Workshops help landowners increase income through outdoor recreation

As a senior wildlife associate with the Natural Resource Enterprise (NRE) program at Mississippi State University, I get asked all the time by landowners about nontraditional ways of earning income from their land. I’m passionate about helping people find ways to increase incomes or build additional revenue from existing assets on their property.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but outdoor recreation is a $145 billion industry in the United States. That’s billion with a “B.” It’s bigger than the entire motion picture industry and the entire airline industries combined. Did you know that nature tourism, including wildlife watching, is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the outdoor industry?

These are just a few of the nuggets you’ll learn about during our workshops, one of which is scheduled for Sept. 24 at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. But those are just teasers. The fact is the bulk of what you’ll learn is:

  • Habitat management.
  • Ways to cost-share conservation practices.
  • Business planning.
  • Customer satisfaction.
  • Legal aspects of recreational businesses.
  • Estate planning.
  • Pitfalls of operating outdoor businesses.

The NRE program has engaged landowners in 10 states and two European countries with research-based information about wildlife and fisheries recreation. Since 2001, we’ve worked diligently to put together more than 200 presentations tailored at helping landowners navigate recreational business and increase incomes from outdoor recreation. Many of our attendees have bolstered previous revenue streams from existing recreational businesses.

Over the past 14 years, we’ve worked with landowners across the Southeast improving habitats for wildlife and fish. From coastal wetlands to the prairies, landowners are all trying to be better stewards of their land and use the latest habitat practices to increase populations of game and nongame animals. Many landowners also understand the advantages of fee-based access to these resources. Landowners are creative, and many have used a lease as their primary profit tool.  Leasing has been around for generations in many cases, and we’re not in the business of trying to increase lease prices on hunters and anglers, but we do try to help landowners understand the actual value of these resources. It’s about knowing what the market will support and how to key in on market indicators that show you how to valuate a property to recreationalists.

Of the landowners who have attended our NRE workshops in the past, 90 percent didn’t have a management plan before they came. A year after attending the event, these same landowners, when surveyed, reported an average annual income of roughly $14,000 on average of 800 acres from natural resource enterprises they established. Astonishingly, this was attributed to increased knowledge of habitat practices and information they learned about recreational business during the event.

Come see for yourself how you can make these ideas work for you. As I mentioned earlier, our next Outdoor Recreation Business Workshop will be Sept. 24 at the Institute. The focus of this workshop will be on land associated with cattle production. However, there will be information valuable to landowners of all types as well.

Registration ends Sept. 17, so be sure and sign up soon. Hope to meet you there.


The Winthrop Rockefeller Collection—archiving the life of the ‘Arkansas Rockefeller’

There are many ways to take the measure of a man—usually by his deeds, his character or his achievements. If we’re talking about the legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller, we can also throw in linear feet. Nine hundred and sixty-seven feet, to be precise—that’s the storage footprint of the Winthrop Rockefeller Collection, the archive that is housed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture in downtown Little Rock. 

To use another metric, that’s 1,934 document boxes. Not including photographs, audio and video. Just the audio portion of the archive—recording of speeches, press conferences, campaign events, etc.—consists of 688 cassette tapes and 1,488 reels. And there are seven collections of photographs.

Six-year-old Winthrop Rockefeller

Received by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1980, the collection documents Rockefeller’s life from his birth in 1912 until his death in 1973.

Beyond his very public life as a businessman, politician, governor and—well—a Rockefeller, the archives also preserve the record of his personal life, including his childhood, young adulthood, service in World War II, charitable activities in New York and his years as a citizen in Arkansas before and after his governorship.

The collection is as varied as life itself. Only Rockefeller’s was not an ordinary life. Along with school drawings and handwriting practice sheets that could have come from the hand of any modern 6-year-old boy, there are candid and formal portraits of members of one of America’s most iconic families. There are boxes labeled with names like Johnny Cash and photographs labeled “Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of England (1957)” or “King Hussein of Jordan (1959)”. Ever heard of them?

Winthrop Rockefeller birth certificate file

You don’t have to be a scholar or biographer to access this fascinating collection—it’s available to the public and fully searchable through the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture online catalog, where anyone can browse through detailed descriptions of the holdings, preview photographs or request online access to audio and video material.

Check it out, if you’re curious to get a sense of the life and times of the “Arkansas Rockefeller.” I think you’ll find it measures up!

Read more from Kyran Pittman at Planting Dandelions.


Counties focus on improving their futures with Uncommon Communities

“There is immense power when a group of people with similar interests gets together to work toward the same goals.”

