Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.
Charlie Sexton — artistic director of Commonwealth Theatre Center and its education wing, the Walden Conservatory — is in the director’s chair for Shakespeare’s crowd favorite, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s one of three plays in Walden’s annual Young American Shakespeare Festival.
This year’s festival is part of an unheard of achievement for a youth conservatory — “Midsummer,” accompanied by “King John” and “Henry VIII,” two lesser-known works by Shakespeare, marks Walden’s completion of Shakespeare’s entire canon.
That’s right. The conservatory, which focuses on bringing quality theater education to kids and teens in Kentuckiana, has put on full productions of every single one of the Bard’s 38 plays. It’s a feat that’s only been achieved by six full-time Shakespearian adult companies in America, and Walden is the first American youth conservatory to reach that summit.
Though he’s in charge now, a little over 40 years ago, Sexton appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Peter Quince, the stage manager of a buffoonish group of traveling actors.
That production was one of the first shows performed by Walden Theatre Conservatory, which was founded by Sexton’s mother, Nancy Niles Sexton. It marked the beginning of the journey Walden and the younger Sexton complete this weekend.
Over the years, Walden was housed in a couple of different locations, growing each time it moved and even undergoing the recent rebranding after a merger with Louisville’s Blue Apple Players. But at every step along the way, the Sextons brought their respect for Shakespeare with them.
On a brief break from rehearsals last week — with the boisterous sounds of teens bouncing around the hallways during a few moments of downtime — Sexton spoke with Insider about the achievement and Shakespeare’s place in Walden’s curriculum.
“Shakespeare’s always been a big part of the classical training program in our conservatory program,” says Sexton. “The voice, the body, the whole human experience is wrapped up inside that playwright.”
Three full productions were all in rehearsal during our visit, and although the pace was brisk and the building was packed with kids, Sexton seemed calm and in control of the monumental endeavor.
“So yearly, we’d do a Shakespeare play at some point or another … and as we moved into this building, our enrollment began to grow, so we started doing two Shakespeares,” he explains. But the growth didn’t stop there. “As the years began to go by, we had enough students that we were doing three Shakespeare shows in repertory.”
With three full productions each spring, the Young American Shakespeare Festival was born.
When you’re doing that many of Shakespeare’s plays a year, you start to get to the lesser-known corners of Shakespeare’s work, plays like “Coriolanus” or “Troilus and Cressida.” Along the way, Sexton had mostly phased out his own acting career, rejoining Walden as an adult in the ’90s and taking on more responsibility as his mother aged, then retired.
“So by the time we got to ’05, ’06 … I realized we had about a dozen of the plays left to do, and I thought it would be an admirable thing to attain, us completing the canon,” says Sexton.
That realization was the beginning of a 10-year plan. Now, days away from the end of that plan, Sexton reflects.
“It does feel surreal in a way. I’m 53. I’ve never done anything that took 10 years to do. It was a lot of patience, and you don’t think about it day to day, but when we scheduled “Henry VI” (last year), I knew this is it, next year is gonna be the year that we do it.”
It’s been a long journey from Peter Quince to artistic director, but Sexton is excited about the works and thinks his mother — who died in 2011 — would be excited, too.
“She would be really prideful at this moment for sure,” he says.
Just because they’ve finished the canon, don’t expect Shakespeare to drop off Sexton’s radar, or to make sparser appearances at Walden. You’ll still see plenty of the Bard, most of it performed in the Nancy Niles Sexton Theatre.
“We’re not gonna stop doing Shakespeare,” says Sexton. “I never thought we would, and that’s sort of the symbolic nature of putting ‘Midsummer’ in with (‘King John’ and ‘Henry VIII’) — we’re gonna keep doing our Shakespeare festival every spring, because there’s all new generations of kids.”
And those kids take away more than just the lessons of how to act. Ask graduating senior Andrea Lowry. She’s appearing as Titania in this production of “Midsummer” after studying acting for nine years at Walden.
She has made appearances in five of Shakespeare’s plays and performed leading roles in the many other shows.
“I love Shakespeare because the words are beautiful, and it reminds us that life can be beautiful … and it can be lived beautifully,” says Lowry.
Walden’s Young American Shakespeare Festival runs “King John,” “Henry VIII” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from May 11-21, including a marathon of all three plays on Sunday, May 21. All performances are held in the Nancy Niles Sexton Theatre at the Commonwealth Theatre Center, 1123 Payne St.