Interview by Scott Dowd
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The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival opens its 54th season this month with executive director Brantley Dunaway’s conception of Twelfth Night. Over the past two seasons, Dunaway’s brilliance has been evident on stage. But in the years to come, Louisville will benefit from his vision and hard work out of the limelight. Last year he and the Kentucky Shakespeare Board of Directors proposed a comprehensive five-year plan for the company that will do much to move ahead the city’s plans for a revitalized downtown arts district.
SD: Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is the oldest free Shakespeare Festival in the country. Is keeping it free your highest priority?
BD: Keeping a portion of it free is my priority. The solution to maintaining that free portion is a different model.
SD: Can you give us some highlights from your five-year plan for the organization?
BD: I spent my first year in Louisville looking at the organization as a whole – discovering its niche, its history and its culture. I wanted to understand the positives and identify those aspects that needed to be reimagined. It took us about a year to create the strategic plan.
SD: Who was involved with developing that plan?
BD: The committee was made up of staff, board members and members of the community whom we like to call “trustees” or “stakeholders.” That last group consisted of people from local governments as well as people from the neighborhoods. We met weekly for ten months and worked for two months to solidify the plan before presenting it to the board. The board approved it in March of last year and it went into effect September 1, 2012. Between March and September we worked to create the action items to give us quarterly benchmarks. Based on all of that information, we had to go back and write a new business plan.
SD: You have referred to this as the “destination” model. Can you tell me what you mean by that?
BD: If we look at the top twenty most successful theatre companies in North America, they are either Shakespeare companies or destination-based. The most successful Shakespeare companies are Oregon Shakespeare, the Stratford Festival, Colorado Shakespeare, Orlando, St. Louis and Tahoe. We started looking at that and then we focused on what’s happening here in Louisville. We did our research and found that between Labor Day and Memorial Day – September to May – the arts organizations in Louisville compete to sell an average of 51,000 tickets per month. From Memorial Day to Labor Day – May to September – that number dropped to 4,500 tickets. Looking at this year with one of the local companies not doing their program, that number drops to zero. Weigh that against Lonely Planet’s listing last December of Louisville as one of the top ten tourist destinations in the country. Of the ten cities listed, the only city not to have their arts included as a reason to visit was Louisville. Not a lot of people picked up on that, but it leapt out at me.
SD: Louisville has such a strong arts scene. Why do you think it wasn’t included in that category?
BD: There are, of course, some theatre companies performing in the summer. I’m talking about only the locally-produced Equity companies. Broadway Series is bringing things in. But we’re not creating an artistic flare within the city during the height of the peak time for arts tourism. There is a giant cavern, which fits right into the plan.
SD: How so?
BD: The business plan is based on three things: economic stability and sustainability – which relates directly to maintaining the free show in Central Park; job creation; and collaboration. With the last, we ask, “What does it mean to truly collaborate and participate in the arts ecosystem?”
SD: Give me your thoughts on economic sustainability.
BD: We will basically move into doing ticketed shows with the idea that we are marketing primarily to tourists. Most of our marketing dollars will be spent outside the city on a regional basis. We want to encourage people to come to Louisville not only to see the Shakespeare Festival, but to do the Bourbon Trail, go to the Slugger Museum and see a baseball game. We want them to take in the Muhammad Ali Center and eat in our great restaurants. That’s what destination theatre is about.
SD: More tourists means, presumably, more jobs.
BD: The city of Louisville creates an average of 7,800 full-time equivalent jobs in the arts. More than 90 percent of those people are unemployed in the summertime, which means they are either leaving the city to work or going on unemployment insurance. Kentucky Shakespeare can’t solve this problem alone, but we will do our part. The past two seasons, we have hired people from most of the city’s major arts organizations. Art exhibits the human condition, and we have to consider that if the arts community is not providing a sustainable lifestyle for the people comprising its backbone – e.g., painters, carpenters, stagehands who need to support their families and provide health care – then our arts ecology in Louisville is stagnant. If we are unable to provide the foundation for family, we will not have arts from here.
SD: How does your plan address those concerns?
BD: This is where the collaborative aspect comes from. We need to work together to create full-time opportunities for people in the arts.
SD: What kind of response have you gotten from the other arts organizations?
BD: It has been good. Actors Theatre of Louisville has been tremendously supportive. We rent property from Actors, we rent their housing, hire some of their folks who are not generally contracted in the summertime. We have done that with the Louisville Ballet and the Kentucky Opera, too. Everybody is open to the idea, but collaboration is more than just a catch-phrase. Through that collaboration, we will create economic sustainability because we are sharing revenues.
SD: Now I hear the abaci clicking.
BD: When people participate in this destination model…say I’m spending money with Actors Theatre or another arts organization…it becomes a great symbiotic relationship.
SD: For the sake of context, tell me what it costs to put forward the Kentucky Shakespeare season.
BD: According to last year’s audit figures, the production in the park cost $315,000. We spent $250,000 on educational outreach. When you add in overhead like office space and fundraising, our total expenditures came out to $813,000.
