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As you create your Arkansas summer bucket list, add seeing a timeless play by the only professional Shakespeare acting company in the state: Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST). AST celebrates its 10th anniversary season this summer at the same time as the literary world honors the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. With more than 36 performances of four plays during a summer festival from June 10-July 7, alternating between tragedy and comedy, AST invites you to explore and share in the genius of the Bard.
Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre is a non-profit company located in Conway and operated with the support of the University of Central Arkansas. Directed by Mary Ruth Marotte with Rebekah Scallet as the Artistic Director, AST holds as its mission educating and entertaining the public and making performance arts accessible, both in terms of cost and availability of time and location. To meet these goals, AST holds some performances that sell tickets at a “pay-what-you-can” rate and schedules a variety of occasions to see their plays. This season’s AST performances occur at different times of day, every day of the week except Monday to meet the availability of as many people as possible—and for those who might have trouble driving to Conway, the AST’s cast of Twelfth Night is touring the state with their performance. Their Twelfth Night show will especially share the fun and humor of Shakespeare with children in a family-friendly abridgement that is one hour in length. These honorable efforts are recognized and assisted by the recent award of the National Endowment for the Arts Artworks Grant to AST this season.
Productions by AST are of a high caliber, earning the company regular mention in The New York Times among a list of states’ summer Shakespearean festivals and plays. The American Automobile Association (AAA) has also praised the AST in its “Southern treasure” travel guide. Individual accolades include one for returning AST performer Chad Bradford, who was named a Creative Community Fellow through National Arts Strategies for his work with theatre in the prison system, and recognition for Producing and Artistic Director Rebekah Scallet, who has received an individual artist fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council for her work producing and directing a performance of Twelfth Night several years ago; this summer, she will direct Romeo & Juliet.
Over one hundred stage and costume designers, directors and producers, makeup artists, choreographers and actors are working on AST performances this season; some are Arkansas natives and residents, including Moriah Patterson, Sharon Combs, Chris Fritzges, Ashley Mahan, LaDarius James, Emily Wold, Matt Peoples, Harrison Trigg, Jordan Breckenridge and Zachary Myers, among others. A few individuals, like Rafa Reyes and Michelle Alves, come to AST from abroad. AST’s body includes professional dancers and musicians, writers, teachers (including a flight instructor) and professors. A few individuals, such as Matthew Duncan, co-founder of Paradise Explored Theater Co. in Bentonville, have helped start acting companies in their own communities. Jack Young’s experience choreographing violent scenes has spanned over 150 productions, Nisi Sturgis has appeared in five seasons of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Paige Reynolds, a professor who specializes in British Renaissance Drama at UCA and serves as AST’s dramaturg, has a number of film credits. Performers such as Jordan Caughtry, Laura Perkins, Robert Anderson, Susan Schuld, Sandra Spence, Holly Payne and Robert Quinlan have particular experience with Shakespeare, as do many fellow actors. Mark Binns composes, directs and teaches in Little Rock and Central Arkansas, and Greg Blakely acts as the Resident Designer for UCA Theatre. Conway native Chris Fritzges performed in the Conway Symphony Orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare and Prokofiev concert, and many AST performers and production crew have worked on other Arkansas productions at the Arkansas Repertory, Murry’s Dinner Playhouse, TheatreSquared and the Argenta Community Theatre. Some have worked with AST during previous seasons, most are impressively experienced and all are incredibly talented.
The 2016 AST season includes three of Shakespeare’s best-loved and crowd-pleasing plays, two of which are comedies. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the relationship drama among a group of friends spins out of control thanks to the interference of mischievous fairies, and in Twelfth Night, a young shipwrecked woman pretending to be a man becomes comically entangled in a local love triangle. The levity of these will be countered by the production of Romeo & Juliet, the well-known tragedy of star-crossed lovers (a concept Shakespeare invented) who defy the history of their warring families to be together. The musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story, provides a recognizable and illuminating American spin, with song and dance.
Support performance arts in Arkansas and Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre by seeing one of these captivating performances. You can catch them this summer at the University of Central Arkansas in the green by McAlister Hall or in the Reynolds Performance Hall. As an exciting additional opportunity, see an exhibit titled “The Book that Gave us William Shakespeare” in UCA’s Baum Gallery of Art in conjunction with a play; a rare copy of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623 will be on display and will add depth to your experience. If a trip to Conway sounds unlikely, look for an opportunity to see Twelfth Night as it tours the state, making stops in El Dorado, Petit Jean Mountain, Bentonville, and Little Rock.
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