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What's Behind This Summer's Record-Breaking Kentucky Shakespeare Crowds?

Kentucky Shakespeare
Kentucky Shakespeare

It’s about 2 p.m. and Kentucky Shakespeare producing artistic director Matt Wallace is sitting in the sweltering heat on a bench in Central Park.

He gestures to the stage: “And in front of us here we have the second show of our season, the history, Richard II, on its first day of tech.”

The season’s first production, “Much Ado About Nothing,” has just closed to record-breaking numbers. Last Saturday, 1,300 people filled the Central Park benches. The night before, there were 1,200.

There are a couple things that are interesting about this situation, namely, if Wallace thinks the numbers will continue climbing, and how they skyrocketed in the first place.

But first, a little context.

Historically, the average number of people that Kentucky Shakespeare would host over the course of a summer season was 12,000. But in 2013, the summer before Wallace started, attendance for the season was much lower.

“We dipped down to 4,800,” Wallace says.

The past two summers, Kentucky Shakespeare has entertained about 25,000 people.

Part of this, Wallace says, is good luck. The weather has been really nice and they started this season with a popular comedy. Another factor, he says, is more concentrated social media marketing.

But Wallace says the growth is also driven by something more methodical. Kentucky Shakespeare has been out in the community more.

“This year we toured 80 counties, 23 area parks, all of the Louisville public libraries,” Wallace says. “And my hope is the exposure to us is driving more people to Central Park.”

As to whether Wallace thinks the growth will continue, he acknowledges this year’s audience size so far is exceptional.

“Between acting and directing this is probably about my 12th summer in the park,” he says. “And I’ve certainly never been here when we had 1,300 people in the park.”

This, he says, gives Kentucky Shakespeare the unique opportunity to introduce audience members to some of the playwright’s lesser-performed works — something that really started last summer with “Winter’s Tale” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

“And it continues this summer with ‘Richard II,’” Wallace says.

Previews of Richard II begin on Thursday.