Playhouse managing director speaks to Danville Rotary

Published 1:01 pm Thursday, May 23, 2019


Danville Rotary

On May 17, Heather Henson, author and managing director of Pioneer Playhouse, talked to Rotarians about growing up immersed in theatre activities. In the 70 years since its founding, more than 3,000 aspiring actors have performed on their stage. After the passing of her father, her mother Charlotte, brother Robby and Heather Henson have kept the high standards set by the man everyone knew “the Colonel.”

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“Every day things may fall apart, and most days something does.” Henson gave as examples:

• Sometimes you might have to clean the toilets as well as go on stage.

• Sometimes you lose grant money.

• Sometimes cast members don’t show or leave unannounced leaving us without a replacement.

But Henson said, “We’ve have so much support from the community…it’s what keeps us going!”

Henson began her presentation by sharing a little early history. Her father, Eben Henson senior, started Pioneer Playhouse in 1950. Originally the theatre was located at the old Darnell Hospital, which is now Northpoint Training Center. He had just come back from New York, because his father was ill and he had to take care of family business. While in New York, he had classes with Tony Curtis, Harry Belafonte and Bea Arthur.

After returning to Danville, Henson shortly located an unused theater in the old Darnell Hospital, which at that point was the state mental institution. Henson asked, “Can I have that theatre for free?” In return, Henson agreed to put on his first two plays at the Darnell Hospital.

For almost 10 years, the family has been doing a weekly outreach program at Northpoint.  Their playwriting program, funded by an NEA grant, has changed the lives of inmates. Two of the inmates have achieved national recognition. One inmate won the PEN Award for Best Inmate Play in America. Another inmate’s play was produced by a prestigious theater in NYC. The program is helping with the Institution’s recidivism rate. “We’re really proud of this program.”

Trent Stephens, left, and Heather Henson attended last week’s Danville Rotary meeting. (Photo by Dave Fairchild)

Pioneer Playhouse will begin its 70th season on June 7. The first 2019 production, “Kong’s Night Out” is a story about two producers of the original King Kong movie fighting over rival shows on Broadway.

The second play, “Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders” has Sherlock coming to America to solve a mystery that is set in Minnesota.

The third 2019 play is by Robby Henson, part of the playhouse’s “Kentucky Voices” series, called “Breaking Up With Elvis.”

The fourth play is a British farce set in the 60’s at London a fur salon. It’s a lot like the play “Boeing-Boeing” written by the French playwright Marc Camoletti.

The last production is “Red, White and Tuna” which features two actors playing all of these crazy characters in a fictional city in the Lone Star State.

The balance of Henson’s presentation featured a skit from “Breaking up with Elvis.” The play, by Robby Henson, celebrates an event that is part of Kentucky’s history.  Probably the most famous play of the Kentucky Voices series was commissioned about the making of the movie “Raintree County,” which was filmed in Danville and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.   

“Breaking up with Elvis” was inspired by the 1977 concert that has been called the ghost concert, because Elvis died the week before the concert was scheduled to open in Rupp Arena. Over 21,000 people bought tickets. People camped out in front of Rupp Arena, which was only about two years old, to buy tickets. Patricia Hammond plays a wife and mother who misses her husband’s funeral. Her daughter doesn’t know where she’s gone, but she tracks her by phone to the gates of Graceland, where a lot of crazy things happen, including a possible meeting with the king himself (or maybe the spirit of the King).

Trent Stephens, a local actor, performed a couple of the monologues from “Breaking Up With Elvis,” including singing parts of “Love Me Tender” and speaking about Elvis’ conflicting feelings about marriage and fatherhood. Later, he went off to Vegas where he starred in a show.

The play presents a little different take on Elvis and gets deeper into things that people didn’t know about him. “We are really excited. We can’t wait for June 7 when you all can come and see a show again!”