Idowu Koyenikan

What makes a place a great place to live? For most people, the answer to this question involves some combination of attractive options in employment, education, housing and local amenities, among other considerations. For five Arkansas counties, the answer—and a means of attaining it—lies in a new community and economic development program launched this past weekend at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain.

Uncommon Communities seeks to harness the power of impassioned citizens and show them how to transform their communities—right from their own backyards. It is a pilot program created by the Institute in partnership with Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service’s Breakthrough Solutions program and Vaughn and Sandy Grisham with their renowned community development work. Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties were chosen for the pilot in large part because of their proximity both to the Institute and to each other. Participants represent a wide swath of each community and include business leaders, educators, volunteers, parents, public-sector employees and elected officials.

The program consists of a series of five day-and-a-half-long training sessions at the Institute, during which speakers will be brought in from Arkansas and across the country to share their expertise. These sessions on the mountain will focus, broadly, on leadership, education, jobs, funding and sustainability. Between the meetings on Petit Jean, each county will work with a local steering committee to develop plans and complete projects.

In addition to an introduction from program partners to some of the processes and methodology involved in community and economic development, the first weekend session featured keynote addresses from Bill Fry, a former naval officer and one of the top turnaround specialists in the nation, and Col. Joe Dowdy, retired Marine officer and former senior executive at NASA. Both men delivered inspiring talks on leadership and the power of people who are willing to stand up and do what’s right. A sobering chill suffused the room when Dowdy said, “If you fail, our nation as we know it will cease to exist.”

Those words are a challenge. And according to Uncommon Communities, it is a challenge that has been met and overcome before—by counties just like those participating. To demonstrate some possibilities, Jon Chadwell of the Newport [Arkansas] Economic Development Commission detailed nine areas (and dozens of programs) in which the commission works to improve the town using money from a half-cent sales tax initiative. The tax, which squeaked by with 50.2 percent of the vote in 2002, recently passed again with 76 percent as a result of the highly visible improvements it has funded.

Ben Van Hooser, city administrator of Greenville, Ky., told of how his town of 4,300 earned more than $6 million worth of grants over eight years and completely transformed a downtown that participants called “sad,” “dying” and “dead.” He spoke as before-and-after images of the town were projected onto a screen. No doubt the “after” images, of tailored sidewalks, cheery painted storefronts and concert crowds spilling out of a courthouse square, will have visions dancing in participants’ heads for weeks to come, just as the motto of Van Hooser’s office will ring in their ears: “Don’t tell me why we can’t, tell me how we can.”

If the first meeting had a theme, it was the vital importance of human capital—specifically, the 30-some-odd citizens who had given up the better part of two days to learn about how to make their communities better. Over and over, participants heard a similar refrain: “You are the most important person in the room. You are the ones who are going to do it; nobody else is going to come in and do it for you.”

So perhaps the true answer to the question of place isn’t so much a what, but a who. What makes a place a great place to live? You. The answer is you.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Uncommon Communities program. In addition to highlighting work being done at the Institute, we will be spotlighting each participating community and all the great work theyre doing as a result of their participation in the program. We hope youll follow along with us and join us in cheering them on.


Jayme Mayo champions a healthier workforce, healthier Arkansas

Jayme Mayo is on a mission. Mayo is the director of wellness at Nabholz Construction, and for more than eight years she has been successfully leading the charge for a healthier workforce.

Not only is she using her expertise to help Nabholz but also Arkansans as a whole. Mayo is one of several key advocates who have partnered with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the Arkansas Department of Health, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement to develop a 10-year plan to promote healthy eating and active living in Arkansas.

Her credentials are notable—she is a physician assistant with degrees in physical therapy, exercise and medicine—but she also grew up as a part of the Nabholz family, her father having been a part of the company for more than 40 years.

Nabholz Construction was founded in 1949 in central Arkansas and now has offices in five states and works in 45 states. From the beginning, Mayo said, the company has been recognized for its commitment to its employees. In fact, Nabholz received the Governor’s Work-Life Balance Award in Arkansas in 2008. As a part of its commitment to its employees, Nabholz established a wellness program in 2007 and hired Mayo as its director.

Nabholz started out using the typical wellness program model where employees received points for certain behaviors, such as participating in a 5K or donating blood. However, it was found that this type of program had poor participation and simply wasn’t working. So in 2010, Mayo moved from a participation-based to an outcomes-based program. The focus was on the areas where insurance costs and claims indicated the highest needs: tobacco use, obesity, glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure.  

This move to an outcomes-based program was the key to success. All employees are strongly encouraged to get bi-annual screenings, and they currently have a 99 percent participation rate. Additionally, they started offering monetary incentives for improvements in the focus areas as well as including employees’ spouses, who are also covered under their insurance. Nabholz has now saved more than $1 million a year in insurance costs the past five years, and employees are receiving money for their continued health improvements.

