In 2016, Shakespeare in Louisville took a step forward

It was opening night of The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night.” Louisvillians including Gregory Maupin, Brian Hinds and a host of other familiar faces were onstage just killing it, from the first wreck of a ship that kicks off the action, to the last dropped disguise and ensuing love match.

It was a huge step forward for that company — its first indoor ticketed show in the Kentucky Center for the Arts. But, it was also a moment when the growth of the company — and by some weird metonymy that I’ll try to unpack later, the entire arts scene of Louisville — felt so real you could reach out and touch it.

And yet in our interview last week, Matt Wallace — the captain who helms KY Shakes — actually forgot about “Twelfth Night.” “Oh right,” said Wallace when I reminded him. “That was less than a year ago — that kicked off the year.”

To be fair, it was a long year.

Stats and Intangibles

So, Our Shakespeare Year is comprised of two main components.

First up, you’ve got the ongoing growth of Kentucky Shakespeare. This has been a big story for a couple of years now, but in 2016, after “Twelfth Night,” it has had a litany of other big moments. I’ll let Wallace sling some numbers at you: “We served 56,000 in the schools, [at] 200 schools, 25 libraries, 20 parks and18 community centers, [in] 70 counties — 58 in Kentucky, nine in Indiana and two in Ohio and one Illinois.” And that’s just the educational wing. It had a big year in the park too: “25,000 people in Central Park, with 62 performances and seven productions, in 11 weeks.”

I’ve interviewed Wallace several times in the last couple of years. The guy has boundless energy, and, if you give him the slightest excuse, he’ll start rattling off stats. Wallace is a grownup, somewhere in the middle-age range, with a healthy dose of grey in his hair. He’s got a wife and two children. But when he talks stats, he sounds like a little kid talking about “Star Wars.” And the thing is, when you hear him talk stats that way, you get that excited too. Let’s be clear: He’s just as excited about the less-tangible, non-numerical gains. One of his lines that I keep hearing in our interview is, “Who do we serve? How do we serve more people?”  He gets excited about those questions. But he knows that in this society, you’d better be prepared to quantify what your art is worth.

But I’ll boil it down for you: Kentucky Shakespeare reaches a lot of people, in a lot of places.

Outside of those big numbers, the company also had their first ever fall show, “Titus Andronicus.” It started the Shakespeare with Veterans program. It started a pilot program to bus kids from community centers around the city down to Central Park to watch shows. And “Twelfth Night” did well enough that KY Shakes is returning to the Bomhard Theater to do another show, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” this January. The return to the Bomhard is almost more impressive than the first show the company did there. To quote the poet Dr. Dre: “Anybody can get it / the hard part is keeping it, motherfucker.”

Wallace also reports that “Titus” was successful enough that the company will do it again next year. It reflects another mantra of Wallace’s: “We’ve gotta earn it.” He’s a pay-as-you-go kind of guy. Find the grants, sell the tickets and then grow. Then, find more grants, and sell more tickets. Then, grow some more.

KY Shakes grew some more this summer, when it was announced that it would be hiring Amy Attaway as a full-time associate artistic director. Attaway has been a guest director every year of Wallace’s tenure, and, behind the scenes, has had a big hand in casting and the conversations around cutting the plays. She doesn’t just come in, direct her show and leave. This is no doubt a big part of why Wallace wanted to bring her on full time. While a hiring might not be as sexy a news item as a new indoor production, it makes a huge statement about the health and growth of the company.

After all this growth, Wallace has even more new things up his sleeve for next year. Some of them I can tell you about, but some of them are still secrets.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (photo by Jeff Drury)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (photo by Jeff Drury)

Another Sacred Place

I was in the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library to investigate Will in the Ville. It’s ended now, but it was the other part of Louisville’s Shakespeare year. Focused on the visit of an international treasure — one of the few surviving copies of “The First Folio,” the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays — Will in the Ville was a huge celebration that took all year, as various companies and nonprofits interacted with Shakespeare in some way.

And it all started in this meeting room at the library. It’s a big room, with these great glass walls, that look down from the mezzanine to the first floor. Out one side you can see the genre stacks and the magazines; out the other you can see the checkout line and the little stands where curators pick a theme and display several books on the subject; and off on the other side of that are the computers.

It’s always abuzz with people, and flooded with natural light. If there is any place on Earth as sacred to me as a theater, it’s the library.

I’m up in the meeting room for my interview with Paul Burns, the communications director of the Louisville Free Public Library; as well as Jodi Lewis, the director of public programming at the Frazier History Museum.

