A Hilarious Helping of Tuna Closes Historic Season!

Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, ends its regular 2019 play season with Red, White and Tuna, a hilarious comedy set in the fictional “third smallest town” in Texas, which is populated by an eccentric cast of characters, all connected through the airwaves of the hometown radio station, OKKK and its DJs, Arles Struvie’s and Thurston Wheelis’ constant comment on local happenings.

“The plays work as a series, but they’re also complete stand-alones,” says Heather Henson, managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, which has been celebrating 70 years in the Bluegrass this summer. “Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the other plays. It doesn’t matter at all. Each play has its own plot, its own big event that the residents of Tuna, Texas are all worked up about.”

Red, White and Tuna was written by a team of playwrights, Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams, and is the third in a series of four “Tuna” plays which are both an affectionate look and satirical comment on Southern small-town life and attitudes. Pioneer Playhouse has previously presented two of the “Tuna” plays in years past: Greater Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas.

As the title suggests, Red, White and Tuna is set in the week leading up to the big Fourth of July celebration, which happens to coincide with the big Tuna High School reunion. Both events have all the Tuna townsfolk in an increasingly frenzied state of anticipation.

As with all the “Tuna” plays, two actors play the entire ensemble of kooky residents in a rapid-fire series of quick-change scenes and costumes.

“If you’ve been coming to the Playhouse for a while then you know actor, Daniel Hall Kuhn,” says Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “He’s a fan favorite, and audiences always ask when he’s coming back. Well, he’s back with a vengeance in this one.”

“Daniel was one of the two actors the last time we did a ‘Tuna’ play,” says Heather. “He was in Tuna Does Vegas, and audiences loved him. They couldn’t stop laughing at all the different characters – both men and women – he played.”

“And this time we’re doing something a little different,” adds Robby. “We have Daniel back, but we are changing things up a bit, and having an actress play the other traditionally male role.”

Meg Mark, who debuted at Pioneer Playhouse over ten years ago in Pioneer Playhouse’s very first “Kentucky Voices” production, A Jarful of Fireflies by local writer Catherine Bush, returns to the historic stage to play opposite Kuhn in the demanding 20-odd character comedy.

“Meg was here when she was just starting out,” says Heather.  “And she returned about seven years ago, and audiences loved her in Dracula Bites and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. She’s been working in New York City, acting and doing stand-up comedy. She’s funny, with great energy and crazy comedic timing. We’re incredibly lucky to have her return.”

“It’ll be fun to see Daniel Hall Kuhn and Meg Mark working together again,” says Robby. “These are two actors at the very top of their game. You’re not going to want to miss one.”

Red, White and Tuna is directed by Drew Davidson. It opens on August 6 and runs through August 17, nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 pm. A home-cooked BBQ dinner featuring pulled pork or pulled chicken, parmesan roasted potatoes, coleslaw, cornbread, and fruit cobbler is available at 7:30 before the show. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner.

Pioneer Playhouse’s 70th season continues with swingin’ 60s London comedy

Pioneer Playhouse continues its 70th season under the stars with Not Now, Darling, a fast-paced comedy set in swinging 1960’s London.

The plot of Not Now Darling, written by Ray Cooney and John Chapman, centers around a London shop that sells top-end fur coats. One of the owners of the shop, Gilbert Bodley (Drew Sutherland) plans to sell an expensive mink to London mobster Harry (Eric Hedlund), dirt cheap for his wife, Janie (Katherine Rose Reardon.) Janie is actually Gilbert’s mistress, and he wants to “close the deal.”  But instead of doing his own dirty work, he gets his nerdy, reluctant partner, Arnold Crouch (Forrest Loeffler) to do it for him. Things start to go awry when Harry tries to buy the same mink at the same low price for his own mistress, Miss Lawson (Bailey Angel.)

“We’re going for ‘retro’ here,” says Heather Henson, managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, which her father, Eben C. Henson, founded and which is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater. “It’s an old-fashioned farce with lots of door-slamming and mistaken identity. It’s something like the comedy Boeing Boeing, which patrons absolutely loved when we did it a few years ago. Just a lot of running around and silly situations.”

