Opportunity rarely arises when expected. When it does, it doesn’t necessarily come in an appealing package.
For Matt Wallace, opportunity presented itself last month. The producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare, the top job of the official Shakespeare company of Kentucky and the longest-running free outdoor Shakespeare festival in the country, stepped down amid personal issues and allegations of employee abuse and financial mismanagement. The longstanding institution was in trouble.
Wallace, a former artistic associate whose history with the company dates back more than a decade, offered to help in any way he could. The Board of Directors opted to move quickly to fill the position. Wallace was placed in consideration. Interviews took place, and the board swiftly – and unanimously – chose him to take the reins.
Wallace takes the position with palpable enthusiasm and vocal support from the local theatre community. Yet the challenges are still there.
Matt Wallace has a task before him. And like Henry V on Saint Crispin’s Day, he has the stomach for it.
“The first job was finding my desk,” Wallace recalls with a note of humor. Upon finding it, he set up in the Kentucky Shakespeare’s Development Office and went to work addressing the company’s financial issues. In his first week, Kentucky Shakespeare raised $24,000 to put toward paying off debts and getting started on a solid footing.
“The outpouring of support has been incredible,” Wallace says. “The gifts from past donors and board members is inspiring. So many people have come back to support us.”
While bringing the company’s financial house in order tops his current agenda, Wallace has not neglected what brought him to the company to begin with: feeding the passion to present Shakespeare’s works on the Central Park stage.
“I get out to the park to rediscover the inspiration,” he said. “You might find me in the park after hours taking it in.”
Wallace brings to the job vast experience exposing non-traditional audiences to the world’s most famous playwright. He is in his sixth season facilitating Shakespeare Behind Bars, a program formerly affiliated with Kentucky Shakespeare which introduces correctional inmates to the work of The Bard and enables them to create and perform productions of Shakespeare. Wallace also founded Shakespeare Behind Bars’ Journeyman Program for 18-to-21-year-old inmates, which leads them to performing Shakespeare “honestly and powerfully,” he says.
“The Globe (Theatre) was a melting pot. Modern Shakespeare should be no different,” he says. “Shakespeare is not elitist. It’s an inclusive art form. It’s for everybody, whether they’re preschool or seniors. My vision is to bring it to everyone and make it accessible to everybody.”
Wallace and Kentucky Shakespeare are preparing an ambitious programming agenda suiting his vision. On October 19, the company and Councilman David James will present the third annual Saturday in the Park, a day-long festival featuring selections from Shakespeare, live music, strolling performers, a cinema double-feature, and much more. Wallace describes it as “a taste” of the festival atmosphere he wants to introduce to Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer programming. “I see it as a welcome BACK to the Park,” he says.
Wallace is also taking extensive personal interest in the company’s educational programming. He is directing new Education Outreach plays for the school year including a two-person touring production of Hamlet for the Fall and an eight-person, 90-minute version of the tragedy of the Danish prince for the Spring. Wallace is also overseeing new interactive plays under the “Investigating Shakespeare” banner and a new production under the company’s American history-based “Living History” program that will premiere in his hometown of Bowling Green.
While it is too soon to discuss specifics of next summer’s programming, Wallace did reveal his dream scenario: running a Shakespearean comedy, tragedy, and history in repertory, or rotation. Wallace says he’s not ruling it out if the fundraising works out.
Even with the support of his board of directors and the artistic community behind him, Wallace knows the man on the street is the final voice of approval to achieve success. With an ambitious vision and drive to see it through, he’s also developing another performance: the elevator pitch.
“We are the oldest free Shakespeare in the country. We are the largest in-state touring company in the country. We tour 120 counties, bringing his works to students. Shakespeare is for everybody. Shakespeare can be fun, exciting, unique artistic experience. Give us a shot.”