“While you stand back waiting for your entrance, usually right at the worst possible time, you’ll suddenly need to pee,” actor and producer at Village Players of Fort Thomas Jen Fischer Davis said. “It’s a given.”
Fischer Davis has taken on just about every role possible in the theater productions she’s been a part of here in Northern Kentucky.
If you want to see a theatrical production on any given weekend, you can find something in NKY; at least, that’s what theater lover Laura Berkemeier said. She would know—she visits local productions twice a month and has even dabbled in a few shows.
The consensus among locals involved in the Northern Kentucky theater scene is that it is vibrant, with diverse production.
Want to catch a musical? You can do so at Covington’s semi-professional theater, The Carnegie. Want to see a musical but in a more intimate setting? Try Newport’s community theater, Footlighters. If musicals aren’t your thing, the Falcon Theater in Newport offers edgier shows that require more thought, and the Village Players of Fort Thomas has held plays for nearly 60 years and offers an intimate performance space.
Northern Kentucky theaters are filled with local talent who often wear many hats, such as Fort Wright native Amanda Shumate, a producer, director, actor, and sometimes choreographer at Footlighters. Amanda Shumate is – down to the nitty-gritty – a lover of performing arts in the region. To top that off, the people who invest their free time, like Shumate, at community theaters are all volunteers.
Fischer Davis takes on a similar role at Village Players of Fort Thomas. She has mostly produced and acted but has written and done stage management work. These community theaters show all-hands-on-deck productions.
Before Fischer Davis became involved with the Village Players of Fort Thomas in 2016, it was an unfamiliar name to her. She had gone to Northern Kentucky University for theater, but despite being 100 percent convinced she was going to Broadway in high school, she had yet to do much with her degree up to that point.
Now, seven years later, she dips her toes into a little bit of everything theater offers. Her favorite production she was involved in is “The Last Five Years,” which she produced in the fall of 2021.
Like Fischer Davis, everyone at Village Players of Fort Thomas is a volunteer and they’re all local. She said they want to be a place where new talent can come in and get opportunities that they couldn’t elsewhere because of a lack of experience.
They have experts who are heavily involved in the theater and are willing to take someone under their wing to learn the industry.
“Some of the folks who do this stuff volunteer for community theaters and are professionals in their fields,” Fischer Davis said. “They teach lighting or sound design at local colleges and high schools and things like that.”
One person who fits that mold is Amanda Borchers. Borchers is the theater director and costomer at Beechwood High School, and she does costuming for local productions around the region.
Her most recent work was for The Carnegie, designing costumes for “American Idiot,” which was a paid gig. She has also volunteered for Footlighters, doing the costumes for “Jacqueline Hyde” and “All Shook Up,” and has volunteered for Village Player of Fort Thomas.
Borchers has been at Beechwood High School for the past seven years. She said she tries to impress upon the students the same thing her high school director imposed on her—to learn more than one track of performing arts. She said students must meet a certain number of volunteer hours on set, whether it’s in costumes, marketing, or working on social media.
They also have character conferences where they sit down with the kids and teach them how to read a script and pick it apart. They analyze the character’s emotions, physical characteristics, and what relationships they might have with other characters.
“It’s not like you’re just walking around going to Walmart or something,” Borchers said. “There are some creepy characters that have to have physical gestures that underscore that.”
That character work is similar to what community and semi-professional theater actors do.
Before becoming the theatergoer she is today, Berkemeier can still remember seeing her first show when she was in middle school: “The King and I,” put on by the Aronoff.
“It was just such a cool experience that I just said from there, started wanting to explore that more and see more and then maybe even participate,” Berkemeier said.
She attended Thomas More University for theater and said she was on stage from her freshman year, participating in every show they produced.
“I really was able to sink my teeth in, get my feet wet, learn all of the ins and outs of theatrical production, and that was another great thing about that program was we learned everything,” Berkemeier said. “We didn’t just learn how to act or learn how to direct. We learned how to do stage management, lighting, design, sound, publicity, everything was owned or touched by students.”
She said that bleeds into what she does now in community theater. With everything being volunteer, she said the skills she learned at a young age helped her to produce shows with little to no help.
