By Bridget Ortigo
Longview News Journal
Texas Shakespeare Festival Founder Raymond Caldwell thought the two actors sitting across the table from him at Chili’s in Kilgore almost a year and a half ago were jesting with him.
“I actually laughed when they told me they wanted to leave New York City and move to Kilgore to work with the festival,” Caldwell said.
Actors Matthew Simpson and Meaghan Sullivan are now both full-time artistic associates with the festival, but the couple shares one salary. The duo have performed in Texas Shakespeare Festival plays for years.
“Something you learn after a while in this business is that a theater is a theater is a theater,” said Simpson, who is originally from St.Cloud, Minnesota. “You can be working at a multi-million dollar theater and the quality of work can be poor or you can be working at a smaller theater getting paid almost nothing and be doing the best show of your life.”
The duo met Caldwell years ago while in acting school. Caldwell met Simpson when Simpson was attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City; he met Sullivan when she was a student at the University of Illinois.
Both auditioned for him but neither was cast on their first try.
“We laugh now about how neither one of us made it after those first auditions,” said Sullivan, who is originally from Lake Zurich, Illinois.
Caldwell later ran into them at the University of Delaware where they had been accepted into a graduate theater program.
“I auditioned both of them then hired both to come down and be in the shows,” he said.
Sullivan has spent three consecutive summers working with the festival while Simpson has worked for two. Both actors also starred in the festival’s fundraising production, “The Book of Luke” in December 2012 and Easter 2013 in which they had to memorize the book of Luke from the Bible.
They told Caldwell their proposal to move to Kilgore and work for the festival that spring, saying they were not expecting any pay from the college or the festival’s foundation. Caldwell said he was flattered but wanted to caution them about leaving their careers.
“They were two talented actors in their prime, living and working in New York City,” Caldwell said. “I couldn’t offer them a salary, and I didn’t know if they would feel fulfilled in a town the size of Kilgore.”
They told Caldwell they were going to move, and they would find odd jobs to make ends meet.
“They said they were coming, and if I didn’t want them in my way to tell them,” Caldwell said. “I’ve never had someone say they will work for me for no pay.”
When Caldwell went to the festival foundation’s board of directors and told the story, he said, several members cried.
“They were so touched that Matthew and Meaghan would be willing to give up their careers to come work for the festival,” he said. “The board took a vote and agreed to write a grant to the college to pay a salary for one of them. The college hired them on so they could have the college’s benefits. Meaghan and Matthew were thrilled when they found out.”
They now work as full-time artistic associates by promoting the festival as well as still acting in the shows. They have attended about 30-35 city organization meetings, speaking and promoting the festival.
“They have traveled as far as Frisco for workshops. Matthew has written 12 grants, two of which he won. Meaghan started the teacher workshops,” Caldwell said.
Since the pair arrived, they have worked to revive the Bard and Breakfast program as well as the “Road Show.”
The couple teamed up with Region 7 Education Service Center for the “Road Show” after receiving a grant from the Rosa May Griffin Foundation. The “Road Show” brings a small version of the festival to public schools in 19 counties.
“We are focusing on education,” Sullivan said. “We are working to reactivate these educational programs. For The Bard and Breakfast, we had 22 educators from all over the state come to learn hands on about theater. They learn how to incorporate Shakespeare into the curriculum as well as how to put on a production while on a budget.”
In addition to the free board, breakfast and instruction, the teachers receive 30 continuing education credits, Caldwell said.
Sullivan and Simpson said not only are they happy in Kilgore, they are blessed and feel like they have “hit the jackpot.”
The couple said the quality of work at the Texas Shakespeare Festival is consistently top notch.
“Our job is better here,” Simpson said. “We are working in theater year round. We’re talking and teaching about the festival, raising money for it and promoting it any way we can.”
“From traveling all over the country doing theater, we have learned that you really do create your own happiness,” Sullivan added. “I’m not sure I could have made the move alone. Being able to come here together with Matthew definitely made it easier.”
On living in Kilgore, the couple said the move was “very different,” but they prefer the town to their last residence.
“We love East Texas. We love what we do. We want the festival to be indispensable to the community,” Sullivan said. “We want to give back to the community and all of East Texas in any way we can.”
Caldwell said the board will meet again this year to vote on whether to extend the grant that provides the couple’s shared salary.
Caldwell said his ultimate goal is to have the couple replace him upon his retirement.
“They have worked tirelessly since they arrived,” he said. “They are such an asset, not only to the festival but the community as well.