Forty years ago, Sally Jump — who had recently moved to Frankfort — set out to bring performing arts to the community.
Prior to moving to Frankfort, Jump, a theatre and journalism major from Murray State University, had been working with a newly formed theatre group at the time, Purchase Players, in Mayfield, Kentucky.
“They asked me to direct for them,” Jump said. “I directed their first four plays.”
Eventually, Jump made her way to Frankfort and friends of hers from Purchase Players wanted to move to the capital city as well and start a performing arts academy. After only one of her friends ended up making the move, she started reaching out to locals to see if there was a need for community theatre and there was.
Jump incorporated the Bluegrass Theatre Guild (BTG) in 1981 and in 1982 the guild held its first performance, “Oliver” featuring the men’s choir from Kentucky State University. Three months later, “Oklahoma” was presented to the community.
“We had so much support when we started,” Jump, the former Franklin County Circuit Clerk (2006-2015), said. “When we did ‘Oliver’ we just did it for two or three nights. On opening night when I got to the theatre, there were school buses out front from all of the surrounding counties.
“I never thought about teachers bringing their kids at night, but at the time, there wasn’t anyone in the region doing theater.”
For the first 10 years, Jump said she directed all of the musicals — musicals were the only form of theater the guild performed until the early 2000s.
“In the beginning I was producing and directing,” Jump said. “I was raising money and teaching every committee chair what they had to do. For some shows, I had to do the choreography.”
Local banks and businesses helped Jump put on the shows. She got a local bank to cover the royalties, and for one show, the late Ronnie Tingle of Tingle’s Riverview Florist, donated all of the live plants for the stage set.
“Everywhere we went, people were interested in helping,” she said. China Wok even offered discounts on dinner if people showed their tickets for a BTG show.
“I guess I hoped that once we got our foot in the water, we would just keep on plowing on, one after another,” Jump said.
And, that’s exactly what happened. Year after year shows were performed in different venues around town including the Grand Theatre, the old Frankfort Convention Center (Civic Center), local high school stages and even the Old Capitol where Jump directed her favorite BTG musical production, “1776.”
“We did that in 1986 — that was Frankfort’s bicentennial,” Jump said. “We partnered with the Kentucky Historical Society. We performed it in the House chambers. That was great performing in the historic setting.
“We sold out and had extra performances. I think we filled that whole second week with performances. I’ve always loved that musical. It’s quite entertaining.”
In the 1990s, BTG put on performances of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The King and I,” “Guys and Dolls” and more.
Starting in the early 2000s, BTG started to incorporate plays into its lineup. Performances since then include “Nunsense,” “Hansel & Gretel,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “My Fair Lady,” “A Tuna Christmas,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Shrek the Musical” and more.
In 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, productions came to a halt and steering the guild through the uncertainness was BTG President Shawn Reaves. Typically presidents just serve a one-year term, but because of the pandemic, the BTG board of directors decided to have Reaves serve this year as well.
To keep the guild’s name present in the community during the pandemic, Reaves relied on the other aspect of guild’s mission — education.
“We did several Zoom classes,” Reaves said. “We also did Theatre Thursdays, a four week class for middle and high school students. We tried to do something that was safe, but still theatre.”
Reaves started performing with BTG in 1999 when he took his son Dylan to audition for a part in the musical “Toys in the Haunted Castle,” directed by the late Ann Johnson. Reaves said Johnson asked him to read lines for the auditioning actors, but he did such a great job, she offered him the part of Quincy an astronaut doll.
“We performed at the old Civic Center,” Reaves said. “It was three shows in one day. We had 2,000-3,000 educators with children there. I had to sing two solos in front of people and I had never been on stage before.”
After that, he was hooked.
“I got bit by the theater bug,” he said. “I always loved theater, but it never crossed my mind to try it. My son was a theater kid from the beginning.
“He loved plays starting in preschool. He continued doing plays when he was in college. He was a theater kid his whole life. His nickname was ‘Bard.’”
Tragically, Reaves lost his son in 2019. But his son lives on in the spotlight through the Dylan Reaves Summer Theatre Scholarship, which is awarded to a couple of child actors who participate in the guild’s annual summer camp. Other scholarships the guild awards annually are the Peggy King and Jeannette Dade Scholarships, which are awarded to graduating seniors who plan to pursue theater in college.
His next role was as lead in the play “Let’s Murder Marsha” presented by the Anderson County Community Theatre (ACCT). Shortly after that, Reaves was elected the president of ACCT. He helped organize and run ACCT while still doing shows for BTG. In his 20-year theater career so far, Reaves has directed, produced and performed in 50 plus plays.
His favorite production thus far is “A Christmas Carol” that he directed in 2018 at the Grand Theatre.
“I designed and built the set and did all of the promotion,” he said. “We had over 40 cast members playing over 80 different parts. It’s mindboggling when you think of it. A team of costumers were very busy making everything look just right.”
BTG typically has three to four shows a year. They have a children’s production in the fall, a Christmas show, a play in the spring and a summer musical.
In July, auditions were held and the cast was selected for “Peter Pan and Wendy,” as well as “The Feuds of Bloody Breathitt” — a play written and directed by local author Jerry Deaton.
The guild was also planning to present “Miracle on 34th Street” for its Christmas play.
However, after the COVID-19 Delta variant reared it’s ugly head, Reaves and the board made the decision in September to postpone the performances of the plays. As of now, Reaves is hoping performances for “Peter Pan and Wendy” and “Feuds of Bloody Breathitt” will take place in the spring. “Miracle on 34th Street” has been canceled indefinitely.
The 2022 summer musical will be “9 to 5 The Musical.”
“Of course there was some disappointment, but in many cases, parents, children, and adult performers expressed relief and gratitude that we are making safety our priority,” a post on bluegrasstheatreguild.org said.
They have been hosting rehearsals, but in small groups and everyone is masked. Rehearsals have been taking place at Thorn Hill Education Center, where BTG has a new one-year contract. “Peter Pan and Wendy” will be performed there, and the guild has moved its inventory of costumes and stage props to the center. Those items fill a large room near the stage.
“Kelley Anderson, Executive Director at Thorn Hill, has been wonderful to work with in terms of opening the facility for BTG use,” Reaves said. “The staff has bent over backward to work with us.”
Although BTG is grateful for its partnership with Thorn Hill, one of its main goals for the future is to have a performing arts center.
“Many communities have performing arts centers, but it’s a dream and a goal for us to have one,” Jump said. “It could house concerts, plays, lectures, a place dedicated for lights, a green room … it could be a meeting and convention space. With the right design, it could house receptions, dances and parties.”
Reaves said that was the guilds long-term goal, but as far as short term goals, he is working to better foster partnerships with local businesses and broadening the guild’s outreach to audience members and performers.
“We want to be better connected with banks, businesses, civic leaders, schools and to also help with tourism,” Reaves said. “If community members and businesses support BTG, it supports the community and there is a balanced relationship.”