“It takes you back to swinging London,” says Heather’s brother, Robby, who is artistic director of the 70-year-old summer stock. “We always like doing plays with costumes from that era. It’s always stylized and over the top.”

“Lots of fur,” Heather adds, “since it’s about a salon that makes stylish fur coats. Of course, this isn’t the most popular play with our actors — we’re asking them to wear fur in the middle of summer! But the fun thing is, they’re constantly taking the fur on and off, so I guess you could say, the fur really flies in this one,” Heather says with a smile.

Directing Not Now Darling is longtime Pioneer Playhouse favorite, Daniel Hall Kuhn, who is often seen on stage rather than behind the scenes.

“Daniel is a terrific director,” says Heather. “We thought he’d be great for this kind of crazy hi-jinks play, and then, of course, he’s staying on to star in our last show of the season, Red, White and Tuna.”

“Daniel has starred in our Tuna shows before, and audiences just love him,” says Robby, referencing the plays written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jason Williams, and all centered around a group of folks from Tuna, Texas, third smallest town in the Lonestar state. “Daniel and one other actor will be playing about 30 characters. Lots of quick costume changes!”

Not Now Darling opens July 23 and runs through August 3. Shows are nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays, at 8:30. An optional home-cooked dinner of BBQ pulled pork or chicken is available at 7:30 before the show.

Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.

New “Kentucky Voices” Play Celebrates Elvis!

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville continues celebrating 70 years in the Bluegrass with Breaking Up With Elvis, a brand new “Kentucky Voices” play by artistic director and award-winning filmmakerRobby Henson.

Breaking Up With Elvis, which opens Tuesday, July 9 and runs through Saturday, July 20, tells the story of a woman named Hazel who goes AWOL on the day of her own husband’s funeral in Lexington, Kentucky, and ends up at the gates of Graceland, where she encounters a parade of quirky characters, including a possible mystical meeting with “the King” himself.

“The play was inspired by ‘the ghost concert,’” says Robby Henson. “Or the ‘Elvis concert that never was’ at Rupp Arena in 1977. Elvis died a week before he was set to perform in Lexington, and over 21,000 fans were heartbroken.”

According to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, published in August 2017, many of those fans never let go of their purchased Elvis tickets, which have become, in the decades since, a sacred souvenir.

“When I talk about the play, I’m always amazed at how many people say they still have their original tickets,” says Heather Henson, sister to Robby and managing director of Pioneer Playhouse. “I’ve read that there was a push by concert promoters to get all the tickets back so they could be refunded, but many people did not want to let go of their own little piece of Elvis.”

“Elvis was such a huge phenomenon in our culture,” says Robby Henson. “He came from such humble and hardscrabble beginnings and shot to mega-stardom. When you watch his early TV appearances and movies, you just instantly see what a talented, charismatic kid he was. He became so big, yet he never lost that ‘poor boy’ sensibility. He never lost his southern roots. I think southerners in particular, have a deep connection to Elvis. A lot of people felt that Elvis was one of ‘us,’ and that was part of his enormous appeal.”

“I loved Elvis,” says Patricia Hammond, who is a perennial favorite actor at Pioneer Playhouse, and who was an inspiration for the role of Hazel. “I was devastated when he died.”

“So many people I’ve spoken to remember exactly where they were the day Elvis died,” says Heather Henson. “It was a significant moment in their lives. And we’re asking folks to talk about that. There will be a time for audience members to get on stage during intermission and tell their Elvis story if they’d like. And original Elvis ticket holders will get fifty-percent off the price of the play.”

There will also be plenty of Elvis nostalgia, including nightly pre-show performances by two different Elvis Tribute Artists.

“We are very lucky to have two incredibly talented performers. Barry Lockard from Corbin, Kentucky, and Riley Jenkins from Tennessee,” says Heather Henson. “Barry will also be starring inBreaking Up With Elvis as ‘Big E,’ who — spoiler alert — may, or may not, be Elvis.’”

