Gambrel,” Kimberly Shimer, New Hampshire, author of “Elsie Dearest: Kafka’s Letters from a Lost Doll,” and William McCann, Winchester, “Boats Against the Current.” Each play will be read aloud with a talkback with the authors and directors to follow. For more visit

Bluegrass Summer Dinner Theatre

Montgomery County’s  newest theatre founded by Jordan Campbell, artistic director, will present a dinner theatre play “Oz! A Celebration of the Classic Tale” the weekends of July 23 to 25 and July 30 to August 1, 2021. The play is being presented at Rosewood Acres Farm at 209 Airport Road, just off US 60, near Mt. Sterling.  An Oz-themed dinner precedes the play each night; dinner is a 6pm with the show to follow at 7 pm.

For more  about the play and other activities of the theatre—including a drama camp for children in grades 1-5—visit for tickets to the play, or more information about either the play or the camp.

Bill McCann is a playwright and the author of the Arts Filled Life, a blog that can be found at where you may also find some of his other writings and previous arts columns.