SD: What percentage of those costs are recovered passing the hat in the park?
BD: A little less than two percent.
SD: And so the impetus for a change in the business model.
BD: That is really the reason for the change. Since 2004, the economy has made it tough on everybody. The traditional streams of government, corporate and individual support have become shallower. As free theatre, we have all the same expenses as a ticketed company. We pay competitive salaries for similar kinds of work, but we don’t charge our audience.
SD: Do you think there is a perception that because you don’t charge, it isn’t worth as much?
BD: Possibly. We’ll find out. That’s just the nature of business. The change of venue may help.
SD: That’s news to me. What are you considering?
BD: The current plan says that we would do three ticketed indoor shows and two ticket-less shows in Central Park. With that model comes an economy of scale.
SD: What kind of savings will it bring?
BD: The cost of the free productions are reduced by 40 to 60 percent. We would run the shows in repertory so that a visitor from Bowling Green or Lexington could spend four days and see three shows. At the same time, they could take in the Bourbon Trail and Frazier History Museum, shop in Nulu…that’s what it becomes about. The average arts traveler spends 5.2 days in a city, while the average non-arts traveler stays for 4.2 days. They will spend 96 waking hours in the community – 6 in the theatre. That extra day is when the magic happens.
SD: Have you chosen the indoor venue yet?
BD: We are exploring.
SD: The first place that came to my mind was Iroquois Amphitheater, but it’s out of the way.
BD: For the destination model to work, it has to be pedestrian-centric. People need to be able to walk from their hotels. There needs to be accessible restaurants that require minimal augmented transportation. The theatre needs to be in the proximity of those same amenities. There are really about three theatres in town that fill that card: The Kentucky Center, Bunbury and Actors Theatre.
SD: Can you give me an example of a city that successfully uses this model?
BD: We are the example. We already do the Humana Festival, Thunder Over Louisville, Kentucky Derby, Forecastle Festival, Abbey Road on the River, The St. James Art Show…this is not a new thing for us. The question is, Can we get the city and its populace to invest in the art form in the summer months – the heightened tourism months? I have a letter from the mayor of Cedar City, Utah, written to our mayor in June of last year explaining how Utah Shakespeare Festival has transformed their economy.
SD: That has been a huge festival for decades.
BD: Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is actually a little older, and Cedar City has a population of 30,000. They are 200 miles from the nearest airport. This has been good for their entire community: taxi drivers, restaurants, hotels, shops, everybody.
SD: This season you are in Central Park again. What have you got planned?
BD: We are presenting Twelfth Night June 20 to July 14.
SD: You did a fundraiser based on that play last year, didn’t you?
BD: That will be our annual fundraiser, the last week of January. The Twelfth Night Masquerade is an alternative to New Year’s Eve. I’m not going out on New Year’s anymore, so the next weekend – when it’s easier to get a babysitter – I can go out for an elegant, fun evening. Twelfth Night refers, of course, to Epiphany. It’s the last day of the holiday season and the first day of the carnival season.
SD: Tell me about this summer’s production of the play.
BD: We are using a Celtic theme because of the social dynamics of Celtic societies. One of the interesting aspects of their society is the equality of men and women on the battlefield. Combine that with a very interesting mysticism and it will really play well with the story. We’re also examining the idea of love. What is love? How do we embody and exhibit it? Because we’ve focused on the Irish Celts, the Consul General of Ireland will be attending opening night. Local government is working to create a sister city in Ireland, and this is one step in that process.
SD: You are directing this production?
BD: Yes. I’m very excited about the set design by Jeff Kmaec. He’s created an actual waterfall and working chimneys.
SD: Where did you meet him?
BD: I directed Romeo and Juliet in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was creating his final project for grad school. I thought I had better get him while he’s available because he will be out of our reach pretty quickly. We’ll have costumes by Shon LeBlanc out of southern California. He does a lot of TV, film and theatre work. Nick Dent of Actors Theatre is designing the lighting; and Michael Raspberry, also from Charlottesville, will design our sound. A UofL student is doing props for us. So my design team ranges from seasoned professionals to up-and-comers and to those who are just starting out. Same thing with the cast.
SD: The second production is Shakespeare’s ever-popular The Taming of the Shrew.
BD: That is my Player’s show. It is part of the education program, a summer conservatory for high school students who train for seven weeks. At the same time, they will attend workshops by the actors and designers of the professional show. It is a pretty incredible experience for them to work with a national fight choreographer. Once the production is ready, they will perform it on the same set we’re using for Twelfth Night – with a few modifications. This is something we tried last year and it’s the economy of scale we were talking about earlier. Our audiences get two fantastic experiences and I’m able to contain the cost. I am confident that we will have another great season in Central Park this year, and I’m looking forward to introducing new audiences to The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and the city of Louisville for years to come.
This summer’s performances of Twelfth Night (June 20-July 14) begin about dusk in the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre, located in Old Louisville’s Central Park near the intersection of Fourth Street and Magnolia. For more information about these ticket-less productions, call 502.574.9900, or go to KyShakespeare.com.