“We were really impressed with Barry when he came to meet with us to talk about doing a pre-show Elvis performance,” says Robby Henson. “We just felt he was perfect for the play, so we’re glad he was able to work us into his busy schedule.”

Barry Lockard is currently a Physical Therapist Assistant at a local nursing home. He began entertaining as Elvis five years ago after dressing up for Halloween and hasn’t looked back.

“I love performing and seeing smiles when the audience’s memories of ‘the King’ come rushing back,” says Lockard. “I also love performing for young folks, and introducing Elvis to a new generation to help keep his memory alive.”

One young man who already knows a lot about Elvis is Riley Jenkins, another Tribute Artist who will be performing for three nights at the historic theatre.

“We’re thrilled to have Riley Jenkins appear before the show as well,” says Heather Henson. “Riley is a 16-year-old who has traveled across the country to showcase the early days of Elvis.”

Breaking Up With Elvis, which is one of Pioneer Playhouse’s ongoing “Kentucky Voices” series celebrating Kentucky writers and history and culture, will begin at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. A barbeque dinner featuring a special Elvis dessert is available at 7:30 each night.

Reservations are recommended for the show, required for dinner. A bar serving wine, beer, and mixed drinks is open to those 21 years and older.

Sherlock Comes to America in Playhouse’s Second Offering!

It may be summer in the Bluegrass, but for two weeks on stage at Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, it’s the height of St. Paul’s famed Winter Carnival where one of the city’s wealthiest young men has lost his head–literally.

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is the second offering in the historic theatre’s 70th season under the stars. Running from June 25 through July 6, this scintillating mystery featuring everybody’s favorite deerslayer hat-wearing sleuth was written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Larry Millett.

“Everybody loves Sherlock,” says Heather Henson, whose father, Eben C. Henson, founded Pioneer Playhouse in 1950, and who now acts as managing director, running the theatre with her brother, artistic director, Robby Henson, and producer mother, Charlotte.

“We skipped doing a Sherlock Holmes mystery last year,” Henson says, “but when we came across this play, we knew we wanted to bring Holmes and Watson back to our stage.”

Described in reviews as a smart, funny, fast-paced mystery, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders places its iconic sleuth and his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson in America for a change. The year is 1896, and the setting is Minnesota in winter. A young man has gone missing just before his wedding, so it’s up to Holmes and Watson, with the help of local barkeep and amateur sleuth, Shadwell Rafferty to track a cold-blooded killer from the icy streets of St. Paul to the frozen Mississippi River.

“The setting makes this particular Sherlock special,” says Robby Henson. “Sherlock is taken out of his comfort zone and brought to 1890’s middle-America, which is teeming with larger than life characters – Norwegians, Scandinavians, Minnesotans. Our actors are having a lot of fun with the accents.”

Playing the role of Sherlock Holmes is Drew Sutherland, an actor based in Lexington, Kentucky, who appeared as Little Willie in Pioneer Playhouse’s opening show, Kong’s Night Out. Eric Seale, also from Lexington, who played beleaguered producer Myron Siegel in “Kong,” takes a turn as Dr. Watson.

“One thing we definitely encourage patrons to do is come out and see all five shows during our ten-week season,” says Heather Henson. “Getting to know our company of actors, getting to see them play such diverse characters over the course of the summer is part of the whole Playhouse experience. These are talented actors, and they really get to strut their stuff and show their range over the course of the summer.”

One such versatile, young actor is Michael Ross, a Danville native, who plays the role of the latest Holmes and Watson sidekick, Shadwell Rafferty.

“Michael grew up here, and has done a lot of theatre in and around Danville,” says Heather Henson, “so we’re really happy to have him as part of our company this year. And we’re also excited to have another local, Bailey Angel, getting a chance to go on stage as well.”

