Kentucky by Liz Bussey Fentress
This is my first column for The Dramatist—I’m the new Kentucky Regional Rep—and I’m eager to write about playwright happenings here. I’ve lived in Kentucky for more than 30 years and have worked with playwrights from the Mississippi to the Appalachians, from Paducah to Pikeville. Early on I was the executive director of the Playhouse in the Park, the community theatre in Murray, where I helped found the West Kentucky Playwrights. We read members’ drafts at monthly meetings, and, over the course of the first two years, produced eleven world premieres and toured to Louisville and Frankfort.
I moved to Murray about the same time that Dramatists Guild member Michael Cochran moved to Paducah to be the designer and TD at the Market House Theatre (MHT)—before becoming executive director, a position he still holds. And he’s a playwright: Michael’s play Eternity won the American Association of Community Theatres’ NewPlayFest 2018. I ended up in Louisville, but journeyed back to West Kentucky to catch up with Michael for this column.
When Michael started at MHT in 1983, the community theatre, located in the historic Market House Building in downtown Paducah, had a six-show season, two employees, and an annual budget of $65,000. Under his leadership—and that of April Cochran, Michael’s wife and partner at MHT, the Theatre now produces sixteen to twenty plays a year, has fourteen employees, and operates annually on nearly $1,000,000. On top of that, MHT is in the midst of a $5,000,000 expansion project to purchase and renovate nine downtown “fixer upper” buildings to be used for a studio theatre, rehearsal space, education programs, and shop and storage space.
How did this successful director become an award-winning playwright? Michael says by working on other people’s plays: he’s directed over 150 for MHT. As a director, Michael starts by exploring “the idea for a play—the concept.” He likes “figuring out how things are put together.” And, over 150 times, he’s had to ask himself, “What’s the action? How does the dialogue flow? What’s going to work with an audience?” Finally, because the MHT stage is only 30 feet wide, Michael says, “I had to learn how to take big, spectacle shows and turn them into personal stories.”
Working with volunteer artists to achieve their goals, and spending lots of time fundraising, Michael felt he needed to do something for himself as an artist. Plus, having spent his days-off for four years earning a degree in Education for Ministry, there were themes he wanted to explore. So what to do? Michael had an idea for a play.
Michael had been asked to write a monologue about a prominent citizen buried in Paducah’s Oak Grove Cemetery for a Lantern Tour. “But a person’s life is more than a series of facts,” he says. “I kept wanting to make it funny, to go off in a different direction—but I couldn’t in a historical piece.” Michael wrote the monologue—but also started work on Eternity, the story of an older couple who guide people—not through Oak Grove Cemetery—but to their afterlives—although lessons are learned, and some journeys go off in different directions. Michael says, “I like comedies that make people think. I want my writing to open the box a little, to challenge the audience. I wrote Eternity to challenge people’s perceptions of faith and God.”
During his 34 years at MHT, Michael has had a profound influence on the lives of thousands of West Kentuckians. Having won NewPlayFest 2018, Michael’s play Eternity will be produced at Stage III Theatre in Casper, WY, and published by Dramatic Publishing, positioning Michael to challenge audiences nationally. Congratulations to a West Kentucky playwright!
I look forward to writing about playwright happenings in your region of Kentucky; please send news! And join our Facebook page, Dramatists Guild – Kentucky Region.