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Arts and Humanities In-Depth News Local News

Rural Theater Evades Closure with Bold Move

The recession has squeezed arts groups nationwide and caused many to close. In March, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts reported that about 10,000 arts organizations — or about 10 percent of the total  — are at risk of folding. A Kentucky theater was part of that statistic —  but it didn’t go dark. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

In the Kentucky Repertory Theatre’s recent production of the comedy Red, White and Tuna, a small-town director walks out of rehearsals for his forth of July production. His dispute with a local group — the Smut Snatchers of the New Order — has tongues wagging.

Kentucky Repertory Theatre's Red White and TunaOne of the characters explains, “It seems the Smut Snatchers objected to the use of the song ‘I Get No Kick from Champaign’ because it’s being sung in a dry county.”

The Kentucky Repertory Theatre, in the rural town Horse Cave, is in a dry county — but that hasn’t been a problem for this professional theater that started in 1976. In February, it faced closure.

For years, each summer season consisted of about a half dozen plays performed in repertory — meaning that it rotated performances of different plays during each week. Last summer’s season included King Lear, Amadeus and two special productions for the Lincoln bicentennial. But last summer proved cruel when high gas prices contributed to a 50 percent drop in the area’s tourism. Ticket sales fell and the economy crumbled. Artistic director Robert Brock remembers looking at expenses, especially for big casts.

“The payroll was just way up,” says Brock. “And if you’re doing a five-month season, it’s at $18,000 a week for that long and it’s like — ugh!”

By January, the theater had a $90,000 deficit. The stock market collapse meant Brock couldn’t get money from corporate sponsors. And he knew just scaling back the upcoming season wouldn’t be enough. So, he told his staff — “We’re going to have to do something unlike anything that’s ever been done. We’re going to just have to just put it out there and just say, ‘Without your help, we’re gone.'”

Staff members sent letters and e-mail messages to almost everyone they knew. One called a reporter at The Courier-Journal newspaper who wrote about the predicament. And Brock says, “Money started coming in the next day.”

For about a month, about $1,500 came in daily, sometimes from as far as Connecticut and California. And Brock also got a phone call from Bart Lovins, the director of Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center in Elizabethtown. He says it’s had its own dilemmas.

“Economically it has become more and more difficult to be able to offer drama, dance and music in any given season,” Lovins says, “because of the expense of bringing in companies.”

So, Brock and Lovins worked out an arrangement. Starting with Dracula next month, the theater will rent the center to bring each of its productions to Elizabethtown for a weekend of six performances and keep revenue from ticket sales. Lovins says while this will free up money to spend on other touring groups, he hopes the theater will bring more of its education programs to Elizabethtown in future years.

“I think there are lots of things that could come out of this partnership,” Lovins says. “We’re just skimming the surface right now.”

This survival story of doesn’t surprise Cinda Holt who is the business development specialist for the Montana Arts Council. She’s worked with rural arts organizations in her state and often speaks on panels about strategies for rural groups.

“Rural organizations have always had to do a lot with a very little and they have done it well,” Holt says. “So a majority of them will continue with their passionate nature to produce their work because they have to — they can’t imagine life without it.”

And what are Kentucky Repertory Theatre’s chances of long-term survival? Good, says Sunil Iyengar. As director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s overseen studies on theaters that survived previous recessions.

“We saw theaters with relatively healthy balance sheets,” Iyengar says. ” They grew in terms of capital assets and they kept their liabilities and debts down. And we believe they achieved what we would consider a healthy mix between earned and contributed income.”

Meanwhile, Brock has gotten more requests to take productions to other cities. Last week, it performed Red, White and Tuna in Hopkinsville. And two weeks ago, the staff told the theater’s board that it is officially in the black. But Brock is still vigilant.

“It feels exhilarating,” he says, “except you’ve got that voice going, ‘But you know it’s still a struggle out there.’ And you don’t know how the economy’s going to go.

Now, Brock has the next two seasons planned. He’s keeping costs down by having more plays with smaller casts and by not performing plays in repertory. And while he’s committed to staying in Horse Cave, he’s open to taking the show on the road.

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Environment In-Depth News

Cave Ecosystems Improve; Groundwater Still Vulnerable


Tour guide Nancy Toney leads a group down into Horse Cave in the south-central town of Horse Cave, Kentucky. She points over a railing at one of the two rivers tumbling below.

“And this is the river that the sewage treatment plant was dumping the sewage into, through that sinkhole. So the water you see would have been black, those rocks would have been black, you would have been able to see clusters of blood worms hanging to all of the rocks,” Toney says.
Inside Horse Cave
Today the rivers run clear and clean. And the eyeless white crayfish that disappeared when pollution was killing the cave have made their way back. But it’s been a long haul.

Humans have been leaving their mark on caves for thousands of years. We’ve sheltered in them, told our stories on their walls. In the prohibition-era 1920s, locals even created an entire subterranean nightclub in one of Hidden Cave’s deep-set caverns—complete with orchestra and dance floor. But it wasn’t until recently that people understood that what goes into a cave can come out the other end—with consequences.

“They’re not just simply holes in the ground…”

This is David Foster. He’s head of the American cave conservation association, which is headquartered right above Hidden Cave.

“They’re holes that evolved because rain water was moving through sinkholes and dissolving them and widening them and opening them. And that rain water has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just seep into the ground and continue to the center of the earth. It comes back out in the form of springs.”