Bailey Angel is from the Harrodsburg, Kentucky area and studies theatre at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Heather Henson notes that Angel volunteered at the Playhouse last year, and then came back and officially auditioned for the company during the off-season. She was then hired as a 2019 acting apprentice.

“It’s a tier system here at the Playhouse,” explains Robby Henson. “An acting apprentice isn’t guaranteed a role. When they sign on, they know they’ll be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work. But auditions are open to the whole company, and we try to give everyone a chance to get on stage at least once or twice during the summer.”

“Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders is a perfect show for that,” says Heather Henson. “Sherlock, Watson, and Rafferty are set characters, but the rest of the cast work as an ensemble, playing many different roles, literally wearing many different hats.”

“I think longtime Playhouse patrons will be surprised by the character – or characters — our beloved Patricia Hammond plays,” Heather continues. “Definitely something a little different.”

“This play is a lot like a show we did a few years back, The 39 Steps, which audiences really loved,” says Robby Henson. “There are lots of different characters, lots of quick set changes. It’s a challenge for us – but that’s what we like here at the Playhouse. A challenge.”

Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, which is directed by Anthony R. Haigh, who has been working in theatre for over fifty years and who helmed Kong’s Night Out, opens June 25 and runs through July 6. Shows run nightly at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. A home-cooked BBQ dinner is available before the show each night at 7:30 pm. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.

Big Ape, Big Laughs in Pioneer Opener

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville begins its celebratory 70th season in the Bluegrass on June 7 with Kong’s Night Out, a comedy by Jack Neary that pays hilarious homage to the original King Kong.

First produced in Boston, MA at the Lyric Theatre and written as a fictional “back story” to the 1930s classic movie, Kong’s Night Out centers around a Broadway producer named Myron, played by Lexington’s Eric Seale, who learns that his rival is planning something “big” in order to steal his opening night thunder. As the story progresses, all the characters, including Myron’s mother, played by Patricia Hammond, try to uncover the “big” secret, which of course involves an enormous primate with a yen for blondes.

“I love this show,” says Patricia Hammond, who has been returning to the historic theatre for nearly two decades. “I love my wise-cracking character, and prickly relationship with her son, Myron.”

“This is a perfect role for Pat,” says Heather Henson, managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, which is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre. “When we read the play, we knew fans of Pat – and there are quite a few out there – would really get a kick out of seeing her portray this sassy Broadway broad.”

“It’s a play with a lot of energy,” says Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “It’s the kind of screwball comedy with doors slamming and mistaken identity that really works for us. It’s a crowd-pleaser.”

Kong’s Night Out is directed by Anthony Haigh, who has been acting and directing professionally for over fifty years, and who recently retired from directing the theatre program at Centre College.

“When we work with Tony, we always know it’s going to be a top-notch show,” says Heather Henson.

“It’s a fine ensemble cast this year,” says Haigh. “A nice balance of new actors and seasoned veterans, working together on a witty, scatological text.”

Working together is a big part of what Pioneer Playhouse is about.

“It’s definitely a team effort putting on a show in ten days,” says Robby Henson. “From director to actors to props to building the set, every single person is important in making the magic happen.”

“Making things come to life in a limited time period, with limited recourses brings out an intensity,” says Haigh. “The intensity of the work at the Playhouse brings out the best in the actors – and in the whole company.”

Kong’s Night Out opens on June 7, and will run nightly at 8:30 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays, through June 22. A home-cooked BBQ dinner is available before the show each night at 7:30. Reservations are suggested for the play; required for dinner. Price for dinner and show is $35; show only is $20.

Pioneer Playhouse, which is celebrating 70 seasons under the stars, is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville. For more information, call the box office at 859-236-2747 or 1-866-KYPLAYS.

Pioneer Playhouse Wins NEA Grant for Prison Program

[Danville, KY]—National Endowment for the Arts Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter has approved more than $80 million in grants as part of the Arts Endowment’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2019. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $15,000 to Pioneer Playhouse for Voices Inside, a prison arts outreach program.

