Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort is open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk, but for two weekends in the summer, it is transformed to a unique venue for Shakespeare during Josephine SummerStage.
One of Central Kentucky's unique summer arts events, Josephine SummerStage is celebrating its fifth anniversary this summer with an all-female production of Henry V.
A rare joint venture between the performing arts and visual arts, the event launched in 2010 after Louisville-based director Kathi Ellis was inspired by the park's 20 acres of natural beauty and sculptures, many of which were created to be touched or even climbed on.
"I went to the park on opening weekend," Ellis says of the sculpture park's 2009 opening. "I literally walked into the park and saw amazing sculpture and I had a very strong response that I needed to direct a production of Macbeth around that sculpture."
Ellis pitched the idea to park founder Melanie VanHouten in the spring. That summer, Ellis mounted an all-female Macbeth, incorporating the sculpture that originally inspired Ellis.
Since then, the event has continued to grow, always featuring a Shakespeare production that relates to either a sculpture already in the park or one that has been specially commissioned, like this year's sculpture by Minneapolis-based sculptor Alison Hiltner.
"What we're doing in the world of outdoor Shakespeare and the world of sculpture park is unusual," says Ellis. "No other sculpture park has this long-term commitment to doing a fully produced Shakespeare production."
The all-female Macbeth production was followed by mixed-gender productions of The Tempest, As You Like It, and Winter's Tale.
Ellis chose to return to the all-female convention for the event's fifth anniversary not only as a nod to the event's founding, but because Ellis felt it was a good fit for the material.
"This is the third all-female Shakespeare that I've directed and I would not necessarily feel moved to direct every Shakespeare show as all-female or all-male," Ellis says. "Issues of gender absolutely rise to the top when you hear only one gender talk about those issues, so if it's all men talking a certain way about women, you hear it very differently."
Ellis selected Henry V because 2015 marks the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, which Shakespeare immortalized in the play. But it's not just history that Ellis is interested in, it is the broader dilemma of war, which remains relevant today, and in exploring how the justifications for war and the planning and execution of war is perceived differently through the lens of women.
"There are very few countries who have gone to war where the civilian leader has been a woman. We're used to hearing the rationale for war being given by male voices," Ellis says. "When they're made by women, how does that make you feel? Are they more compelling or less compelling?"
Ellis places these questions against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, which Ellis cites as the last war in which all Americans, not just the volunteer militia, had to face the grim realities of war because of the draft.
"I would say there are allusions and connections that made it a really interesting journey for us," Ellis says of transferring Henry's Agincourt plight to the plight of America in Vietnam.
Ellis plans to continue exploring Shakespeare plays via SummerStage as the event continues to grow. But she will focus on shows that heavily feature the outdoors.
"Shakespeare talks about nature all the time and I think when we're indoors, we don't necessarily hear that language as about nature, as about beautiful imagery," Ellis says. "But once you actually put the actors and the audience in an outside environment, you can hear the birdsong and see the fireflies, and you hear that language about flowers and trees. It's a wonderful way of connection with Shakespeare."