Berkemeier has done work for the Village Players of Fort Thomas and Footlighters, as well as some Cincinnati-based theaters, but her favorite show she has been a part of was “Barefoot in the Park”—her first lead role at Thomas More.
A day in the life
Local talent is in the mix, even at semi-professional level theaters such as The Carnegie. The theater named Northern Kentucky native Tyler Gabbard as their Theater Director last November. Gabbard attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he focused on Theatre Management and Scenic Design.
Theaters like The Carnegie hire staff members, and they are paid positions. Like community theaters, these local semi-professional theaters rely on many people to make a show come together.
“I’m just kind of like the little air traffic controller, not the one actually flying the plane but just making sure everyone gets where they need to be, that they’re on time and avoid any crisis that arises,” Gabbard said.
He said these performances transport him to another world. Like Berkemeier, Gabbard still remembers his first live show.
“Seeing shows when I was younger, I remember particular ones being transportive; they take you to another world,” Gabbard said. “Even as a kid, that’s really exciting, and maybe even more so as a kid. One of the earliest I remember seeing is The Wizard of Oz. That was full of magic. And ever since then. It kind of was -track mind I really started getting into soon thereafter, and it’s all I’ve done since then.”
Gabbard said theater brings a community together. He said everyone is the same when you’re watching a show, enjoying the experience together.
“You’re laughing at the same thing and getting emotional at the same thing. There is this togetherness, and it can help bridge some divides that exist,” Gabbard said. “And it’s also a chance to practice empathy. See people on stage and their different stories. Learn a little bit more about people outside of our own little bubbles that we live in.”
Because community theaters source their people locally, it is common for family members to work together on a show like Fischer Davis and her son or to meet future family members while on set.
Shumate has been involved with Footlighters since 2004. Her first role was in “The Full Monty” in 2010. She has since been involved in numerous productions like “Footloose,” “Light in the Piazza,” “The Producers,” “Picnic,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair.”
In between her onstage performances, she dabbled in producing, choreographing, or directing as one does in community theater.
Shumate made her directing debut at Footlighters in 2014 for the Musical Comedy “Murders.” She returned in 2017 to direct Jekyll & Hyde, and most recently, she directed “Pippin” for the theater last fall.
Shumate said the theater had introduced her to some of her best friends.
“I was even introduced to my partner, Kyle, after performing with his sister in Footloose, and she introduced us,” Shumate said. “We were married two years later.”
As with many people in the business who wear different hats, she can’t decide if she loves being on stage or behind the stage better. Though she said, she does have one story she loves to tell about her time directing.
“I found out I was pregnant both times at the same time that I found out I was being offered the opportunity to direct two of the shows,” Shumate said. “So, I gave birth to my son Jojo in 2017, then directed a show while carrying a newborn around the theater. Then this past year, the same thing happened with my son Nico. I had Nico in April 2022 and began directing that summer for our fall show of ‘Pippin.'”
Shumate encourages people to support the arts by volunteering or attending shows. She said asking your local theater group is a way to start.
“They are always willing to bring on helping hands to build sets, paint, create costumes, design websites, clean theater spaces, hand out programs, sell tickets, work concession stands and even perform. Even if you have never done something, there are individuals who want to teach and help grow each group.”
For those involved directly and who go to watch a live performance, arts and culture bring vibrancy to a community while challenging the viewer or experiencing laughter together.
“I think it challenges us to deal with some complicated themes and face them head on, sometimes with humor, sometimes with tears, sometimes with just an unapologetic look and really challenges the norm and then allows us to make different choices going forward,” Borchers said. “In a way that the conversation feels approachable.”
Fischer Davis agrees. She said the theater allows us to challenge our thinking.
“I think when you have cultural arts, it gives people a place to go and think and challenge their beliefs,” she said. “I’m not even getting into religion or politics or anything like that. Even their beliefs about what art can be.”
What to know before you go:
The Carnegie in Covington
Address: 1028 Scott St. in Covington
Address: 636 Monmouth St. in Newport
Address: 802 York St. in Newport
Village Players of Fort Thomas
Address: 8 North Fort Thomas Ave. in Fort Thomas