Kentucky Shakespeare Organization

Kentucky Shakespeare Organization Keeps Playwright’s Spirit Alive

Photography / Provided

William Shakespeare is likely familiar to all of us as we may have studied his work in school, recited a monologue from or performed in one of his plays, or had the opportunity to see a stage performance of his work.

Our state is fortunate to have a company of actors, costumers, technicians, directors and producers who bring the works of the Bard to life every year, free to the public. They are members of the long-running Kentucky Shakespeare organization that makes its home in Old Louisville’s Central Park.

Kentucky Shakespeare began as the Carriage House Players back in 1949 as a scene study group founded by C. Douglas Ramey. Ramey hailed from Johnson County, Kentucky, moving to Louisville as a government worker during the Depression. He became a well-respected actor, director and producer, bringing theater to life for three decades in our area. Besides founding the Carriage House Players, Ramey organized the Paintsville Little Theater and the Clarksville Little Theater. He passed away in 1979, yet his memory lives on as the theater in Central Park has been dedicated to him and is known as the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater.Kentucky Shakespeare Organization

According to Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, the idea to present the Shakespearian plays began in 1960 when the St. James Court Art Show invited the company to perform scenes from the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“That was the seed for free Shakespeare in the Park,” Wallace says. “Then in the following year, Ramey produced a three-show season and called it a festival, which was the beginning of what patrons can see today. This is our 61st year. We believe Shakespeare belongs to everyone, not just those who can afford a ticket. For us it’s all about removing barriers between people and art, in many different ways.”

There are “three buckets” to what the company presents. This includes their educational programs for students ages three and older, their community outreach, and their free Shakespeare in the Park presentations.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic and having restrictions placed upon large gatherings, Kentucky Shakespeare served 71,000 students in 97 counties across the region, bringing their actors to schools for in-person performances. “We’re the most comprehensive in-school arts education provider in Kentucky,” Wallace says.

Once the pandemic hit, the company switched their educational programs to virtual and digital formats. Although they didn’t have the opportunity to do live performances, they were still able to serve 40,000 students in 42 counties in 2020.

Kentucky Shakespeare OrganizationThe company’s community outreach programs are quite inspiring. They have their nationally recognized Shakespeare with Veterans program, their Shakespeare Behind Bars program, Survivorship Shakespeare, and their Touring Arts for Immigrants and Refugees.

The Shakespeare with Veterans program is in its fifth year, with Kentucky Shakespeare partnering with the Louisville Veterans Center. “Amy Attaway, our Associate Artistic Director, is the facilitator of that program,” Wallace says. “They meet weekly, and after a year, they present their work on our stage in the park. It’s a band of brothers and sisters that meet as a support group, a group where they learn about themselves and connect with others.” The program received national and international attention as it was featured on BBC Worldwide and in the Huffington Post.

“Shakespeare Behind Bars is actually a very unique program celebrating twenty-five years at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange. I’m in my 13th year of being the volunteer facilitator of that program,” he says. “We have an inmate ensemble there and we produce a Shakespeare play over the course of an entire year.”

The program not about the inmates being actors, Wallace says. It’s more of a therapeutic program taking in accountability and ultimately reducing recidivism.

Survivorship Shakespeare is a program the company started a few years ago to work with those impacted by cancer. They began by partnering with Norton Cancer Institute and now it’s a summer program they offer through Gilda’s Club.   

Their Touring Arts for Immigrants and Refugees program began as a non-verbal clown show based on a Shakespeare play. “This year we actually pivoted and took two of our popular programs for young students, Bard Buddies and Fairy Tales from Around the World, and we adapted them to Spanish. We provide them for places such as the Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs,” Wallace says.

In the spirit of reaching out to a wide number of communities, Kentucky Shakespeare presents a springtime tour each year of one of their plays in an abridged format. This past spring, from April 17 to May 28, the company performed a ninety-minute version of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ These free performances ‘pop up’ at 25 parks in the Kentuckiana area, and beyond. Some of the parks they visited were The Maples Park in Crestwood, Big Four Station Park in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Norton Commons in Prospect, and at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville.

Once summer rolls around, the company heads ‘home’ to begin their summer festival season at Central Park.

The free Festival began on June 16, presenting a live stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film ‘Shakespeare in Love’ running through July 31. The company will also perform ‘Henry V’ from July 8 through August 1, and their Globe Players, a professional training program for high school students, will perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ August 4-8. Other summer performances include ‘Late Night Shakes,’ on select Saturday evenings, presented by the Louisville Improvisers, and from August 11-15, patrons will be treated to ‘Shakespeare in Dance,’ presented by the Louisville Ballet.   

Although last year was different for the organization, they came up with creative ways to continue to perform. During the fall the company holds ticketed events as part of their fundraising efforts, and last year they presented what they called ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.”

“It was absolutely incredible,” Kentucky Shakespeare Board of Directors Chairwoman Elizabeth Cherry Siebert says. “It was probably one of my favorite theater experiences in my life. Matt Wallace and his team came up with this concept to do a drive-in performance, but have it also be a radio program. You were able to tune in through your radio to the actors’ microphones, and they built an elevated stage in the parking lot across from the zoo, and cars were able to park in a circle. You were able to hear the actors, sound effects and music through your car radio. People in their cars were socially distanced in their vehicles. It was immersive and fabulous. It was a way to feel alive again. It was just a wonderful experience.”

Siebert is excited for what’s on the horizon for Kentucky Shakespeare’s future. One of their current projects is to open their new headquarters, located on Myrtle Street, just a few houses away from Central Park.Kentucky Shakespeare Organization

“Prior to this new location we were housed in ArtSpace, a Fund for the Arts- owned building, next to Brown Theater, and we were there for years,” she says. “We’d been looking for a new home for quite a while, and then this property came available. We’re renting the facility but we’re renovating the interior for our purposes. It will have our offices, and directly adjacent to that is a storage house where we have our props and costumes. It’s the first time in years that our headquarters, since the Carriage House Players days, will be so close to where we do our summer performances.”      

Siebert refers to this period as the organization’s ‘Golden Age.”

“We’re building a new headquarters, we’ve seen a lot of growth in the community, and we’re forming more community partnerships,” she says. “It’s the best time to be involved with this organization.”

If you would like to learn more about Kentucky Shakespeare and its schedule of performances, or how you can become involved with programs such as Camp Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Libraries, workshops, employment, volunteering and more, visit their site at

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