The Premier Outdoor Theater on the East Coast
By Tim Lindsay Nestled in a 12 acre patch off Route 60 and within walking distance of the Liberty Hall Ruins sits a monument, an ethereal venue for the arts, and an artifact dented by economic spiral: The Lime Kiln. This property, acclaimed by a 1992 Ring Tum Phi issue as the “most unusual theater setting in America,” is also a testament to student liberty and engagement, itself an artifact often gasping for existence in the face of widespread collegiate complacency.
Tommy Spencer and Don Baker, two W&L students, hosted a rendition of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream here in 1967. The old lime kilns—where limestone was burned into quicklime—and the limestone quarries presented a distinctly attractive landscape for a variety of plays and musical performances. At the permission of the site’s owner, the two students took the initiative to renovate the abandoned kiln into a captivating center for the arts. The organization didn’t officially commence its first season until 1984 with a production of Stonewall Country, but the land still saw action between ’67 and ’84 including a production by W&L’s drama department, according to the Phi. Either way, Lime Kiln served as perfect evidence of the liberty exercised by students and of the appreciable involvement this school has conducted with the community of Rockbridge County.
Of course, W&L students still maintain a philanthropic presence in the community, albeit often limited to greater Lexington. Many employ their efforts at Habitat for Humanity, Waddell Elementary School, and Project Horizon, to name a few organizations. All of these services are honorable, selfless, and crucial to the improvement of a county traumatized by poverty. However, the contrast between working for the community and working with community is a stark one, and it warrants an independent discussion.
When the school first established a fraternity system, among other things it purposely dispersed the original chapters throughout Lexington. The fraternities could befriend neighbors, naturally engross themselves in the community, and be instructed by House Mothers in the manner and etiquette expected by locals. As a condition of his generous donation to the Lenfest Center, H.F. Lenfest stipulated that the performance center equally service the community. Notable alumni and powerful locals strongly and successfully resisted certain officials’ attempts to incorporate a post office within the school. The walk to the current building on Jefferson Street now represents one of the few times students successfully break the university’s grip.
Despite occasional resistance to self-insulation, W&L has continuously, if inadvertently, seceded itself from the immediate municipality and county in which it resides. For instance, third year housing - while a competent method to confront driving incidents - will undoubtedly further limit the natural interactions students have with community locals, and will likely scar local landlords and businesses at the expense of this collegiate institution.
Lime Kiln, a source of revenue for the area and a figurative tying point between this institution and the community, has unfortunately crumbled from the ongoing economic woes of the recession. W&L needs to evoke the same spirit formerly epitomized by Baker and Spencer to help resurrect the kiln, thereby renewing both the School’s presence in the community and its dedication to a mutual relationship between the school and its surroundings. Director Spencer McElroy has stated that W&L employees and three alumni sit on the board, and a plethora of alumni continue to donate. And according to the Rockbridge Advocate, W&L surrenders the Lenfest Center to Lime Kiln in the incidence of rain, only a minor sacrifice provided that most shows occur in the summer. However, the recent resurgence is an excellent opportunity for current students to re-engage themselves with the community.
“Why it worked was because of the passion and vision of the founders, Don Baker and Tommy Spencer,” Douglas J. Harwood, the Editor-in-Chief of the Rockbridge Advocate, said in 2006. “The audiences and the list of people who volunteered to help included swank folks and hillbillies, farmers and professors, blue collar workers and bankers and so on and on….That was a long time ago…The buzz and donations and sense of community withered with it.”
The organization did not receive any formal fundraising last year, according to McElroy. Once holding over 75 performances a year, the charming center now only has seven performances scheduled for 2015. While these seven are intended to be highly profitable and while a saturation of shows was part of Lime Kiln’s economic collapse, it is nonetheless an alarming contrast to years past. And coincidentally, all these shows, which include marquee names such as Chatham County Line, will occur in the summer months when most students have drifted to their homes and summer jobs- a dark contrast from when Lime Kiln and W&L seemed to truly serve as a natural assembly of locals and students. This coincidence of strictly summer shows, a symbolic representation of the brink between greater Lexington and W&L, should evoke chills and even more so, guilt.
“Lime Kiln has to prove it can re-capture its magic. And stay afloat,” a 2014 edition of the Rockbridge Advocate said.
In order to do so, Spencer McElroy and Mike Stolarz, who also led the charge to revamp the center, have asked that Lime Kiln encourage volunteers to assist the theater in its efforts to reestablish itself in the area. McElroy says the center is trying to branch out into educational programs and theater productions.
The call to join the revitalization effort is evident, but our persistent institutional inability to answer that call is disappointing. The autonomy that Mr. Spencer and Mr. Baker assumed to construct Lime Kiln is exemplary of the many pillars of this University. That autonomy and the inherent sense of community should be made to prosper in the face of an oftentimes egoistic, market-driven administration. The fact that two students desired and could furnish something as remarkable as Lime Kiln is something extraordinary and distinct from the expanse of liberal arts colleges today. This ability and spirit, which I believe is fading, requires desperate attention and revival if Non Incautus Futuri has any relevance outside of feigning a respect for a tradition and legacy.