Foster says that if you contaminate a cave system, you contaminate the springs that emerge from the cave. And because those springs feed our rivers and streams, you’re ultimately contaminating the water we depend on for drinking. Beneath about 40% of Kentucky’s lands is a geological formation called karst. It’s basically limestone that water can easily dissolve—splitting open cracks, forming sinkholes, and eventually caves. Karst doesn’t remove impurities from the water. It lets it pass right through. So Foster says that when he arrived in Horse Cave 20 years ago, run off from homes and industry had taken their toll on the cave.

Walkway inside Horse Cave“What we had was an open sewer, right in the middle of town,” Foster says.

And the pollution was edging its way into the nearby and better known Mammoth Cave system. But money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service helped build a regional sewer treatment system that went online in 1989. The cave got cleaner. But other groundwater contaminants were still causing problems.

“Whenever it would rain, we would smell a gasoline odor. And then we went through a period where the EPA had a program where they were removing all the underground storage tanks that had been leaking. And after that got done, we almost never had that problem,” said Foster.

After years of environmental clean up, the cave’s ecosystem has come back. But it will always be a delicate balance. With few species depending on each other in this rare, sun-less environment, it’s easy to tip the scales. Rick Toomey heads Mammoth Cave’s science and learning center. He says that for example aquatic cave animals rely on the organic material in water that backs up from the Green River or from groundwater that seeps into the cave.

“The cave fish, the cave shrimp, the cave crayfish, these organisms eat the organic material itself, or the organic material gets in the cave and grows bacterial slime. We’re very much dependent on that,” Toomey says.

But they’re also vulnerable for that same reason, because in with that organic material could also come toxins, poisons, pollution.

“Household run off is still potentially an issue. It’s still an agricultural area. We have to make sure we work with people on best management practices, trying to reduce the amount of chemical usage,” said Toomey.

Scientists at both Mammoth Cave and Horse cave monitor groundwater constantly. But caves without national protection or vigilant conservation—caves all over Kentucky—are often still neglected.

Categories
Local News

Cave Ecosystems Improve, Groundwater Still Vulnerable

Listen to the story.

Tour guide Nancy Toney leads a group down into Horse cave in the south-central town of Horse Cave, Kentucky.  She points over a railing at one of the two rivers tumbling below.

“And this is the river that the sewage treatment plant was dumping the sewage into, through that sinkhole.  So the water you see would have been black, those rocks would have been black, you would have been able to see clusters of blood worms hanging to all of the rocks,” Toney says.

Today the rivers run clear and clean.  And the eyeless white crayfish that disappeared when pollution was killing the cave have made their way back.  But it’s been a long haul.

Humans have been leaving their mark on caves for thousands of years.  We’ve sheltered in them, told our stories on their walls with paints.  In the prohibition-era 1920s, locals even created an entire subterranean nightclub in one of Hidden Cave’s deep-set caverns—complete with orchestra and dance floor.  But it wasn’t until recently that people understood that what goes into a cave can come out the other end—with consequences.

“They’re not just simply holes in the ground…”

This is David Foster.  He’s head of the American cave conservation association, which is headquartered right above Hidden Cave.

“They’re holes that evolved because rain water was moving through sinkholes and dissolving them and widening them and opening them. And that rain water has to go somewhere.  It doesn’t just seep into the ground and continue to the center of the earth.  It comes back out in the form of springs,” Foster says.

Foster says that if you contaminate a cave system, you contaminate the springs that emerge from the cave.  And because those springs feed our rivers and streams, you’re ultimately contaminating the water we depend on for drinking.  Beneath about 40% of Kentucky’s lands is a geological formation called karst.  It’s basically limestone that water can easily dissolve—splitting open cracks, forming sinkholes, and eventually caves. Karst doesn’t remove impurities from the water.  It lets it pass right through.  So Foster says that when he arrived in Horse Cave 20 years ago, run off from homes and industry had taken their toll on the cave.

“What we had was an open sewer, right in the middle of town,” says Foster.

And the pollution was edging its way into the nearby and better known Mammoth Cave system. But money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service helped build a regional sewer treatment system that went online in 1989.  The cave got cleaner.  But other groundwater contaminants were still causing problems.

“Whenever it would rain, we would smell a gasoline odor.  And then we went through a period where the EPA had a program where they were removing all the underground storage tanks that had been leaking.  And after that got done, we almost never had that problem,” says Foster.

After years of environmental clean up, the cave’s ecosystem has come back.  But it will always be a delicate balance.  With few species depending on each other in this rare, sun-less environment, it’s easy to tip the scales.  Rick Toomey heads Mammoth Cave’s science and learning center. He says that for example aquatic cave animals rely on the organic material in water that backs up from the Green River or from groundwater that seeps into the cave.

“The cave fish, the cave shrimp, the cave crayfish, these organisms eat the organic material itself, or the organic material gets in the cave and grows bacterial slime.  We’re very much dependent on that,” says Toomey.

But they’re also vulnerable for that same reason, because in with that organic material could also come toxins, poisons, pollution.

“Household run off is still potentially an issue.  It’s still an agricultural area.  We have to make sure we work with people on best management practices, trying to reduce the amount of chemical usage,” Toomey says.

Scientists at both Mammoth Cave and Horse Cave monitor groundwater constantly.  But caves without national protection or vigilant conservation—caves all over Kentucky—are often still neglected.