They are two of the three people who brought Will in the Ville to town. Missing from our meeting was Andrew Rabin, a professor from University of Louisville, and vice chair of their English department.

Lewis explains that all this started back in 2014: “So the Folger Shakespeare Library had just announced they were gonna take a copy of the ‘First Folio’ and they were gonna travel it to one venue in each state for one month.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library is this big Shakespeare library in DC. Since 2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger decided to send one of these rare copies around. (Presumably to cause exactly the kind of cultural phenomenon I’m trying to document here.)

Lewis is quick to share the credit for the idea to bring the “Folio” to Louisville. She starts by mentioning Kelly Moore, an educator and performer at the Frazier, who also happens to be an artistic director of Savage Rose, a classically-oriented company that does their share of Shakespeare. “Kelly sent me this email saying, ‘We’ve got to try for this, wouldn’t this be fantastic,’” said Lewis.

Lewis agreed. About six months before, she had a meeting with Rabin from UofL. His department was trying to reach out into the community more, and wanted to keep an eye out for opportunities for UofL to work with the Frazier. Lewis says she and Rabin realized the “Folio” was the perfect project to team up.

“I was sending him an email, and he was calling me to say, ‘This might sound crazy, but bear with me,’” said Lewis.

Let’s be clear: To get the “Folio” in your town, you don’t just raise your hand and say “Ooh, ooh, me!”

There is a big application process. Working together on that process allowed Lewis and Rabin to share the work and marshal resources in an attempt to convince the Folger that they were the right folks to hang on to a priceless document for a month or so.

Almost immediately in the process they found out the Public Library was working on its own proposal, and in a move that ought to make you all proud to be Louisvillians, immediately decided to have a meeting about the possibility of joining forces and Megazord-ing into one super-proposal writing force.

“We met right here,” said Lewis.

We all paused for a second and looked out at the busy scene below, people happily checking out books, expanding their knowledge. It’s a good feeling to be a room with people who all love books.

“Everybody brought something different to the table,” recalls Lewis.

As this triumvirate started working working on their proposal, they also started looking for community partners.

And boy, did they find them.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, we wanna get on board with that.’ Pieces fell into place. And… this city has so many great arts and cultural groups, and the mayor got on board immediately. Everybody was excited about it,” said Burns.

In the end, 45 arts and community groups agreed to participate, sending letters to the Folger Library to support Louisville’s bid.

Those partners all went on to offer programing for Will in the Ville.

Synapses and Sinews

I imagine the three of them felt a sort of breathless excitement when they realized how many community partners they were going to have on the project.

When I started sourcing interviews for this story, I felt the opposite — a kind of panic — as more and more people volunteered to be interviewed about their Shakespeare year.

It’s a ton of people, and I realized immediately there were vast swathes of viewpoints that weren’t going to get represented.

Take Roger Creel. He’s a dancer and choreographer working with the Louisville Ballet and last summer he created a really wonderful dance piece for Shakespeare In The Park. We couldn’t quite work out a time to talk though, and I was on a deadline. My consolation prize being I can talk to him next summer instead, as he’ll be creating a new work for Shakespeare again.

The people who interested me most were the ones whose Shakespeariences touched several different organizations, or brought some novel viewpoint. On every longform story I write for the LEO, I seem to not really figure out the right questions until I’m several hours of interviews into a story. One of the emerging questions on this story was, “Has this year made our city an even better place to do Shakespeare?”

What are the sinews that hold together this community of artists and creators, and are they more likely to work together in the future after our Shakespeare year brought them together?

Gregory Maupin has been a strong presence at Kentucky Shakes for years, particularly  during Wallace’s tenure. He’s also the company’s dramaturg. For 10 years before that he also helped helm the collective Le Petomane, a group that frequently staged reimagined versions of Shakespeare works.

He’s a busy guy, and a favorite of many theater-goers. He was sitting around one day last year when he had a realization: “It started out — the tipping point — was that I knew I was going to be teaching a  workshop for Kentucky Shakespeare.” Between that workshop, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s “Macbeth,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” with Ky Shakes, and his regular summer Shakespeare duties, he realized “I was looking at a solid year.” A full year of Shakespeare.

So, he did what any red-blooded American does when he realizes he is going to be doing something cool: He started a blog.

Yellowstocking Tales takes its name from an unfortunate sartorial choice made by Malvolio, the character Maupin played in “Twelfth Night.” In this blog, Maupin gets real nerdy about Shakespeare. This guy is a dramaturg, so he’s way erudite and learned, but he’s also obsessed with pop culture, Turner Classic Movies and old Looney Tunes shorts. So you never know what you’re in for on his blog, but you’ll always come away enriched and entertained (assuming you’re a nerd). I love it.

