Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director is making much ado over the company’s future
July 13, 2012
By: Elizabeth Kramer, The Courier-Journal, Published: July 13, 2012
What: The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare
When: 8:30 nightly (except Mondays) through July 29 (7 p.m. pre-show entertainment)
Where: Old Louisville’s Central Park, Fourth Street and Magnolia Avenue
Information: (502) 574-9900; kyshakespeare.com.
This month’s opening of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival production of “Much Ado About Nothing” dovetailed with cooler temperatures — a good development for audiences seeing the play outdoors in Louisville’s Central Park.
But work has been going on at what seems a fever pitch for the past two years, since the organization’s producing artistic director, Brantley Dunaway, came on board. During that time, he’s been working to remake the organization into what he said can be a driving force in the local economy and more.
What brought you to Louisville?
In 2009, I had finished making the film “Love in a Time of Cholera” (Dunaway was one of the film’s producers). Afterwards, I was fried. I had worked on it for five years. Maddie (his wife, Madison Dunaway) had done a couple of films, and we needed a break.
We packed up our house and moved to Virginia for one year, where my wife got her master’s degree and I worked for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., before returning to California (where he continued working in film, television and theater productions).
We didn’t want to raise kids there. One night, a friend came over for dinner and said, “I took a job in Louisville. You should totally check it out.” I literally went on the Theatre Communications Group’s site that night and this job was there. May 17, 2010, was my first day of work. Maddie moved here in July, and we had Finnleigh (their younger of two daughters) in August.
What persuaded you to take this job?
A big part of it was for the family, the culture here and the way of life. I want to have a yard. I want to have a swing set. I want to have kids. I want to have community. That’s a big thing for us. My wife and I had childhoods where we moved around a lot, and I was working as a child actor.
What were some of the first things you did after getting the job?
There’s been a lot of internal changes — structural, organizational, cultural, relationship-oriented, branding. Literally, I changed everything.
I got new phone systems. We changed how we answer the phone. We changed the computer systems. I rewrote the employee handbook. I changed payroll to where it matches the union pay cycle. We changed offices. We were over at Fourth and Magnolia, and we weren’t engaged in the arts community sitting in Old Louisville in an office with mushrooms growing out of the ceiling.
Immediately, I started engaging with the other arts organizations and hiring some of their employees who were out of work for the summer. We really just created a brand-new company with some cultural guidelines, and I’m still working on building the new foundation. Now believe me, it’s not perfect. We are still working out kinks.
How did you begin to review the mission?
We had a board retreat last year and a strategic planning retreat this year. In those, I focused on part of the mission statement: “works of Shakespeare,” “accessibility,” “professional theater.” We talked about what it means to be a professional theater. We use Actors Equity (a theatrical union) now. It’s more than getting paid. It’s dedication to work and experience and more. There is a code.
Then we talked about accessibility, which for years meant free. But it’s not that. Free is a component. But it also involves economic barriers, social barriers, understanding, environment, physical handicaps. Then we asked ourselves: Do we always use the works of Shakespeare? Or do we use something else?
Will you perform works other than those by Shakespeare?
Historically, the company had done other works. When we rewrote the mission statement, we stipulated that the company be “grounded in the works of Shakespeare.” We will do Shakespeare as a foundation of what we do. But that’s not everything.
Basically the idea is similar to the programs of other Shakespeare companies: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
What specifically will you stage outside of Shakespeare’s work?
I’m working on that. I can tell you what I won’t do. I won’t do new works. What I will do is Shakespeare and other iconic literary material. I will definitely do Tennessee Williams. I will definitely do some Jacobeans (playwrights from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries).
It won’t be just a classics company. I’ll do Moliere. I’ll do Noel Coward. I’ll do Sam Shepard. And in time, I’ll do a musical. I’m saving that.
How have you looked at building the organization?
The idea is to pull in resources, and we’ve put together the strategic plan and the look for the new messaging. We’ve looked at what people are doing around the country. We started putting it together in July last year, and it was approved May 17.
Our goal is to build the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival into a destination. Oregon Shakespeare is the oldest festival in the country, founded in 1935. It’s in a community with a population of 21,000 and a median income of $35,000. The nearest major city is 290 miles away. Its annual budget is $26 million, and economic impact is $321 million. That’s 150 percent of what the arts community in Louisville generates.
Utah Shakespeare in Cedar City, Utah, had a $35 million economic impact last year with a season in the middle of the desert. We have five major cities a short drive away. The closest competition with destination models for Shakespeare festivals are in Alabama and Virginia.
In a city that knows destination tourism, with the Kentucky Derby, the St. James Court Art Show and Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of New American Plays, to me the writing’s on the wall.
The ultimate goal is for us to literally start a season just after the Kentucky Derby and go through until the start of St. James in October and ultimately do five to six shows, with two outdoors with free admission and the rest indoors.
That could help generate a sizable economic impact. The average person who goes to a destination theater actually spends 5.2 days there. Six hours in the theater and 90 hours in the community.
I’m in this huge transition right now with this little company with a budget of $700,000 a year.
(Dunaway later noted that this year the Kentucky Arts Council increased its funding to Kentucky Shakespeare Festival by 22 percent, Metro government raised its allocation by an estimated 98 percent, Brown-Forman tripled its annual contribution and the National Endowment for the Arts awarded a grant to the organization to support its performances in Central Park for the first time.)
What do you need to attract those out-of-town audiences?
Facilities are important. There are people who won’t go to Central Park. We have to find a facility. Want to have it by 2014 — that will be Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.
It will be our 65th anniversary as an organization.
We have been looking into purchasing the Theater Square building where the Roxbury Nightclub and Lounge is now. But we’ve talked to Actors Theatre about renting their facilities during the summer months.
How have you been building your education programs?
All of our education programs are growing, and we have new ones. We launched a new program called “Living History: We the People” last year after consulting 12 history teachers from across Kentucky. It has study guides and covers topics and figures in history — Thomas Paine, JFK, the McCarthy hearings — through using original source material. Our goal was to have 50 performances last year, but we did 90.
We have another called “Kentucky History” launching in the spring.
But we want be part of the University Resident Theater Association of America, where students can study and get professional experiences. We’re now in the last stages of securing arrangements with Bellarmine University to work together as part of the association. There are discussions about shared facilities.
We’re also doing the same thing with the Jefferson County Technical College to focus on the vocational trades — carpentry and electronics. For that, we’re looking for an indoor facility that would house Bellarmine and JCTC programs in the day and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival events at night. Right now, Bellarmine University and JCTC are working together to write an agreement that would allow students who finish two years at JCTC to go to Bellarmine.
Because Kentucky Shakespeare’s education program sees 75,000 students in a five-state region, we can talk about higher education to them and this opportunity.
If they go through this education program, they will graduate with professional credits and experience, work with impressive people, gain a professional resume and graduate with their equity card. Then Louisville becomes the place that grows artists.