A groundling’s view: Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre

May 28 - June 3, 2018

By Becca Bona


Epilogue: Arkansas Shakespeare Theater is born


South of the Thames River with a central yard open to the sky, the Globe Theatre gained fame after William Shakespeare exhibited his plays there. Even though Central Arkansas is more than 4,000 miles away from London’s theatre district, love for the Bard is alive and well in the Natural State.


Now in its 12th season, Arkansas Shakespeare Theater (AST) has called Conway home since its inception in 2007. Dr. Rollin Potter, the former Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at the University of Central Arkansas set the ball in motion eleven years ago to form what is now the only professional Shakespeare company in the state.


Potter looked to Mary Baldwin University’s American Shakespeare Center as a model, knowing that he wanted to house the company on the UCA campus. To ensure success, he hired Matt Chiorini to spearhead the effort.


Mary Ruth Marotte, now the executive director of AST, says, “With $20,000 seed money, [Matt] put together a season in four months, a really impressive feat, as he had to come in and find corporate and individual sponsors very quickly.”


In the beginning, Marotte was simply a board member, but she began to delve deeper. “For the past eight years, I’ve split my time between my role as a professor in the English department [at UCA] and work with AST,” she says.  


Over the past twelve seasons, AST has grown such that it needed a full-time director, and before long, Marotte was at the helm.


“We are at a point now that I’m needed in a full-time capacity to manage the many fundraising and marketing efforts, grant writing, events, summer and fall touring and outreach programs,” she says.


As far as the artistic side of things go, Marotte points to Rebekah Scallet, Producing Artistic Director, noting the quality leadership she brings to the table. “Our productions rival any you’d see anywhere in the world,” she says. “Rebekah brings together artists who make magic happen.”


Ready on the set:  At home in Conway


Like most of those involved with the company, Marotte came to AST with a deep love for the Bard. She was a mere 20 years old when she first saw “Hamlet” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.


“It was the first live performance of Shakespeare I’d ever seen,” she remembers. “About five years later, I went to London to see “Julius Caesar” at The Globe and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. It was mind-blowing to me how great acting, direction, and design can facilitate an audience’s understanding of the text.”


Marotte discovered something then that she would later recognize in the mission of AST, namely, the transformation Shakespeare’s plays take from the page to the stage.


“I’d liked Shakespeare just fine in high school and college,” she says, “but it was transformed for me into something I loved after seeing these productions [on stage].”


Conway makes the perfect backdrop for a Shakespeare festival – from both a geographical and cultural standpoint. “Conway is […] centrally located in the state, right off of 1-40, and is easy to access for travelers,” Marotte explains. “[The] art scene has flourished in the last decade. Ashland, Oregon is much harder to travel to, yet they welcome 400,000 people each season to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When I started working with AST, I immediately saw the potential for Conway to become the next Ashland. We have the community support and the interest in the arts to really make this festival a destination for people all over the country.”


Thus far, AST has proven that it has some serious staying power. Along that vein, Conway and Central Arkansas have stepped up to the plate, with UCA at the helm when it comes to support.


“President Houston and First Lady Jenny Davis are true believers in the value that this festival adds to the university,” says Marotte. Even so, the organization is responsible for raising two-thirds of their budget – nearly $375,000 – which keeps the company constantly on the lookout for volunteers and sponsorships.


“I believe in Conway – its potential for growth, especially in the arts, is enormous,” says Marotte. “We’ve seen a such a positive trajectory over the years. It’s a place that I’m proud to call home – the warmth and dedication of community volunteers here is unparalleled.”


First look: 2018 Season


Beyond providing Shakespearean productions, AST also produces a musical each year with the goal of bringing friends and families together.


The 2018 season will open at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 8 with “The Winter’s Tale” outdoors on the lawn of UCA’s McAlister Hal. Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” will open in Reynolds Performance Hall the following week on Friday, June 15, and “Henry IV, Part One” will open on Friday, June 22. AST’s family-friendly adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” will open Thursday, June 28 in Reynolds Performance Hall before touring across the state in June and July.


“The Winter’s Tale” will be directed by AST artistic collective member and Conway native Nisi Sturgis, who was a part of the critically-acclaimed tour of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced” at the Goodman Theatre, Berkeley Rep, and Seattle Rep. One of Shakespeare’s late romantic plays, it follows the story of King Leontes, who grows jealous of his wife, leading him to make a series of terrible mistakes.


“This is a rarely produced Shakespeare gem,” says Producing Artistic Director Rebekah Scallet. “Combining comedy and tragedy, love and redemption, it is a beautiful play that speaks to the transformative power of forgiveness. I’m so excited for Sturgis’s production, which is adding even more magic to the show through the use of shadow puppetry and music.” It also features AST Artistic Collective member and UCA faculty member Paige Reynolds as Hermione.


Robert Quinlan, who directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in AST’s 10th anniversary season, will return at the helm of “Henry IV, Part One”. This adventurous tale is centered on the young Prince Hal, who prefers spending his time in the tavern for his fat and jolly friend Falstaff, to time in castle with his father the King. When Rebellion stirs in England, he must make a choice to where his true loyalties lie. Returning company member Sam Babick stars as Hal, and Dan Matisa, veteran and Collective member will return to play Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part One”, the same part he played in AST’s 2010 production of “Henry V”.


“I’m so excited for our audiences to see this wonderful story, full of laughter, swordplay, and a timeless story of fathers and sons,” says Scallet. “Henry IV, Part One” is also sponsored by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.


The classic musical “My Fair Lady” will be directed by AST’s Producing Artistic Director Rebekah Scallet. This multiple Tony Award-winning musical premiered in 1956, and will be given fresh life in this intimate new production, with an all Arkansas-native production team – Music Direction by Robert Frost (Clarksville) and Choreography by Jeremy Williams (North Little Rock).  


A musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, “My Fair Lady” tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl who wants to transform her status by changing the way she speaks, and so goes to curmudgeonly speech professor Henry Higgins for assistance. AST’s production will feature New York City based actress Gabriella Pérez (seen last year as Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man”) as Eliza, with AST newcomer Thom Miller as Henry Higgins. Miller will also take on the title role in “Henry IV, Part One”.


Quinlan will also make his debut as an AST actor as Colonel Pickering. “This will be my first time to direct the musical as part of the AST summer season,” says Scallet, “and “My Fair Lady” is a perfect fit. The script retains so much of Shaw’s original language, along with Lerner and Loewe’s glorious songs – I’m thrilled to be able to bring it to life for Arkansas audiences.”


Enrico Spada will make his directorial debut with AST for the touring Family Shakespeare production of “Much Ado About Nothing”. With a cast of just eight people telling a reduced version of this classic tale, “Much Ado” is a romantic comedy with the great Shakespearean couple of Beatrice and Benedick at its center. This hour-long adaptation is perfect for families to enjoy together, and will perform on-stage at Reynolds along with stops at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain, Hot Springs Farmer’s Market, The Joint in Argenta, and The Griffin in El Dorado, among others.


For more information, to get involved or buy tickets to upcoming productions, visit: http://www.arkshakes.com/.


Source: Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre