Kentucky native brings passion for stage to Wamego

By Bethany Knipp

Heather Branham Green left her long-time home in Kentucky for the middle of the country and found Columbian Theatre, a place she’s been charged to help maintain as the vibrant staple Wamego loves.

She moved to Kansas two years ago from a community of about 3,000 people in Prestonsburg, Ky., a year after her husband was accepted into a doctoral program at Kansas State University.

Branham Green finished her master’s degree in theatre at the University of Kentucky before she could trade the Appalachian Mountains for the lower Konza Prairie.

A director, stage manager and actress, Branham Green was hired as a full-time artistic director of the Columbian Theatre after she had directed its production of “The Sound of Music.”

“It all just worked out, and I’ve been here since March,” she said.

Her position is a big step for the theater.

“We have not had an in-house artistic director in almost three years,” said Clint Stueve, the executive director of the Columbian. “And so we’ve been using guest directors but that becomes very hectic because basically you’re training a new director for every show.”

Branham Green has been working hard putting programming in place that all age groups can enjoy. The programming includes a music series, cast parties where audience members can interact with actors following productions, and even a science fiction movie night in addition to its major productions throughout the year.

“I ended up sending (Clint) about 47 proposals within a month’s time,” Branham Green said.

That’s partly because Branham Green, a Manhattan resident, started working at the Columbian during a big year for the little theater. Its 20th anniversary since its reopening is on Nov. 8. This year was also the 10th anniversary of one of the town’s favorite productions, “Hoo Haw.”

Stueve said Branham Green has been great to work with as she builds relationships with the Wamego community and the theater that weren’t there before.

“A lot of community is about the relationships you build, and if we’re always using a new person, we’re not building any relationships,” Stueve said.

Branham Green came to Kansas with plenty of theater experience and passion. 

“I started taking dance and modeling classes, I guess at 8, and both of those I was not very good at,” she said. “Of anything, that taught me more about confidence and just about presenting myself and that sort of thing.”

But when she was 14, she found out her love for theater.

“I tried out for a play at school and I got it, and at that point I knew I wanted to do theater for the rest of my life,” Branham Green said.

Originally from Lexington, Ky., Branham Green said she had attended 30 different schools growing up, something that she thinks attributed to her interest in theater.

She said she was forced to reach out to people and see in what roles she fit among her peers.

In her senior year of high school, though, she attended a boarding school specifically for the performing arts.

“I knew that (theater) would never make me rich,” she said. “It was more important for me to work in my field, so when I was 17 I got accepted into North Carolina School of the Arts performing arts school.”

The conservatory, under the University of North Carolina in Winston-Salem, awards high school degrees as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She was one of 12 students selected for the program out of 500 who auditioned, she said.

“So I missed out on prom, and I missed out on all that stuff but I also got to learn my art in a very disciplined way,” she said.

And she’s still proud of her school.

“I have to brag a little bit. I just got an update from them and they’re the No.-3 performing arts school in the nation,” she said.

She stayed in North Carolina for the college program for a year and then headed back to Kentucky, where she graduated with an anthropology degree from the Western Kentucky University in 1999.

“It doesn’t make sense to everybody, but it does make sense to me,” she said.  

“I realized that the reason that I was so interested in acting and that sort of thing is not just about being on stage for me. It was about exploring characters and exploring putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and kind of developing empathy for other people, and so the anthropology came naturally to me wanting to know other cultures.”

Theater for Branham Green is also about teaching rather than performing.

“I’m not really into the applause and all that stuff,” she said. “It’s more about legacy to me.”

“If go and teach a child how to do something that they love like that, and something that gives them confidence and makes their life feel very meaningful, then they go on and teach it, that’s legacy.”

Among actors and audience members across the Flint Hills area, Branham Green wants to have “a theater community, not just a community theater,” she said.

She’s also, of course, willing to help with that.

“If anybody in the community would like to know more about theater, then I would like to teach them about it,” she said.  

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