It’s going to be tough for Kentucky Shakespeare to top their record-breaking summer season. More than 27,000 people attended eight full-length productions in Old Louisville’s Central Park during the 10-week Shakespeare in the Park festival. But as he enters his second year as producing artistic director of the country’s longest-running free outdoor Shakespeare festival, Matt Wallace is sure going to try.
Last summer “surpassed even anything I could have dreamed of,” Wallace said in a recent interview. “I was so incredibly moved by that outpouring of support. The people who came back time and again, the number of people who saw all eight shows.”
Although the company is still processing demographic information they collected in the park this summer, Wallace says they saw a wide range of income levels in their audience and, perhaps even more significantly, no single zip code dominating the crowd.
Wallace announced the 2015 season today at Saturday in the Park, a free event in Central Park that featured live music, Shakespeare performances and other entertainment. Next summer’s Shakespeare in the Park festival will again feature three professional productions. Wallace will direct the season opener “The Tempest” and “Macbeth,” and Amy Attaway will return to direct “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Globe Players high school program will stage “A Comedy of Errors.”
“I’m really excited about doing ‘The Tempest.’ It’s one of my favorite plays,” said Wallace. “For our audience, it’s going to be a really fun follow up to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ So much of the community was taken with the fantastical nature of that show. This has more complex language and I’m really excited to take it further.”
Wallace said it’s too early in the process to know specific visions for each production, but he says he’s “really curious to see what Amy’s take is going to be” on “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“I didn’t have anything profound to say about that show, but I know Amy Attaway will,” he said with a laugh.
One thing Wallace can say is that “Macbeth” will be a very traditional Scottish production.
“Lots of kilts. Lots of bagpipes. I’m already talking to Louisville Pipe Association and we’re going to partner on the tour,” he said.
Like last season’s “Hamlet,” the company will tour a smaller version of “Macbeth” around the county to several area parks in the spring, and then expand the production for the summer festival. The Gheens Foundation is sponsoring tour stops at schools with high populations of at-risk students, and in January, Wallace will start approaching neighborhood groups and Metro Council members about staging the tour productions in their parks.
“We served about 1,200 people in eight parks last year,” said Wallace. “My goal is to make sure more people know about it.”
Shakespeare in the Park opens earlier next year (June 3), in order to wrap up on Aug. 2, before the dog days of August really set in. The festival closes with a return of the popular community partners’ repertory, which this year will feature Theatre ’s commissioned new work, “Recent and Relevant Shakespeare,” The Bard’s Town Theatre’s Hamlet-inspired “Chasing Ophelia” and Louisville Improvisors’ late-night Shakespeare improv show.
“We had great audiences. The audiences that we pulled for community partners’ weeks were actually bigger than some previous years of the professional run. That shows this great trend that the community is excited about that,” said Wallace.
Wallace’s success comes on the heels of a disastrous interrupted 2013 summer season, which saw the venerable company on the brink of a breakdown before Wallace was hired to right the ship. Some of the excitement behind the 2014 season is due to the leadership transition itself – Wallace is a Kentucky native who built his professional career in the Louisville area, first with Kentucky Shakespeare and then with Shakespeare Behind Bars and Derby Dinner Playhouse’s youth program, fine-tuning his ability to give any audience an accessible doorway into classical work. When he applied that can-do spirit to Shakespeare in the Park, the public responded. (Read “Five Lessons from Kentucky Shakespeare’s Resurrection Summer.”)
But he also beat the pavement, hitting up neighborhood association meetings and knocking on doors to empower the community to take ownership of Kentucky Shakespeare, with a goal of reaching beyond regular theater-goers.
“My goal was to make the work accessible but interesting,” he said. “I think that was part of it.”
The addition of a wireless microphone system for the actors and the presence of local food trucks also improved the experience this summer. Next on the to-do list: a custom-designed lighting truss (Kentucky Colonels have funded half of the costs, and architects Luckett and Farley have donated a design) and a campaign to buy and install new seats for the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre.
Meanwhile, Wallace has been traveling to immerse himself deeper in the highest echelons of Shakespearean work. Thanks to a self-directed Alden Fellowship from The Community Foundation of Louisville, Wallace had the opportunity to visit New York City last month to see Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More,” the innovative, immersive theatrical experience loosely based on “Macbeth,” and to see John Lithgow play the title role in “King Lear” in Shakespeare in (That Other) Central Park.
“We’ve got a year on them. We’re the oldest, and they started a year after us. So I thought I’d see what those kids are doing,” Wallace said with a laugh. “It was amazing to see at the top, top of the game.”
And he’ll continue his studies with a trip to England next month, where he’ll visit and study at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre.
Wallace and his company will offer a taste of what’s to come with a reading of “Macbeth” on October 25, 8 p.m., outside on the final night of the pop-up arts and culture plaza ReSurfaced (615 W. Main Street).
“We’ll have 11 actors and two musicians, and it’s all going to be by candlelight,” said Wallace.