Brantley and Madison Dunaway Bring Their Love of Theatre to Louisville
For the 52nd year, the social movement and cultural treasure known internationally as “Shakespeare in the Park” will return to Louisville’s Central Park, bringing free performances of a Gunsmoke-meets-Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to all who want to enjoy the communal experience of theater in a civic space. NFocus spent some time getting to know Kentucky Shakespeare’s Producing Artistic Director and CEO Brantley Dunaway and his wife, award-winning actress Madison Dunaway, along with the cast of Much Ado About Nothing. What we have to share with you is nothing short of the transformative enchantment you would unexpectedly find in the best of Shakespeare’s “Green World.”
In their love for one another, Brantley and Madison Dunaway are much more like Much Ado About Nothing’s innocent, young lovers, Claudio and Hero, than the play’s counterpoint couple, jaded, barbed-tongued Benedick and Beatrice. However, in their professional roles, Brantley and Madison resemble the brilliant director Kenneth Branagh, who played Benedick in his 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado, and the formidable actress Emma Thompson, who played Beatrice to his Benedick at the time she and Branagh were married.
Brantley, a former film producer, and wife Madison, an award-winning actress, left successful careers in Los Angeles in 2010 so that Brantley could take the position of Kentucky Shakespeare’s Producing Artistic Director and CEO. With Brantley busy at the Kentucky Shakespeare office, preparing for the arrival of the festival actors and the start of Much Ado About Nothing rehearsals, and Madison busy with 4-year-old Savannah Belle and 2-year-old Finnleigh Mae, we decided that an interview in the evening at their home would be best.
It’s 8:00 on a stormy Wednesday evening and we’re seated in the Dunaway’s comfortable living room, where Brantley and Madison are telling me their love story. As one talks, the other watches closely, waiting to delight the other with a recollection of their nearly thwarted romance, which began in the theater and owes much to an uninvited, staged kiss. “We met 3 times over the course of 5 years,” Brantley says.
The first meeting took place at the University of Colorado, where Brantley, a graduate student, was booking swing dancers for the university’s Glenn Miller Ballroom, and Madison, an undergraduate theatre major, showed up to audition. “She looked like a postcard image from the 1950s, with bobby socks and a tight sweater, performing these aerial dance moves,” says Brantley, who describes himself as being in the middle of a hippie/grunge phase. He was immediately smitten with Madison, a fresh-faced ginger beauty with a sprinkle of freckles across her face. Madison, however, was interested only in the dancing gig.
The second meeting, a year and a half later, took place at the Denver Civic Theatre, where Brantley was casting for the upcoming season’s 24 productions. Madison says she didn’t recognize Brantley, who had cut his hair and shaved his beard. He, however, immediately remembered the swing dancing red head and was so impressed that he wanted to cast her in a dream line-up of leading roles: Dracula’s Lucy, Hamlet’s Ophelia, and Lonesome West’s Girleen. When she received his call, Madison was literally driving a moving van to San Francisco and was unwilling to turn around. “Oh, the arrogance of youth,” she says, laughing.
Almost two years passed before they met for the third meeting. Having returned to Colorado Springs to help her mother recuperate from a skiing accident, Madison called Brantley to ask if he remembered her and if he was currently casting, to which Brantley replied, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I totally remember you. How do you feel about being naked?” Brantley’s self-deprecating self-impersonation cracks us all up. “Oh, my god, I sound like such the stereotypical casting director,” he says, laughing harder. While Brantley’s inquiry was professional and pertained to his casting of the ingénue in Dangerous Liasons, Madison, again, was not interested and declined the role, which requires full on-stage nudity.
As with all three previous encounters, Brantley and Madison’s first kiss took place in the theater. Cast together in Measure for Measure, they were given the directive to kiss during the brothel scene. “The first time we practiced the kiss, Brantley had like 10 tic tacs crammed in his mouth,” Madison says teasingly. “Not ten,” Brantley corrects, slightly embarrassed. “Maybe 3 or so.” Then he takes over the storytelling to explain how those stage kisses led first to friendship—snowbound days spent listening to Eddie Izzard—and ultimately to a surprising proclamation of love. They were both staying at the 5-star Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs on a work trip (separate rooms) and Brantley says, “We had taken a walk around this picturesque pond and stopped to swing. Maddie looked at me and said, ‘I’m in love with you.’ That’s when we had our first real kiss.” Madison puts her hands up to her face and tells him, “You’re going to make me cry.” As if on cue, a thunder clap sends little Savannah, in her Snow White nightgown, running downstairs into Madison’s arms, where she buries her towhead. In their living room, a floor lamp designed to look like a movie light shines on pictures of a modest wedding staged at Madrona Manor, a little vineyard in Sonoma.
After Savannah was born, they started to think seriously about leaving Southern California. Both had successful careers: Madison won much critical acclaim as Agnes in the play Agnes of God, including a Theater Critics Circle Award, a Robby, and an LA Critics Award. “It was a life changing role,” she says. She went on to play Nyla in Princess Diaries 2. Brantley was producing movies, among them film adaptations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Yet, they were willing to leave all that behind in order to pursue a better quality of life for their family. The position of Producing Artistic Director/CEO at Kentucky Shakespeare offered what they were looking for—a career that would allow them to follow their double heart and its shared love of the theater to a city where they could comfortably raise their family. They say they’ve fallen in love with Louisville, and they are enjoying a two-story suburban home and green space unheard of in LA. Savannah and Finnleigh have helped plant wild flowers, tomatoes, beans, melons, and pumpkin seeds in their backyard garden.
As Madison explains, “One of the reasons that KY Shakespeare was so appealing to us is the legacy it already has in the Louisville community, and although the company has given over 60 years of entertainment and enlightenment to the city, we saw the potential for it to grow into something even more dynamic that could be a continuing legacy for our children and Louisville’s next generation.”
The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Present
This summer’s Shakespeare Festival in Central Park will feature its most popular and most often performed play, Much Ado About Nothing, the first play ever performed as part of the free summer series in 1960, when it was directed by C. Douglas Ramey. Although Brantley has an ambitious plan to turn our local festival into a destination model, capable of bringing serious revenue and hordes of tourists to the city, Brantley has stripped the summer series down to July’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will cost $300,000 to produce. “I can’t, in good conscience spend more than the organization can afford,” Brantley says, “and I won’t sacrifice quality for quantity.”
Kentucky Shakespeare, a 501(c)3 organization, meaning it’s charitable and not-for-profit, has been stuck in a profit/deficit cycle for 17 years. According to Brantley, each summer, the organization comes into summer with a profit from their much sought after education programs, then goes into a deficit with summer series production costs exceeding their $700,000.00 annual budget.
Madison, who is clearly a planning partner, fully invested in the future of Kentucky Shakespeare, says, “One of the things the current economy has taught many of us is that the legacy we do not want to leave is one of fiscal irresponsibility and struggle, so Brantley made the wise decision to scale back and get on solid footing before going forward with the new plan. One of the things I have grown to love about this city is it’s passion for the things that are uniquely Louisville’s and we are confident that Louisville will decide that Kentucky Shakespeare is a part of their heritage they want to not only preserve but also nurture as it grows, and that requires financial commitments that foster a legacy that is sustainable.”
Brantley has files of research supporting his belief that Louisville has all of the key elements in place to create a summer Shakespeare Festival such as that in Ashland, Oregon, where a city with a population of 21,000 draws an audience of 400,000 for its Shakespeare Festival. Its $26 million operating budget results in a $321 million annual economic impact for the city. Just as visitors travel from around the country for the Derby and for the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre, Dunaway believes he can build a Shakespeare Festival that would make Central Park a summer destination for an audience travelling from all parts of the country. In addition to the potential economic impact, a thriving summer Shakespeare Festival would fill the gap left open when the arts season for the ballet, the orchestra, the opera, and Actors concludes. Summer is the time that actors, musicians, and technical experts in Louisville find themselves out of work, and that makes attracting and retaining a permanent residential arts community challenging for the city. Dunaway’s plan for a nationally-renowned summer Shakespeare Festival would mean a stronger economy and a stronger arts community. “A destination model for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival would make it more feasible for artists to live in Louisville year long. It’s about the economic impact,” Dunaway tells me, “but it’s also about supporting families and allowing our arts community to grow.”
You can support our local arts community, help grow a more ambitious Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and have a lot of fun by coming out to Central Park this July to see a “Spaghetti Western” adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing this July. Playing on all the ludic doubling that makes the play such an enduring comedy, this year’s Bonanza-esque production will be full of revolvers, good guys in white hats, villains in black hats, and Shakespearean wit accessible to audiences of all ages. While the festival is free and open to all members of the public, in an effort to heighten the experience and raise revenue, the Festival will also offer for-pay amenities: Adirondack chair seating with bar service for the price of $20 per chair, a full bar, with frozen drinks for those hot summer nights, and wine and cheese picnic baskets. Hey, nonny, nonny!
Story by Laura Snyder | Photos by Ted Wirth, Power Creative | Art Direction by Dan Dry, Power Creative and John Wurth | Styling by Sue Makkoo and Josh Miller
Styling Assistance by Rachel Franke | Hair by Christina Weixler and Myrna Slade | Makeup by Rick Bancroft and Micah Reulas Severo
Wardrobe for Brantley and Madison provided by Rodes, Leatherheads, and October Anniversary