‘It Feels Like Coming Home’: Matt Wallace on Rejoining Kentucky Shakespeare

The Kentucky Shakespeare board of directors announced today that Matt Wallace, former artistic associate at Kentucky Shakespeare and current Shakespeare Behind Bars artistic director, would be the company’s new producing artistic director. The appointment follows Brantley Dunaway’s July 15 resignation.

Wallace is already on the job, and he spoke with WFPL’s Erin Keane this afternoon about coming back to the organization to which he feels both professionally and emotionally attached. 

How do you feel stepping into this role now, in 2013?

I’m excited to get this company on the right track, to get us going into the future while honoring the past and trying to learn from what has worked and what hasn’t worked in the past, to take us forward.

You interviewed for this job before, right?

In 2008, I was a finalist for the position. That was when Anthony Patton was hired. And then I applied again in 2009. And that is when we took Shakespeare Behind Bars [note: SBB was part of Kentucky Shakespeare and spun off into a separate 501(c)3 after Wallace's departure]. So it’s been three years I’ve been removed from the company.

And how does it feel to come back? You have really strong ties to this company, not just professionally but personally.

I have an emotional connection to this company. When I was a student at Governor’s School for the Arts in 1990, they brought us to the park and I saw two Shakespeare in the Park productions. That was my first introduction to Shakespeare in the Park.

I moved to Chicago. In 2001, I auditioned for Curt [Tofteland] and came here and got hired. I thought I’ll come back to Kentucky, my home state – I grew up in Bowling Green – and I thought I’d just spend a summer. I came back to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Love’s Labors Lost,” and I fell in love with this company. And I met my wife. And we decided to make a life here.

For nine years, I worked as an artistic associate for the festival under Curt Tofteland. It means so much to me. It was something that, when I stepped away, that I kind of had to let go of that dream and have been running other theater companies that I’m extremely passionate about. So to come back to this and get a shot at investing my life in this organization means everything to me.

Didn’t you propose to your wife, Tina Jo, on stage?

In 2003, the summer before we played Beatrice and Benedick on that stage [in “Much Ado About Nothing’], we walked out to the park one day and I proposed to her on the stage, yes. It’s an extremely emotional place for us. It feels like coming home.

So here’s the blunt question: how does it feel to come home and find your home, well, kind of trashed?

Yeah. It’s going to be a huge task. I think it needs to be somebody that has that passion and that love of this mission and the programs and what it stands for.

The last several years, my colleagues and employers have been two former producing artistic directors of Kentucky Shakespeare. I’ve been under Bekki Jo [Schneider] who was handed the reins by [founder] Doug Ramey, and of course Curt, who was the longest producing artistic director in the history. All of our love is for that festival, and what it was and what it can be. The timing of this, as I’m working with both of them, is crazy. And both of them giving their blessing and wanting me to succeed and giving their blessing.

It’s a difficult time. I had to step away from this company for three years. And three or four weeks ago, when the last week of the show was canceled, I had not had any contact, but I reached out to the board and sent an email and said I’m sad, if there’s something I can do to help …. That’s where the interview process started.

It’s early for you as artistic director yet, but how do you want to lead Kentucky Shakespeare? 

You know how I jumped into my first day? We met with the secretary of the [state] tourism cabinet and Lori Meadows from the Kentucky Arts Council at 9 a.m. in Frankfort. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves. I know it’s going to be a large amount of work. But I’m ready to jump in.

What my vision for Kentucky Shakespeare is and why I was drawn to move here and raise a family with Kentucky Shakespeare is the mission. That’s also what drew me to Shakespeare Behind Bars. Shakespeare is for everyone. Free Shakespeare in Central Park, the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, that’s what I believe in. I believe in the outreach programs through all 120 counties and building that program, so young people all over the state will be exposed to Shakespeare.

I’ve worked in almost every aspect of the company. I used to tour the state and be in the far reaches of Eastern Kentucky and ask the students to raise their hands, how many students had never seen a Shakespeare play? And most would raise their hands. And then ask how many students had never seen a live play before? And a lot of students would raise their hands. That’s what excites me. Exposing people to Shakespeare and making it accessible.

The plans had been rolling forward to add ticketed productions in repertory. Is that something the organization will continue to pursue?

I’ve just received the strategic plan. I know, as the board has said, everything now is open to discussion. I’m conducting an audit from top to bottom of this organization, getting an independent bookkeeper in there and going through everything – how we work – and listening to the staff, that has been working so hard and weathered so much, listening to them and hoping to empower them.

I am not sure exactly what the destination model plan includes. I do know that free Shakespeare in Central Park is what I believe in – a festival of theater, a community experience, multiple productions, multiple community groups involved. I don’t know what agreements have been made. I know we’ve been awarded some funds to do an indoor production next summer. I don’t know what’s set in stone and what’s been agreed to, if it has to be ticketed. These are things I’m learning. I believe in free Shakespeare. As we work with the board and determine what obligations we have to live up to that we said we were going to do, we’ll have to get to that when we get to that. 

Wallace will join Keane on Byline next Friday, August 9, at 1:45 for a longer talk about the company’s future.

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