Paducah’s Market House Theatre has been staging successful seasons for over 40 years!
It was a love story made for the stage. Twenty years after a group of drama-loving Paducahans banded together to script the stor y of what would later become one of the top ten community theatres in the country, two young people fell in love in and with Paducah. Michael and April Cochran were married here in November 1983.
Earlier that year, Michael came to the Market House Theatre (MHT) as a designer/technical director and his soon-to-be-wife came with him. “I thought I would be here for a couple of years,” Michael remembers. “It was the right place at the right time for us. We were a little burned out with working in Kansas City on bigger productions and with professional actors and television people. We were looking for a place in which we could feel more of a sense of community.” Paducah was just the community.
The Market House Theatre, organized in 1963, is now 40 years old. But the passion that local board members and amateur actors have for the productions which grace the stage today are really no different than those who opened in The Male Animal back in 1964, the theatre’s first season. The other play that year was The Seven Year Itch, directed by Dr. Ben Bradford.
“I was reading through minutes from the first board meeting on October 14, 1964. The founding group was concerned with financing, adequate membership, and creating and sustaining membership. It’s primarily the same things that we’re concerned with today,” he says with a grin. Michael has been executive director of the Market House Theatre since 1995. April was its guiding force from 1985 to 1995 and is now the theatre’s director of education.
Michael recalls that in the beginning, the center section of the Market House was still being used as an open market; consequently, there were sometimes problems with rodents. “I understand there was a resident cat in the theatre and that during productions, it would sometimes just stroll across the stage.” And when players performed Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the actors probably weren’t the only ones who were hot, since air conditioning wasn’t added until some time in the ‘70s. Michael adds that the first employee of the MHT (custodian/ technical person) was hired in 1977, 14 years after it was founded. From 1963 to 1977, volunteers handled every aspect of the theatre operations. Two of those passionate people were Mrs. J. C. Dudley and Mrs. Robert Hassman, two women who organized the first meeting in the fall of ‘63. Five years later, the two women and a host of playhouse supporters transformed one end of the historic riverfront Market House from a dusty masonry shell into a fully equipped operational theatre. And from that point forward, legions of loving hands have hammered, nailed, painted, plastered, and produced a continuous evolution in the life of Paducah’s Market House Theatre. Today, the MHT employs five full-time people and four part-time employees and has an annual operating budget of $500,000.
Help has also come from Paducah Bank. “The bank and its staff have been significant contributors in helping us become Kentucky’s leading community theatre and recognized as one of the top ten in the country,” the executive director comments. “Their deep sense of community support helped the Market House Theatre renovate and restore the three buildings on the national historic register. Paducah Bank was the second largest contributor to our $1.1 million dollar renovation project. The lobby of the studio theatre is named in honor of Paducah Bank.”
It is in that studio theatre as well as on the main stage across the street that the award-winning dramatic, comedic, and musical productions are scheduled for yet again another successful season. And speaking of success, Michael and his troupe hope to bring home another award
when they represent Kentucky at the Southeastern Theatre Conference competition in Chattanooga this spring where they will present Proof. The theatre won at the state level and will compete with community theatres from ten other states in the southeast for the regional honor.
Of the eight times MHT has taken a show to the state competition, it has won five times and the other three times it has been the runner-up. The MHT team of players was the regional runner-up in 1998. In many cases, they have won singular awards such as best actor and best scene design at the regional competition.
At the regional level, the theatre’s players and directors have 60 minutes to perform a play or a portion of a full play. They must take their stage and set design from a cargo crate, set it up in 10 minutes, perform the play in the allotted 60 minutes, then break down the set and return it to the cargo space in 10 minutes. If any of these timeframes are not adhered to, the group is disqualified. “It’s a very demanding and exacting ritual,” says Michael. And it’s not cheap. “We often choose whether or not we’re going to compete at the state and regional level based on where the competition is being held. If it’s geographically a long haul for us, we sometimes pass. It’s very expensive to take sets, props, and as many as 15 people to a distant location.”
It’s also a challenge to select an appropriate performance given the strict guidelines of timeframe and set requirements. “This year we’re doing Act I, Scene 4 and all of Act II from Proof,” Michael explains. “If you do a cutting from a play, you have to make sure that the portion you’re doing makes sense. And we’re also restricted by the rights to the edits. Many playwrights won’t allow you to change the script, so you have to choose whole pieces that provide the storyline in an
understandable way, but within the timeframe.”
The Market House Theatre competes with community theatres which have no paid staff to ones with multi-million dollar budgets. Size has nothing to do with the competitors. “A community theatre is defined by having a community board of directors and non-paid performers,” Michael explains. So the Proof is in the performance, you might say. Of the 7,000 or so community theatres operating around the country, the Market House Theatre consistently ranks among the top ten, according to Michael, for its programming, facilities, outreach, and its festival-winning record.
To that we say, BRAVO!
New Board President Applauds Market House Theatre for Tradition, Talent, and Tenacity
Jeane Framptom is the most recent in a long, long line of loving volunteers who have taken up the yoke of leading the Market House Theatre’s voluntary board. “I feel very fortunate and humbled to be entrusted with the responsibility of carrying on a tradition that was begun 40 years ago,” the incoming board president comments.
Jeane has served on the board now for three years, but she and husband, Joe, have been attending plays and events at the Market House for more than 30 years. “We have consistently marveled at how the Theatre has grown, developed, and prospered during that time,” she adds.
In addition to the outstanding children’s programs which have largely been initiated and sustained by April Cochran, Jeane applauds the tremendous variety of work that the Theatre has undertaken and the willingness shown by Michael and his staff to pursue artistic risks. “Two plays come immediately to mind when I think of risk,” says Jeane. “One was Wit, which was staged last year about a woman dying of ovarian cancer. The other was Shayna Maidal, which dealt with the impact of the Holocaust. The latter remains one of my all- time favorite Market House productions. By taking risks not only in the productions we stage but in encouraging new and untested talent to participate, we challenge ourselves to grow and expand our horizons as we tackle tough issues and subjects. By doing so, we build understanding and community which enhance the quality of life here in Paducah.”
Jeane sees the Theatre’s mission in the near future to be one of artistic growth and expression. “Our challenge at the Theatre is to continue to provide a participatory experience while expanding our program in the face of an increasingly competitive arts market,” she explains. The Theatre is currently exploring the use of a studio theatre for “edgier” plays that would tackle issues that might be difficult to present as a main stage production. The new studio theatre is a more intimate environment with seating for about 75 people.
Jeane also credits the Theatre’s success to the incomparable creativity, talent, and humility of director, Michael Cochran. “I feel that he’s an underappreciated community resource. His and April’s commitment to the Theatre is a gift to us all!” And certainly none of what the Market House Theatre does would be possible without the commitment of its many volunteers and donors, without whom the Theatre would have folded years ago, Jeane gratefully adds.