Arts and Humanities
7:00 am
Sun June 22, 2014

Attendance Soars for Kentucky Shakespeare, Can the Company Keep It Up?

Kentucky Shakespeare counted 707 in attendance on opening night of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the first of eight productions to run in Central Park this summer.
Credit Alix Mattingly / WFPL News

Kentucky Shakespeare's return to Central Park after an abruptly-canceled run last summer is an undeniable success. If the opening week audiences for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are any indication, the community approves of the direction new producing artistic director Matt Wallace is steering the company. This year's opening week saw a 70 percent increase over 2013, including 700 in the house for opening night and almost 900 for Saturday, June 14. 

(Update: The company is reporting a house of 1,200 for last night's performance, their largest yet.)

"I'm pretty speechless and happily overwhelmed by the success of the first week," said Wallace in an email last week. "I cannot begin to thank this community enough.  It really feels like a homecoming for many of us in the community."

Wallace hopes they can keep the momentum going. To encourage repeat visits, the company designed a Festival Passport that can be stamped at every performance. Every production attended earns a stamp, and patrons who see all eight festival productions (the three professional shows, the Globe Players' "Love's Labour's Lost," and the four community partner repertory shows) get a t-shirt.

"We've been giving out a lot of the festival passports and hope to see folks return," Wallace said. "Each night, I have audience members raise their hands if it's their first time, and we've been pleasantly surprised by the good number of first timers. We're also seeing many people returning for more than one time in the week, which we love."

The Season Continues With 'Henry V'

Wallace's company continues their expanded season this week with the second of three professional productions. The same cast seen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will shift gears for one of Shakespeare's history plays. Louisville-based director Amy Attaway helms "Henry V," the play best known for its stirring Saint Crispin's Day battlefield speech that you know even if you've never seen the full play: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother..." 

Attaway is an experienced director, but she works primarily with newer plays - she developed and directed several world premieres for the Humana Festival during her tenure at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and now directs recent work by living playwrights for the company she co-directs, Theatre [502]. 

For her first professional Shakespeare directing project, she’s going way, way back - all the way to 15th century England, in fact - to bring Shakespeare’s history "Henry V" to life for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

"What I think about Shakespeare is that as long as you and your actors understand the story you’re telling and embrace it fully, understand it emotionally, understand what’s happening moment by moment in the story, it’s just the same as any other play," said Attaway in a recent interview. "It's just the same as telling any other story, with beautiful poetry."

"Henry V" opens Friday in the C. Douglas Ramey Amphiteatre in Old Louisville's Central Park. Pre-show entertainment begins at 7:15 p.m., and curtain is at 8. All seats are free and non-reserved. Food trucks and a bar will serve before and during the performance. "Henry V" runs through July 6, and then will run again in repertory with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet" July 15-26.

The Young King Matures

“Henry V” is set in the 15th century during the Hundred Years’ War, and the play focuses on the young king’s rise to power before and after the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought in part over whether or not the French throne could be inherited through a matrilineal line. 

In this play, Shakespeare continues the House of Lancaster history he began in "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two," which are set in our Henry's boyhood. Henry was a bit of a wild child in his youth, a past that's alluded to often in "Henry V." But Attaway says audiences who don’t know the prequels will still follow Henry ’s story - it's not quite like skipping "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" to head straight for "Return of the Jedi."

"We have this fantastic young actor playing Henry who’s 25 years old, who is about the age Henry would have been historically, and we’ve talked a lot about how to get that journey from youthful exuberance to stately king-hood into this play without the story that comes before," she said. 

I Am Henry the Fifth, I Am

Directing Shakespeare, an infinitely adaptable and flexible playwright, is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure exercise for the director. Because Shakespeare wrote an extensive chorus part to describe and comment upon the action in "Henry V," Attaway is playing up the play-within-a-play aspect in her production.

"Our whole production feels like an ensemble of people gathered to tell us a story," she said. 

That means live music, too, composed by Louisville-based sound designer and musician Scott Anthony.

“Almost all of the sound in the play is human-made,” Attaway said. “The depth of talent in this ensemble is such that about half the cast plays instruments, so we've made our own Henry V band that provides all the incidental and environmental music.”