Ira Glass might not be down with Shakespeare, but Louisville sure is.
After several lackluster years in which the company appeared to be in a slow decline, capped by a disastrous last summer that saw the sole main-stage show shuttered before the end of its run and leadership problems that left the storied organization re-building practically from the ground up, Kentucky Shakespeare has flourished this summer.
In his first season at the helm, producing artistic director Matt Wallace reports that as of Monday, the oldest free outdoor Shakespeare festival in the United States has brought in more than 23,000 people to Central Park. This year’s expanded summer season included a professional company performing a comedy (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), a history (“Henry V”) and a tragedy (“Hamlet”), in addition to the high school Globe Players’ “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
And the festival continues through Aug. 17. On Tuesday, two weeks of community partner productions on the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre stage began. This week: Walden Theatre’s “Pericles” and Le Petomane’s swan song “As You Like It,” next week is Savage Rose’s “King Lear” and Shoestring’s “Women of Will.” Here’s the schedule.
By demonstrating that Kentucky Shakespeare is rooted in and committed to the Louisville community — that this is a unique experience that you can’t just import from another city — the summer festival came back with a vengeance.
How did they do it? Here are five lessons we can learn from Kentucky Shakespeare’s resurrection summer.
1. Share the stage. Collaboration and partnership are buzzwords across the national arts landscape, but Kentucky Shakes put those ideals into action with no reserve this summer. Every company performance featured an opening act by local artists, from clowns to musicians to dance troupes. The final two weeks of the festival feature four Louisville-based companies in the main event slot performing their own brand of Shakespeare. Audiences cross-pollinate, so patrons of Kentucky Shakespeare who might otherwise not know about Savage Rose might see their “Lear” and fall in love. Fans of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society come to the park for their pre-show and stick around for the main performance. It’s inclusive, it’s expansive, and its benefits reverberate beyond a single night.
2. Be accessible and invitational. It’s not just that the shows are free — last summer, they couldn’t fill the amphitheatre, let alone break attendance records. Wallace beat the pavement over the last year to let the community know that they were welcome in Central Park. The company worked with Metro Council members to stage the touring version of “Hamlet” in nine Jefferson County parks before the summer season even opened, because not everyone can or will come to Old Louisville, so Kentucky Shakes decided to go to them. People remember those gestures, and a low-stress introduction to the company’s work likely drew repeat patrons downtown to see the main event. Throughout the season, Wallace’s stage speeches (“Every seat is a VIP seat!”) were passionate and sincere. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare and for Louisville radiated through his cast and company and throughout the entire park, and people respond to that.
3. Aim high, responsibly. The company shot for the moon with this expanded season and hit the mark. It’s not rocket science. They spent the money where it counts — on infrastructure, not on empty spectacle. The amphitheatre stage, under designer Paul Owen’s supervision, was renovated and strengthened and expanded to wrap around the natural beauty of the park, but not filled with a different fixed set for every production. Did the performances suffer because we didn’t see an elaborate court setting for “Hamlet” and “Henry V?” Hardly. But the larger stage made battle scenes grand, woodland scenes authentic, and gave the directors a wider canvas on which to work. And really, nobody’s going to plan to spend three hours of a beautiful summer evening at a classical theater production because they hear a volcano’s going to erupt on stage, but a new wireless microphone system that allows us to hear the actors over the roar of trains and buses and even low-flying planes? That drastically improves the audience’s experience, and it’s not a disposable upgrade.
4. Invest in Louisville’s artists. Here’s another way to look at investing in infrastructure: this season’s directors and designers, as well as most of the actors, live in and around Louisville. They’re well-trained, experienced, talented, and (hallelujah!) on a summer-long employment contract. When we talk about Louisville’s brain drain, do we talk about its artistic brain drain, too? Kentucky Shakespeare looked at its local and regional talent as a primary well, not a back-up. The commitment from the company was unparalleled, the results unforgettable. All of those artists have neighbors and former teachers and family members and friends who found themselves with a genuine personal connection to Kentucky Shakespeare this summer, and that translates to larger audiences.
5. Bring the party. Shakespeare’s plays were written as popular entertainment, and Shakespeare in Central Park feels like a genuine festival this year. The above-mentioned pre-show events, face-painting for the kids, food trucks to complement the bar (shout-out to those gourmet brownies), and the entire cast of friendly, costumed actors circulating among the crowd during intermission, collecting donations for the cause, all contributed to a casual, fun atmosphere with a cross-generational appeal. When people make decisions about how to spend their precious free time, it’s no surprise when they reach for the option that sounds like the most fun. Who knew that would be Shakespeare? Well, Matt Wallace and his company knew. They bet the season on it and won.