LOUISVILLE — "To business that we love we rise betimes, and go to't with delight."
That quote from William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra speaks to the passion the Bard evokes in theater lovers around the world, including Kentucky actor and director Matt Wallace.
Historians think this week marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. Wallace, the new producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare, is busy planning what's clearly a crucial season for the Louisville-based theater.
Founded in 1949, Kentucky Shakespeare has been staging free public Shakespeare performances longer than any other theater company in America.
Last year, Kentucky Shakespeare was reeling, canceling shows and dealing with headlines about Wallace's predecessor, who resigned amid various accusations about his personal and professional conduct. Wallace, a former company member, took over last fall and has been working to rebuild the company's reputation and infrastructure.
This summer, Kentucky Shakes, as it's sometimes called, is partnering with Sayre School in Lexington to open a summer camp in Central Kentucky for kids ages 7 to 18.
During an interview, Wallace talked about why Shakespeare (and Kentucky Shakes) can still inspire and about his strategy for making the Bard come alive for audiences in the park, the classroom and even in prison, where Wallace works with inmates through the Shakespeare Behind Bars program. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Question: You're directing both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet this summer. Your approach to Shakespeare is different than some directors. Tell me about that.
Answer: The goal is to make Shakespeare's work accessible without dumbing it down. The mistake I think some performers and productions make is that they put Shakespeare on a pedestal. I want to knock it off the pedestal and bring it down to earth where people live.
One of things you see sometimes is productions where the performers get really indulgent, and they're not acting like a person struggling with something; they're relishing the scene and the language and their own performance. Shakespeare is about great stories and great language, and life-and-death stakes. That's why we use it in the prisons.
That what I tell the (inmates) when they're preparing a scene: The character doesn't know he's about to do a monologue, he's just trying to work something out.
Q: You still have to make some accommodations to connect the material with the audience.
A: Yes. We edit. We cut. I can't expect someone to sit on a park bench for a four-hour Hamlet, much as I would love them to. We take some of the historical references out and focus on the personal stories. Despite how some people approach Shakespeare's work, we know that we can make it accessible, relevant and even, God forbid, fun — all without a changing a word.
Q: When did Shakespeare click for you?
A: Not right away. The first professional Shakespeare production I saw was when I came to see a Kentucky Shakespeare production when I was a drama student from Bowling Green at the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts (a summer program for high school students interested in the arts and humanities). That helped me to see Shakespeare differently than I had before.
That experience is part of why I'm really invested in keeping up the tradition and success we've had with our education programs. We serve over 50,000 kids a year and have worked in every one of the 120 counties in Kentucky.
Q: How do you engage audiences around the state with Shakespeare, especially kids?
A: We do scenes or abbreviated versions of the plays, like a 90- minute Hamlet we're touring now. In schools, we do a scaled-down presentation: two curtains, Elizabethan costumes and really capable actors.
I did it years ago when I worked here under another director, and it's wonderful.
We'd go to schools where we'd ask the kids, "How many of you have never seen a Shakespeare play?" Most or all of them would raise their hands.
Sometimes we'd ask, "How many of you have never seen a live play before?" And a lot of students would raise their hands, so we have a real opportunity to introduce kids to live theater and to Shakespeare.
Q: So how are you planning to reintroduce Kentucky Shakespeare to audiences this summer?
A: It's a top-to-bottom rebuild. For example, the floorboards of our outdoor stage (in Louisville's Central Park) have rotted in places, and so we're tearing all that out and replacing it. That was personally important to me; I proposed to my wife on that stage; I want to take care of it.
We've got a great cast. Our goal was to see if we could cast mostly local professional actors without sacrificing quality, and we've been able to do that. Part of the rationale for that was we don't have to pay to house people who already live here, but it's also that I wanted people who feel a real investment in the community and who care about what we're trying to do.
Altogether, we're staging eight shows, 56 performances. All free. There had been some experiments with ticketing in the past. We're not doing that.
The message we want to communicate to everyone in the commonwealth is that we work to serve all ages and to make Shakespeare engaging for all ages. We want everyone to know that this is your Kentucky Shakespeare.
Graham Shelby is a writer who grew up in Lexington and lives in Louisville. He may be reached through his website, Grahamshelby.com.