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The show must go on
Shakespeare Festival expands offerings, venues and loses its artistic director.
The fifth year for the Shakespeare Festival of Arkansas won’t be that different from the other four years.
Oh yes, the lineup of plays produced will be different. Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It and tragedy Othello will share the spotlight with the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the children’s show The Tortoise and the Hare. Also, the fifth year of the festival will see an expansion with plays not only staged in the company’s regular space, Reynolds Performance Hall on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, but also outdoors at the Village at Hendrix College and at North Little Rock’s new Argenta Community Theatre. The festival kicks off on Thursday and the curtain won’t come down until the last show at Argenta on July 3.
This year will be different for the Shakespeare Festival as it will be the last year for the artistic director and founder Matt Chiorini.
Chiorini has already moved out of Arkansas and is teaching at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.
“They are working on filing my position,” said Chiorini. “I don’t know how much I am allowed to say about that. This is my final season as producing artistic director.”
Chiorini doesn’t imagine that he’s done with Arkansas or his Shakespeare Festival.
“I’ll find an excuse to come back,” he said. “But it is definitely time for new leadership and new ideas.”
When Chiorini launched his festival in December of 2006, central Arkansas had seen a couple of companies dedicated to Shakespeare rise up and then fade away. Red Octopus, back in the ’90s, staged some ambitious outdoor productions of Shakespeare including the rare Pericles. But the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival did step into a void for fans wanting a more concentrated and dedicated dose of the Bard.
Chiorini, 36, came to the state from Nashville, Tenn., where he was artistic director of the People’s Branch Theatre. He worked in Nashville as a director and actor.
Chiorini’s aim for Arkansas was to have a summer theater festival much like Alabama’s Shakespeare Festival and Stratford’s famed theatrical extravaganza in Canada. Chiorini was able to set up shop at UCA but the challenge of putting on four plays with an army of actors, directors, designers and crew that had to be hired and paid was significant.
“I remember that first season very well,” said Chiorini. “I had to put it together from scratch. I had some seed money but with the fundraising and the staffing — it was a big undertaking. About every day I wondered if it was ever going to work.”
Chiorini wants it known that he’s not complaining. He was happy to take on the task. And the reward for the hours he put in did eventually arrive.
“That first night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was our opening play was such an exciting and validating moment,” Chiorini recalled.
After the high of opening night, the day-to-day scramble continued.
“I think plenty of things have been difficult including the logistics of staging four different plays,” said Chiorini. “But the most challenging thing is converting the many well-wishers to audience members and donors. I feel like we have many people who support us but they haven’t seen a show.”
But there are many of who have. In the four years it has been running, the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival has picked up enthusiastic audiences and many sponsors. The festival has made the cover of the New York Times arts section and received warm reviews for its productions. Chiorini seems to be most proud of the festival’s staying power.
“I can say with certainty there will be another festival next year,” Chiorini noted. “There will always be an element of fragility. But [the festival] hasn’t stagnated this year. It has continued momentum.”
Chiorini said that it is time for him to “not wear as many hats.” He has two small boys and wanted to focus a bit more on them and worry less about money and other details needed to keep the festival afloat.
“At the end of the day I am not a Shakespeare-phile,” Chiorini said. “I am passionate about the theatrical experiences Shakespeare created. Whatever you can imagine, he wrote a role or scene or character for it. To get actors and directors and designers to be in the creative center of that is wonderful.”