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‘With integrity and transparency’: Matt Wallace on saving Kentucky Shakespeare

by Kyle Ware

Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace

“You have to see this.”

It’s 8:30 in the morning at the Kentucky Shakespeare offices on Broadway, and new Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace is excitedly showing me around. 

The office he’s now occupied for just a few weeks is already adorned with photos showcasing the history of Kentucky Shakespeare in Central Park, and he tells me more photos are on the way.

But the old black and white photo he’s showing me now makes him positively beam.  

“You recognize him, don’t you? C. Douglas Ramey,” the founder of Shakespeare in Central Park, now Kentucky Shakespeare.

It’s that great awareness and affection for where Kentucky Shakespeare has been that shapes the new producing artistic director’s vision for the future.

Something tells me that print of Shakespeare on a skateboard won’t be on the wall much longer.

The summer season of 2013 was not finest moment in the history of Kentucky Shakespeare. Due to personal issues between then-Producing Artistic Director Brantley Dunaway and wife and lead actress Madison Dunaway in “Twelfth Night,” the final week of the production was canceled, ultimately leading to Dunaway’s resignation.

That may be the most succinctly that situation can be described.

If you’d like background or a refresher, WFPL’s Erin Keane followed the story through its twists and turns: Kentucky Shakespeare Festival Cancels Remainder of ‘Twelfth Night’ Run , Kentucky Shakespeare CEO Brantley Dunaway Resigns. Insider Louisville covered it here: Kentucky Shakespeare puts Brantley Dunaway on administrative leave; and I did a little something on it here: In Local News … Kentucky Shakespeare’s past, present and possible future.

And you can ask Wallace about any and all of that, and he’ll give you as thoughtful an answer as you can hope to receive, but you can tell he’s only interested in as much as it informs his current to-do list.

“We want to stay positive. We are all so ready to move forward and so excited for what we have planned,” he says.

In fact, his only requests to go off the record had to do with upcoming plans and events that he’s not able to announce just yet. 

“That’s my favorite [playwright, David] Mamet quote: ‘always tell the truth—it’s the easiest thing to remember.’ And that’s how we turn it around, with integrity and transparency.”

Want to test him?

The previous administration left a bit of a mess in its wake, particularly with its finances. 

Like an episode of Hoarders—in which you can sort of see the knee-deep debris plainly enough, but you don’t know there’s a family of cats living down there until you’ve taken away 15 years worth of magazines, the samurai sword and Pittsburgh Steelers macramé pillows—there must have been much to sort through. 

So when our conversation began in earnest outside Nancy’s Bagels in Theatre Square, I started with the books.

“I think we’ve sorted through just about everything,” Wallace says. “Our bookkeeper has been working so hard. I wish there were some wood around for me to knock on, but I think we’ve got it all.

“We are getting to a better place. We’re making payroll, we are working through the bills, but there is debt left to take care of from this summer’s spending. That’s what we’re doing. That’s not to say we don’t need help—we do—but we’re in the process of making things stable again.”

Word had trickled through the Insider Louisville World Headquarters that there was an issue with a hefty amount of outstanding payroll taxes, and the powers-that-be wondered if there might be a deeper story here.

When I mentioned to Matt that it would be something we’d want to get to at some point, he didn’t blink, and in fact brought it up on his own.

“The payroll tax issue you mentioned. There were some unpaid payroll taxes and there is a payment plan in place, but in the first couple days, I discovered payroll tax due from the most recent quarter, he said. “We raised the funds in my first week to pay that quarterly tax in full. As for the outstanding taxes, we’re working with the the IRS on a fair payment plan, and I have an automatic withdrawal set up until it’s gone. There’s no way we won’t pay it.

“I’m also keenly aware that we can’t save our way to success, right? I’m not afraid to spend money and invest in things; we just want to make sure we have the money first.”

Wallace was a finalist for the Kentucky Shakespeare job twice: once in 2008 following Curt Tofteland and again in 2009, following the brief tenure of Anthony Patton. He’s served as artistic director of Shakespeare Behind Bars at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex since 2008.

