‘People are ready to be creative again’: The Public Theatre of Kentucky is planning to return to live performances


Debra Murray

For more than three decades, the Phoenix Theatre has been home to local production company the Public Theatre of Kentucky. The 1993-1994 production season was the first of the Public Theatre of Kentucky to be held in the Phoenix Theatre.

Debra Murray, Digital News Editor

Public Theatre of Kentucky is ready to move ahead after struggling through 14 months of pandemic and is preparing to resume its popular summer camps and live performances, the theater’s producing artistic director said. 

From going to see new shows in the small black-box theater and collecting playbills to businesses being shut down due to COVID-19, local theaters took a major hit.

Amber Turner is the producing artistic director of Public Theatre of Kentucky. When the pandemic started the theatre hadn’t finished the 2019-2020 season and had to cancel all of the upcoming shows and fundraisers for the upcoming year, which had a negative impact on the theater’s finances.

“We usually have a big fundraiser at the end of each year,” Turner said. “So [canceling] that financially was a big hit. I spent pretty much the whole year writing grants, and that’s how we got to stay and federal funding, because of course there was the PPP (Payback Protection Program) money. We also took out a loan to keep going.”

During the shutdown, one way the theater engaged with people who would typically fill the audience was through its podcast called “Backstage Banter.” The podcast focuses on all types of art as Turner chats with different artists. 

Since the theater didn’t have much income during the shutdown, the podcast allowed Turner to find a way to still entertain people without affecting the theater’s budget.

“It came out of COVID because we were thinking when we saw how much it was going to be to create virtual content, we were like, ‘What can we do that is basically free,” Turner said. “We came up with a podcast that we wanted it to focus on like the arts, not just theater.”

The theater did a free reading virtually from a series called “Kentucky Voices,” which is where a script is read that was written by someone from Kentucky or about Kentucky. The reading was an original work by playwright Jeff Beard about McCarthyism.

“It was kind of a modern witch hunt in Hollywood,” Turner said. “A lot of actors and crew members and people in the film industry were being investigated because they were thought to be communists.”

One way people know about the Public Theatre is its selection of camps throughout the year for children interested in theater. The Special Stages summer camp is for children on the autism spectrum which was canceled last year due to COVID-19. Many families were very cautious of the pandemic because it’s common for children on the spectrum to have other autoimmune problems, Turner said. 

 “It [the pandemic] forced us to be more innovative, instead of doing the Special Stages summer camp in person, we got together and created ‘Camp in a Box,” Turner said. “Donato’s generously donated funding to toward that project, and we got these items together like sensory items, little activities, and theater activities, and put them all in a box to the kids that would have come to summer camp, and we delivered it to their homes.”

For this summer, the Public Theatre is opening up their summer camps again, but they have limited camps to only 20 people per session.

“People are ready to be creative again. They’re just really, really hungry for things to do, especially kids for our summer camp,” Turner said. “Of course we’re going to have to do the temperature checks, wearing masks, and we’ll social distance as much as possible.”

Turner said the theater would return to in-person productions, but with a smaller cast due to the size of the theater. Changing the cast sizing can potentially limit the productions that the theatre perform, such as “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” She said cast sizes would consist of roughly 15 actors.

 “We always do the Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Turner said. “If we hadn’t had the pandemic this year, would have been our 20th year. So it’s like a local tradition, but we used to put as many kids in that show as possible because you want to give all these kids an opportunity. You want a fun Christmas show that everybody will want to come and see.”

The theater offers scholarships for their camps, and allows people to volunteer for positions like ushers where they get to see shows for free. The theater wants to be as accessible as possible, Turner said.

“When times get hard, the arts are here,” Turner said. “We were hit hard to but it’s our job to entertain people and be there for people.”

Digital News Editor Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy