You May Not Know It, But Shakespeare Is Thriving in the Heartland

It’s no surprise to find Shakespeare plays performed in Broadway theaters or outdoors in Central Park, but some of the playwright’s most dedicated communities are sprinkled across the heartland. Theater professionals and enthusiasts in states like Kentucky and Illinois are bringing the Bard to their regions in innovative ways — but not without their own set of challenges. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Jennifer Pennington didn’t get good grades in high school, nor did she excel at sports. 

Instead, she got into acting, much to the chagrin of her parents: “You don’t really want your kid to go into theater because what a way to be broke,” she said. 

But Pennington’s interest in theater persisted throughout her undergraduate years at Lansing Community College in Michigan. It was there that she first studied Shakespeare – and right away, she was hooked.

“You get clues to everything from character to emotions to blocking right in the text, which just blew my mind,” Pennington said. “I quickly realized the commitment that is involved emotionally, intellectually, physically, [and] mentally in doing Shakespeare and I just loved it.”

Pennington participated in Shakespearean plays and festivals throughout her college career and eventually worked as a professional actor in Los Angeles for several years before returning to the Midwest. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Acting at the University of Louisville and recently finished her fifth season onstage with the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in Central Park – the longest-running free and non-ticketed Shakespeare festival in the country. 

Kentucky Shakespeare is a non-profit professional theater company that was founded in 1949 as the Carriage House Players. In addition to their annual outdoor festival, the organization offers the most comprehensive in-school arts education workshops in Kentucky, as well as Shakespeare programs geared towards underserved communities like incarcerated people, immigrants and refugees and veterans. 

These programs help participants hone their emotional expression through high-stakes storytelling and the creative process, said Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s Producing Artistic Director and the director of Shakespeare Behind Bars

“By playing these other parts, they can often learn to better play themselves,” he said.

According to David Rice, who co-founded First Folio Theatre with his late wife Alison C. Vesely in 1996, Shakespeare’s work remains so impactful today because “[his] plays were about real people in real situations. And those translate into any time period.” 

Built on the historic Mayslake Peabody Estate, First Folio’s indoor and outdoor Shakespeare productions have earned Jeff Nominations and Awards for Excellence in Chicago Theater aplenty and garnered recognition from major newspapers in the area

First Folio’s 2010 outdoor production of Twelfth Night, directed by Michael Goldberg. Image courtesy of David Rice.

For Rice and Wallace alike, ensuring equity and diversity across all sectors of their theaters takes center stage. The issue is especially relevant when it comes to Shakespeare, who is, after all, “another old white man,” as Pennington sometimes gets reminded when she covers the Bard in class.

“From the beginning, having been founded by a woman, there has always been a distinct effort to make sure that we were not a male-dominated arts organization,” Rice said. “Out of our 80-plus productions, I think we’ve only had a dozen shows directed by men.”

Likewise, Wallace emphasizes the necessity of representation in the arts. 

“We really work … to make sure that the audience is seeing themselves reflected on the stage. So you’re always going to see a very diverse cast that mirrors the population of Louisville,” he said.

But progressing theater is a tall task in an industry dealing with both funding shortages and a pandemic.

“By the time we founded our theater … we had seen so many really wonderful theaters that produced incredible shows … just not make it,” Rice said. “We get a paltry amount of government financing compared to every other industrialized nation in the world.” 

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, most theaters’ revenue comes from a variety of sources. About half of it is generated by earned income (think ticket and merchandise sales), another 40% comes in the form of donations and grants from private foundations; public funding – be it local, state or federal – comprises the last 10%. 

Kentucky Shakespeare is particularly reliant on private contributions and public funding given that its performances and education programs are mostly free. Around 15% of the company’s annual budget comes from Louisville’s Fund for the Arts, but generally “local funding is very, very small … We’re recipients from the National Endowment for the Arts, so we honestly get more federal funds than we do local or state,” Wallace said.

First Folio’s local funding is also lacking, according to Rice. Since the theater is located outside of Chicago, they are not eligible for any arts funding from Cook County – and the county they do operate in, DuPage County, has little of it to offer despite being the wealthiest county in Illinois.

On top of existing financial struggles, few Midwestern theaters escaped COVID unscathed. Restrictions forced many flourishing organizations to limit or cease operations, resulting in significant revenue losses and increased unemployment rates across the region and the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, the national unemployment rate for actors rose from 24.7% in 2019 to 52.3% in 2020. Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution reported a 54% decline in revenue for tax-exempt performing arts organizations from 2019 to the third quarter of 2020. 

But while many theaters went dark, others adapted. 

“We’re not a massive organization, but I like that because it allows us to be nimble,” Wallace said of Kentucky Shakespeare. 

In the middle of the pandemic, they managed to create a “Shakespeare in the parking lot” production of Macbeth boasting post-apocalyptic scenery and gas mask-clad witches. “It was a massive hit. You’d have all these people locked inside their cars, and I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see us. But at the end of the show, they would honk their horns and flash their headlights,” Wallace said.

For First Folio, forging meaningful connections with patrons proved crucial in weathering the pandemic. 

“Either my wife or I were at the box office every single night. We would get to know all of our patrons –– we would greet them by name, especially our donors,” Rice said. 

These tight-knit relationships had helped First Folio through trying times before, such as the 2008 financial crisis. When his wife passed away in 2016, he was touched by the number of patrons who came to her wake. 

Similarly, during lockdown, “people said, ‘we’re not letting go of our theater’ because that’s what they considered it,” Rice explained. “They had ownership of this theater emotionally.”

First Folio’s 2017 production of As You Like It, directed by Skyler Schrempp. Photo by Maia Rosenfeld Photography, LLC, courtesy of David Rice.

It may not be home to the Globe, but the middle of America is fiercely devoted to preserving the Bard’s artistic legacy. And slowly, people are beginning to realize it. 

“With any arts organization, you wonder how much awareness there is –– especially these days, when people are bombarded with artistic opportunities, both live and online,” Rice said. “I think the members of society are more aware than we worry about.” 

“We see more and more people making [Shakespeare festivals] a tourist destination,” Wallace said.

Pennington is proud of her Midwestern Shakespearean roots. 

“Learning to do Shakespeare in…a little tiny town in Michigan, I was fully prepared to do Shakespeare with the best of them out in L.A.,” she said. “It’s strong. It’s stronger than I ever thought.”


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