With so much ado about Kentucky Shakespeare, I confessed that I hadn’t heard much about the future of the SBB program. Wallace told the Kentucky Shakespeare board he’s going to continue on.

“That’s the first thing I did,” he says. “And then I sent all of the [inmates in the SBB program] a letter because I didn’t want them to hear it on the news or wherever. I wanted them to hear it from me and let them know that I am not leaving them. I told them, ‘Hey, I think this is so important, I may need you more than you need me.’ ”

“I have some great people helping out there—Keith McGill and Kathy Ellis—and great people back in the office here—Rob [Silverthorn, director of operations and marketing] and Beth [Dunn, education programs manager].  The education team, who I’m working with now, is getting ready for the Living History series coming up.  I’m really just so lucky.”

I met later with Rob and Beth, along with the education team he mentions—Chelsea Skalski, Jamie Schor, and Karin Partin Wells.  Skalski and Schor are returning to the education team; it’s only the second week for Wells.

Like their new boss, they’re all focused on the future, particularly the education team: there are dates to book, rehearsals, and a Living History debut performance just around the corner—something their new boss understands all too well. After all, he’s held just about every job at the Kentucky Shakespeare at one time or another, from touring/teaching artist, actor, director, booker… you name it.

That’s one of the reasons you heard that thunderous ovation when the board of directors hired him. This is one of those great stories you hear about, in which the guy who started mopping the floors works his way up to CEO.

Wallace jokingly tells of literally shedding blood for the company in an accident on tour. And when the relationship between Wallace and Kentucky Shakespeare dissolved a few years ago, he likens it to a bad breakup.  He only just returned to walk Central Park again after accepting the position.

This is personal in the way you want it to be. Now more than ever, the organization needs someone who cares this much about every facet.

Take a look at the community’s reaction in Melissa Chipman’s piece that ran the following day. My bias is on display there again; I just plain ain’t ashamed of that. 

But you don’t get that because Wallace is a great guy. He is, but the arts are filled with lots of great men and women who might not be ready for the big chair.

It’s because all of those people who love the company’s mission knew that this was the person for the job. 

That’s it. End of sentence.

And it’s mutual.

“I said earlier, when this whole thing started, that local is not a four-letter word,” Wallace says. “Like what you said in your article: we have so many talented, professional-quality people working right here. We’ve got to use them.

“It’s all about the community and those relationships, as you well know, and that’s where we want to start. With the park, then with the neighborhood.  You know? We want the people around the park to know, ‘Hey, this is yours.’ And then the city and then the state. Do good work and grow it from the inside out. If you want to be a destination festival, that’s how you do it. But it starts here,” he says, before citing Chicago’s Steppenwolf and our own Actors Theatre of Louisville.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have plans for growth.

“I want to be on record that I’m not opposed to doing shows indoors, and I’d like to do programming year-round—and our education department is a big part of that, which you don’t hear enough about,” he says.  “But it all starts with free Shakespeare in Central Park. We can make it a festival again, where you can come and spend the weekend and see three shows. I have a plan for that. I’ve had a plan for that for years.”

You talk to most people acquainted with the Kentucky Shakespeare story and they’ll tell you that this is the decision that should have been made back in 2008 when Tofteland left. 

And maybe that’s true. I would have been one of those people.

But maybe it’s the other way.

Maybe everyone had to learn the lessons of the last few years. Wallace’s time with Shakespeare Behind Bars certainly couldn’t hurt his level of readiness. And maybe the board needed to see things from a different perspective. 

I shared with him a theory, that maybe the board was so excited to see Ginger in her sequined dress, that they failed to notice Mary Ann.  And Mary Ann was every bit as lovely and could make just about anything out of a coconut while Ginger lamented a chip in her fingernail polish.

“I don’t know,” he laughed. “But I can tell you, it’s been good to be home.”

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