Talking with Maupin is like hanging out with a college professor and a vaudeville comedian at the same time.

Here’s him thinking deep thoughts about the upcoming season of KY Shakes:

“Politics are very important to people, and are very polarizing. Yet we are about to do ‘Richard II,’ which is a play people have made about an usurper knocking a rightful heir off the throne, and they’ve made about a terrible king being knocked off the throne by someone who needed to knock them off. And I would argue it’s about what happens in that situation, rather than a play espousing the belief of either of these two main contenders.”

Heavy stuff. Yet, a second earlier, Maupin was enacting a classic comic scenario, doing voices and physical comedy.

Another great example of a person who connects communities in Louisville is Brian Hinds. He’ll be playing opposite Maupin in this January’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but he’s also one of the three members of Louisville improvisers, a group that — among other hilarious things — does a Shakespeare improv show where they make up Shakespeare-esque performance based on suggestions from the auditions.

For the last five years, he’s taught full-time at the Youth Performer Arts School. One of his contributions to Our Shakespeare Year was a recent production of Hamlet.

“I love the kids at YPAS and Manual. I love that I get to just share what I’m passionate about all the time, and instill some passions in others, or latch on to some who have that passion already,” Hinds said.

While it’s pretty impossible to think that all the kids Hinds teaches will grow up to be full-time actors, it’s not crazy to hope that a lot of them will grow up loving Shakespeare.

I asked Hinds why Shakespeare still matters: Why we should bother trying to make the next generation care about plays that are 400 years old? What does Shakespeare have to offer?

He replied, “The human condition. Love and lust and grief and death, and loss, and debauchery, and revelry, and vengeance, and hate. And forgiveness.”

Jon Huffman, like Hinds, is an actor who settled in Louisville: “I think Louisville has always been pretty good at loving Shakespeare. I’ve doing Shakespeare in Louisville since 1980. We had giant audiences back in the ‘80s,” said Huffman.

In addition to starring in some of KY Shakes recent offerings — he was Titus in “Titus Andronicus” — Huffman also runs Vault1031 with his partner Barbara Cullen. It’s a rehearsal and performance space where companies including Savage Rose put on shows.

“Our mission is to provide people an affordable place to create and produce,” he said. “To be able to offer a company like [Savage Rose] a place, it’s so great. Savage Rose is one of several companies we service [that] are so dedicated and professional in their approach.”

Relationships like the one Huffman and the Vault have with Savage Rose show the connective tissue, not just in our Shakespeare lovers, but in our arts scene as a whole.

In a move so obvious, it’s sort of hilarious, Lewis, Burns and Rabin, while gathering partners for Will in the Ville, hosted a sort of speed-dating night.

They got artists, scholars and people who run venues in a room together, and had them sit down with each other to create partnerships. Some people had a venue, but no content, others had content but no venue. Some people had words, but no actors.

This created a lot of the stranger and smaller collaborations from Will in the Ville. Sonnets inspired by Shakespeare written by students at UofL, performed by students from Commonwealth Theatre Center, in an event at the Waterfront. The famous “To be or not to be” speech performed in a dozen languages, sponsored by Sister Cities of Louisville, with language scholars from the University of Louisville reading them. At the library, Shakespeare Behind Bars showed its documentary, and several rehabilitated convicts talked about how Shakespeare changed their lives.

I’m personally hoping that every connection made by Will in the ViIle is like a new synapse, an electrical pathway that once formed can continue to fire, creating new ideas and art. New possibilities.

Trying to chronicle this amazing year has made me realize something. It’s not just KY Shakes, or even Will in the Ville that I have my feelings all wrapped in. These are just the most tangible faces of the growth in Louisville’s entire art scene, over the last several years. I could also point to Robert Curran at the Ballet, Teddy Abrams at the Orchestra, the new Speed building, the renovated KMAC, smaller things like the genesis of amazing new companies like Roots and Wings, Liminal Playhouse, or Theatre [502], the growth of The Central Louisville Community Center in the Russell Neighborhood. All of these things matter, and the rising tide of the arts and culture gives me hope.

Romeo & Juliet (photo by Jeff Drury)
Romeo & Juliet (photo by Jeff Drury)

Use Your Voice

I almost didn’t go see the “Folio.”

It was here for a whole month, so I took it for granted, figuring I had plenty of time. I ended up rushing down on the last day, just about a half hour before the Frazier closed for the day.

It was a free visit. That was part of the deal of getting the “Folio” here: It had to be a free and open to the public. Just like KY Shakes’s summer season, anybody can come.

