Blue Sail Coffee in Conway—with its exposed-beam ceilings and tea-filled apothecary jars just begging for a sniff—is charming, sure. But I had a much different setting in mind for meeting Rebekah Scallet, the producing artistic director of the annual festival known as Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre.
I was hoping for swirls of brightly colored costumes and classically trained thespians treading the boards of the Reynolds Performance Hall on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where the majority of the festival’s performances take place each summer. But as those who live in the theater world know, you often don’t get to choose for yourself: That’s up to the director.
This was a painful lesson Rebekah learned early on, when, as a child, she auditioned for a role in an Arkansas Arts Center production of Pollyanna—which she “really wanted to be in”—only to lose the part to none other than first daughter Chelsea Clinton. (“One of the great tragedies of my childhood,” Rebekah says.)
Now, Rebekah is the one in charge—and she has been for half the life of the AST. Because rehearsals for the season, which opens June 10, don’t even start for three weeks, Rebekah brought me to downtown Conway to discuss growing up dramatic, Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre’s 10th anniversary, and exactly how she manages to mount four full shows in just over four very full weeks.
Did you always know you wanted to be involved in theater?
I was always a very dramatic child, my parents would tell you. At 5, 6, 7, I was creating my own plays and getting my friends to be in them and telling them what to do. I remember in second grade, somehow my teacher let me write the Thanksgiving play. It was a five-minute thing, but I got to write it, and I got to direct it, and we recently unearthed some footage that my grandfather took of this production, which prominently featured me in the middle of the play stopping what I was doing to go tell other people where to stand and what they should be doing. So I definitely think the theatrical desire was already there.
It sounds like Little Rock was a great place for dramatic young Rebekah to grow up.
I did the Summer Theatre Academy at the Arts Center, and also, I went to Booker Elementary School—they didn’t have a drama program, but they had the other arts. And I went to Parkview Arts/Science Magnet; it’s just such an excellent school, and Fred Boosey, the main acting teacher there, really believed in giving students opportunities to be leaders and to make art. [I directed] a courtroom murder mystery, and we did it in, like, three different courtrooms in Pulaski County. We did the performances in actual courtrooms! I think that having that opportunity to really take ownership of a project—not just be in the high school musical but create it and take that leadership role—was really special, and was the first time that I thought, Hey, I can do this. This directing thing feels like something I could do.
So how did you end up at Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre?
I went to Brandeis outside Boston for college and then after that moved to Chicago—really started my professional theater career there. I was there for 10 years, including a brief stint in central Illinois for grad school, where I got my MFA in directing and met my husband, Joe, [who is a technical theater director]. [Five years ago], we were both kind of ready to leave, ready to do something different. We sort of said, “OK, whoever finds a job first, that’s what we’ll do.” UALR posted a technical director job, and I found it and showed it to him and said, “Hahaha, look at that! We could move to Arkansas.” And Joe, who grew up all over because his dad was in the Coast Guard, said, “I would love to move to Arkansas.” So he applied and got it.
I had sort of decided I was just going to cobble things together, and then, like, a few days later, they posted the artistic-director job at UCA with the Shakespeare Theatre, and it was just perfect. I had been working a lot with Illinois Shakespeare Festival and had worked some with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Shakespeare had started to become something that I was really interested in, so it was just the perfect fit, and it all worked out.
When I was growing up, my dad was a research scientist for the National Center for Toxicological Research and, even with his science brain, was a big art and theater lover as well. And he was also a huge Shakespeare lover. That’s sort of where the Shakespeare obsession began. He actually—when I was finishing high school—got on the board of the old Shakespeare Festival of Arkansas. It went under, sadly, but now it’s like I’m carrying on that torch.
What’s special about this summer, being the 10th anniversary and all?
The Folger Shakespeare Library [in Washington, D.C.] created a program to bring Shakespeare’s first folio to every state in the U.S. in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death; we applied and won the opportunity to bring the folio to UCA this summer, and the dates they gave us were going to coincide with the festival but go all the way until July 12. We normally end the festival at the end of June, but we thought, since we have the folio, and since it’s our 10th anniversary, it would be a great year to add more performances—really try to give as many people the opportunity to [attend] as we can.
We’re also creating an AST retrospective exhibit in the Baum Gallery, so when you come see the folio, you’ll also get to look at the 10 years of AST with some photographs and props and costumes—sort of see where we started and where we’ve gotten to. And we’re doing all kinds of educational activities as well. We’re doing workshops—Shakespeare workshops and folio workshops—and we’re having panels and guest speakers.
That’s a lot of culture going on in Conway.
We’ve been working on some big things—our short Shakespeare has really grown. We started with just productions at Reynolds during the summer, and then we started to take it to other places. We found that there was a demand from other parts of Arkansas to have shows and that the short show was sort of perfect to take around because it was more portable. And we had great success, so we really started to tour it: We went from two shows off the UCA campus, to last year we had seven, and this summer we’re going to have 10 at different locations around the state. And new for this year, we’re going to bring back as many actors as we can and remount Twelfth Night in the fall and go to schools! One thing that I really miss about the timing of when our Shakespeare Festival happens is that school isn’t in session anymore, and we kind of miss that opportunity to really reach students. We got a grant from Toad Suck Daze to support it, so right now, we just have a plan to tour in Faulkner County schools, but if we can get more funding, we’ll try to extend that.
Any other big plans for AST in the future?
I think getting the educational arm—reaching more people—is something we’re very invested in, because I think getting young people to see Shakespeare before they read it in school can really change their lives and open them up to the possibilities that are there. I think so often that when a kid first encounters Shakespeare in an English class—it’s something that’s required, and the language is hard, and it feels like so much work—that they don’t enjoy it. Getting kids to see Shakespeare can lead them to have a positive view of it so that when they then encounter it in an English class, they’re excited to study it.
You have a pretty dreamy job, you know.
I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect job for what I wanted to do.