When Matthew Johnson was a student at Scott County High School and even during much of his time at Morehead State University, he had little regard for the work of William Shakespeare.
"It was like cubism," Johnson says, referring to the avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century. "Cubism used to offend me, but that was because I didn't understand it.
"But then in college, you start to understand that what you're seeing is they're trying to portray every facet of life at the same time, that it's about the schism of the human psyche that the 20th century was. Then it's like, OK.
"So for Shakespeare, I was not particularly drawn to it at all. It was about the opportunity to make work."
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The work was at the then-Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, where his Morehead friend, Nicholasville native Brian Isaac Phillips, is producing artistic director. Once Johnson got into work there — where he eventually became associate artistic director — a light bulb went on.
"Once I started doing it, I was good enough at it that I didn't want to stop," Johnson says. "It was challenging, and it was not going to dry up anytime soon, because it's so dense and hard."
Johnson's latest Shakespearean challenge is back in the Bluegrass, where on Wednesday night, his production of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will opens SummerFest's first season at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater. The Shakespeare comedy will run through July 13, followed by the musical Little Shop of Horrors, July 23 to Aug. 3.
The production caps off a year back in Central Kentucky for Johnson, who is now parlaying his stage experience in Atlanta, Cincinnati and other places into a teaching career, centered this year at the University of Kentucky.
In addition to teaching acting and Shakespeare classes, he has developed a hybrid theater course that meets twice a week online and once a week in person. He will continue at UK this coming school year, where he will direct a production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in November, and he will also be teaching at Centre College in Danville and some other area universities.
It wasn't even until Morehead, where one of his classmates was Tony Award winner and Ashland native Steve Kazee, that Johnson really got into theater. At Scott County High, where he graduated in 1992, he had done only one play but was more focused on football and basketball.
"I really went to Morehead because a bunch of my friends were going, and I decided late," Johnson says. "I just took everything I was interested in — art, philosophy and psychology — and theater was one of those things. Theater was what came the easiest, was really intriguing, the girls were really cute and the right kind of crazy.
"That's the truth. When you're at that age, it is such a draw."
Out of those fanciful beginnings has come a serious career. After years in Cincinnati and Atlanta, where he worked in a broad group of theaters, including the Alliance Theatre, Johnson went to a graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, designed for working theater professionals who wanted to go into academia.
So now, he is imparting the theatrical and Shakespearean philosophies he has developed over the years to students and the SummerFest audience.
"As I talked to Matthew, I could tell he was the direction we wanted to go in," SummerFest executive director Wesley Nelson says. "His concepts and ideas were really strong, and I liked it when he said, 'A lot of directors try to do these weird concepts with Shakespeare, and that can work, but you have to be very specific; it has to apply to everything.
"You could see a twinkle in his eye when he talked about Shakespeare and Twelfth Night, specifically. You could tell there was something there."
"So much of Shakespeare's stuff is about identity, and that the idea of themselves is a mask," Johnson says of the play, which is about a duke trying to win the love of a young woman who masquerades as her twin brother. "What ... is different about our production is, I think, in the midst of the play, people in the audience will switch allegiances; people that they were laughing with, they will later see in a darker role, and people they were laughing at, they will see in a more sympathetic light."
It is illustrative of one of the things he has come to love about Shakespeare, that the Bard's work is so malleable, yet so specific to human emotions it can speak to audiences more than 400 years after it was written.
This week, Central Kentucky audiences will hear yet another new voice with Shakespeare.