The “Folio” was housed up on the second floor, in a little room by itself. There were some signs and exhibit stuff. They shared facts about the “Folio.” But mostly it was just this big beautiful book.

I haven’t had a chance yet to quote Kelly Moore, the excellent actor, director and thespian who you met back in section three. She’s one of the many artists I could go on and on about, but instead I’ll just let her educate you a little about the “Folio”:

“When you see it, yeah, it’s a book. An old book. But the significance of that old book is monumental — to Shakespeare, to literature, to publishing history. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays had never been published before the ‘First Folio’ — plays like ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ So without the ‘Folio,’ those plays probably would never have come down the centuries to us,” said Moore via email.

“Paper wasn’t cheap, so printing the ‘First Folio’ was a big undertaking, and pretty revolutionary,” she continued. “Folios were generally reserved for religious texts or state documents — important stuff. Not public entertainments like plays. Plays weren’t considered literature.”

I talked to a couple of student actors for this piece. They both participated in Will in the Ville, and they both went to see the “First Folio,” but they had different responses.

Brandon Burke played Hamlet in Hind’s recent staging at YPAS. He was a touch daunted by the material are first, but then buckled down and got to it. “Once I found that it was.. a situation that I could go through — grief over a family members death — it became easy to connect.”

That realization came after close and intense work with the text of the play. “We’d go through scene by scene, ‘What does this mean? What is this word?’ We’d look it up in the ‘Folio,’ and find textual clues,” he said.

But, when he saw the original in person, Burke didn’t really respond, even though it was open to one of the very monologues he’d been rehearsing. For Burke, the big moments and emotions came when he was able to perform Hamlet for students his age.

I talked to another kid, Zoë Peterson. She’s a student at Atherton High school who has attended Shakespeare camps at KY Shakes, and she’s deeply involved with The Commonwealth Theatre Center.

Her response to the “Folio” was the same one my roommate had, the same one I had, and probably a couple of other Shakespeare lovers in Louisville.

She cried.

“I went with my mom, and we were decked out head to toe in Shakespeare gear… The guy that was there and was answering questions… he saw my mom and I crying, and he just sat down. He knew we knew what we were there for.”

Peterson is one of those kids that did sonnets at the waterfront — the event was called Sonnets Sunday. One of my questions in this whole thing is “Has this year changed the artists that were involved?” Peterson had a great answer.

“I know that I am changed because of it. I have always loved Shakespeare, and I was elated to find out we’d have the ‘First Folio,’ and to be part of Sonnets on a Sunday,” said Peterson. She said the experience transformed her: “I’m another artist, now that I know it’s not just companies here and there but a whole city coming together to focus just on these old words and make them new. It’s really amazing.”

Peterson says Shakespeare, and the “Folio,” have inspired her. “Every once in while you just need to write, or speak, and by using your voice you can help people find things that they can do in the world to help out too.”

An Existential Remix

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” won’t open until Jan. 3, 2017, but I’m not forcing a narrative too hard to say it’s clearly the big finish to Our Shakespeare Year.

The script is an amazing, existential, absurd remix of “Hamlet.” Written by Tom Stoppard, one of the greatest living playwrights, it’s been an unofficial part of the Shakespeare canon since it premiered in 1966.

It asks all the huge questions about what life means, what is the purpose of art. It asks how we find hope in the face of the grimness of humanity, or the certainty of our own deaths. It offers a myriad of answers, including the laughter that Kentucky Shakespeare Festival will no doubt pull from their audiences.

It’s being directed by Amy Attaway, one of the best directors in Louisville. It stars Hinds and Maupin in the title roles. Jon Huffman will be there, as will a host of familiar faces from around the community and a couple of new people. Matt Wallace himself is back on stage in the part of The Player, the leader of a roving troupe dedicated to performing tragedies and comedies. It’s a slick meta-nod to his real world role, but as I discovered when I visited rehearsal, he’s also damn hilarious.

The Sunday I went to visit rehearsal, Attaway was prepping her cast for a full run of the show. The actors were working on their lines and reviewing little bits and blocking, maybe grabbing rehearsal props. Then, Attaway stood up and cleared her throat. She was standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling window that lets in all this natural light, and the gray December sun streamed in behind her. Attaway was an actor before she was a director, and she knows how to take stage and occupy the spotlight.

I don’t remember what she said before she called places, because I was thinking and feeling that same thing I felt last January in the audience of “Twelfth Night.”

I felt that same welling up of emotions and knew, really knew, it in my bones: My city loves Shakespeare.