By Jennie Strange
Photos by Brandy Strain
If you talk to anyone involved with the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST) for long, you are bound to hear the word "family." And you don't have to look too deep into the trenches to find out why. Leading this Conway-based company is an extraordinary group who work together to not only bring Shakespeare's plays to life for a new generation, but also strive to create a genuine sense of family amongst their staff, actors, volunteers, and the local community itself.
At the helm of this team is Mary Ruth Marotte, now in her sixth year as the Executive Director. Marotte was first involved with AST through her role as a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), then joined their Board of Directors shortly after. She became highly invested in the mission of the company and thus was the perfect candidate when the Executive Director position became a need.
Rebekah Scallet joined AST as the Producing Artistic Director in 2011. Originally from Little Rock, Scallet grew up watching her father as the President of the board of the Shakespeare Festival of Arkansas, and later moved to Chicago where she herself was involved with the Illinois Shakespeare Theatre.
While the newest hire within the year-round AST staff, Geneva Galloway is certainly not new to the company. As a teenager she watched her siblings take part in the first season's productions. Later, as a student in the UCA Theatre Department, Galloway served as Scallet's administrative assistant and then as summer company manager for four seasons. She took on the newly created position of General Manager in February 2016.
Though the AST rehearsal and performance season is primarily in May and June, Marotte, Scallet, and Galloway work year round to keep the company constantly moving forward. Through weekly team meetings and constant email interaction, they create what Marotte describes as "an atmosphere of mutual respect. We've done our best work in collaboration."
Galloway agrees- "It's nice to be in an environment where they support good and new ideas."
Also playing integral roles in the process of bringing AST's vision to life are Paige Reynolds and Shauna Colclasure-Meador. Reynolds, a professor of English at UCA specializing in Renaissance studies, has long been a part of AST, starting when she was cast in their first production of Romeo and Juliet. She now serves as the company's head dramaturge, a position tasked with providing historical research and context for the each production to the cast and crew. She also initiated an internship program for dramaturgical studies with UCA and AST. Meador, part of the UCA Theatre faculty, holds the position of costume shop supervisor for AST and also manages the production budgets.
Beyond the individual passions and skill sets that each of the above bring to the table, there is something else that makes AST look strikingly different than most regional theatre companies - this leadership team is comprised entirely of women.
"It's rare to have a classical theatre company run by women- it's been a primarily male-dominated world." Scallet explained. "One thing I hear repeatedly from various actors and designers is that they really like that about AST- it's refreshing."
When you realize that AST is run by a group of full-time working women, many of whom have children, you realize why that idea of family resounds throughout the company. "It's challenging to make a career in the arts and have a family," Scallet expressed. "But our team shows other young women it's possible to do both. "
Marotte agrees "There's a real life quality to it. Rebekah and Paige have both been pregnant while working on productions-we've been in staff meetings before where Rebekah was nursing her baby while we're talking about productions . My own kids have grown up around this."
Scallet laughingly recalled the first season she directed as a mother- "There were some 12 hour days where I had to bring my son with me to rehearsals. I would just pass him around to the actors to take turns holding him. It's great that I could do that and make it work."
That same sense of understanding, flexibility, and "make it work" attitude spreads out to the entire cast and crew. Galloway reiterated that the theme of family flows throughout the company, "We try to get the actors out in the community, interacting not just with each other, but also with our board of directors and our audiences."
"We are starting to get a reputation among national theatre and Shakespeare circles for being a great place to work because of the community feel." Scallet stated. "We all really love this festival- there's no way we would do this if we didn't."
To find out more about AST's team and their upcoming 10th anniversary season, you can check out www.arkshakes.com.