The Pioneer Playhouse/Voices Inside program teaches writing and performance skills to the incarcerated so as to fight recidivism.

“These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Pioneer Playhouse gives people in an overlooked community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

For more information on this National Endowment for the Arts grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news. Or Heather Henson at pioneerplayhouse@att.net

Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 70 Magical Seasons!

Pioneer Playhouse Celebrates 70 Magical Seasons!

It all began with one man’s dream of bringing Broadway to the Bluegrass, and the rest is history – 70 years of history. Founded in 1950 by Col. Eben C. Henson, Pioneer Playhouse of Danville is Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, but it is also one of the oldest continuously operated summer stock theatres in the United States.

“When my dad started out in the ‘50s,” says Heather Henson, daughter of founder Eben and now managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, “there was this movement across the country to develop summer stock theatres in places outside New York, Chicago, Boston, LA. It was seen as a chance for actors to get some fresh air, get some acting experience, and bring ‘big city’ theatre to small towns.”

“If you’ve seen the old movie ‘Summerstock’,” Henson continues, referring to the 1950 classic starring Judy Garland as the country girl whose family farm is overrun by a New York City acting troupe led by Gene Kelly, “you get a sense of the kind of crazy energy it took to do theatre on a shoestring budget in the middle of nowhere.”

Eben Charles Henson was born in Danville in 1923. He grew up on Main Street in the Henson Hotel, which was run mainly by his mother, Brooklyn native, Celia Bloch Henson, while her husband, Federal Revenue Agent, Eben Burdett Henson, chased bootleggers through the Kentucky hills.

“Dad’s dad was also a magician in his spare time, so maybe that was the spark, we’re not sure,” says Heather, “but for whatever reason, Dad became interested in performing at an early age.”

After serving in World War II, Henson went to seek his fame and fortune in New York City. He studied theatre on the GI Bill at the respected New School, rubbed shoulders with Tony Curtis and Harry Belafonte, and even got to appear on Broadway in a small role. But when his father became ill, Henson returned to his hometown and decided to bring his big dreams with him.

“Dad knew there was an actual theatre inside what was then the old Darnell Hospital, which had housed POW’s during the war, and now was the state mental institution,” says Robby Henson, son of Eben and currently artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse. “Dad was able to get the space for free. In fact, that’s what Dad became known for – getting things for free or for very little.”

“We call him the original recycler,” says Heather. “Dad would go to a construction site and ask if he could take the bricks or boards or beams they were tearing down, and usually the answer was yes.”

When patrons come to Pioneer Playhouse today, they’ll see 200-year-old hand hewn beams repurposed from a Danville livery stable, more hand-hewn beams from old Centre College buildings, and floorboards from the Kentucky School for the Deaf.

“Our box office was the original train station in the MGM classic, ‘Raintree County,’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift,” says Robby. “MGM had built it in Danville and was just going to scrap it when they left, but Dad said, ‘Hey, I’ll take that,’ and it became the main landmark that today’s Pioneer Playhouse was built around.”

“We grew up at the Playhouse,” says Heather. “So it’s in our blood, in our bones. We’ve just always pulled together to keep it going.”

Col. Eben C. Henson died in 2004, leaving his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Holly Henson to run things. When Holly succumbed to breast cancer in 2012, Robby, who had been directing plays during the Playhouse summer seasons since college, and Heather, who had recently returned to Kentucky, stepped into the breach.

“Mom is the backbone, and the three of us truly work together to keep Dad’s dream alive,” says Heather. “But I think it’s more than that at this point.”

“We’re proud of what we do here,” says Robby. “Putting on a play has so many moving parts, it really takes a titanic effort of crew, actors, and directors working together. And then we perform that play for two weeks under the stars, and then it’s gone. Theatre is ephemeral magic.”

Pioneer Playhouse opens for its 70th season in the Bluegrass on June 7 and continues to present shows nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays until August 17. There will be a final stand-up comedy weekend on August 23 and 24. Dinner is available each night at 7:30 pm, while the show begins at 8:30 pm.