Mayo and her team—which now includes a personal trainer, a dietician and an administrative assistant—use data to drive their priorities. They examine where the most insurance dollars are used and then look for ways to address those specific problems. Much of their effort is in educating employees and their spouses about community resources, such as where to find appropriate care in that community’s region.    

The biggest challenge for the employees, Mayo said, is chronic disease management. Many of their workers travel for projects that may be far from home for months at a time. Getting prescription refills and keeping up with healthy routines is difficult under those circumstances, but the company is currently examining ways to address those needs.

Mayo said her team’s gift is their people skills. They hand deliver many of the screening results and work individually with many of the company’s employees (numbering more than 1,000) to address their specific health needs, offering education, coaching and encouragement. Mayo sees Nabholz employees as her family, and she is proud of the company’s commitment to that family’s health and well-being. She said it is “doing the right thing by our people.”

The success of this program is now nationally recognized. Nabholz was featured in the HBO documentary series Weight of the Nation, and companies around the country call on Mayo and Nabholz to help them establish their own wellness programs. At a time when our country is facing a health crisis in so many areas, an Arkansas company is leading the way to a healthier future.

Read more from Angie Albright at A Growing Season.


The best kind of success

Westrock Coffee is the best coffee I've ever had.

I could tell you all about the richness of its taste, the quality of the beans used, the precision with which it is roasted, and those things all make it a great-tasting cup of coffee.

But these factors are not what put it over the edge to make it the best coffee I've ever had.

The X factor for why I enjoy Westrock Coffee above other brands is that I know with every bag of beans I buy, I'm helping create a sustainable future for people in need.

Woven into the business DNA of Westrock is a commitment to create and sustain opportunities for success for people in East Africa. That commitment has gone beyond just buying and trading the coffee that is produced in countries like Rwanda and Tanzania. Westrock has provided training for local farmers in those countries and invested in equipment for harvesting and processing. This commitment has a dual benefit. For one, it helps ensure that the coffee being produced is of the highest quality. Second, it means that Westrock is staying true to its purpose as a social enterprise - having a positive social impact through good business practices.

Social entrepreneurship is an idea that's been around for a while now. Many credit Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus with being the godfather of social entrepreneurship. Yunus pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance, concepts that Westrock CEO Todd Brogdon worked with in Africa before joining Westrock.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute recently switched all of its coffee products (consumed by customers and guests, plus employees) to Westrock Coffee. That decision was really a no-brainer. By offering Westrock Coffee, we're supporting an Arkansas-based company, but we're also showing our commitment to the concept of social entrepreneurship.

My basic understanding of social entrepreneurship is this: Positive social change can be accomplished through traditional business practices. And by tying social change to a profitable business model, both the social change and the business can be sustainable.

This weekend, the Institute is partnering with the Clinton School of Public Service, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and the University of Arkansas Office of Entrepreneurship to host the 2015 Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp. With the boot camp, we are providing an opportunity for a group of new and aspiring social entrepreneurs to receive mentoring and support in such areas as scalability, legal issues, ethics, impact measurement, pitch training and more.

This model of business is exciting, but it is not yet ubiquitous. There are some great examples here in Arkansas of social enterprises (Westrock, Pitza 42, Tagless), but it's certainly not the norm. Not yet, anyway.

As Eric Wilson, executive director of Noble Impact, recently told Arkansas Business, "Arkansas has all the ingredients to be a thought leader in this field."

We wholeheartedly agree, and we hope the boot camp is a launching point for ideas and conversations that move the needle forward on social entrepreneurship in Arkansas.

While the boot camp as a whole is only being offered to participants who went through a thorough application process, our opening-night keynote address from Steve Clark (7 p.m. Friday, July 17) is free and open to the public, though registration is required. You can read more about Steve Clark here (subscription to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette required), or check out this video of him discussing social entrepreneurship.

The format for the keynote will be an interview of Steve by Talk Business & Politics publisher Roby Brock. Talk Business & Politics has provided great support for the boot camp, as has the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce. We are proud to be working with such great sponsors and partners, and we think the wide interest in this topic is evidence of its growing relevance in Arkansas.

The more social enterprises we have here, the more we as consumers can feel good about the goods and services we purchase, the way I feel each time I take a sip of Westrock Coffee. It's a beautiful thing.


Resident archaeologist retires, reflects on his own past

Arkansas archaeologist Dr. Leslie "Skip" Stewart-Abernathy “refuses to forget what time has buried.” So says The National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Commendation, awarded to him in 2012 for his many professional achievements, including that “he has trained countless volunteers, from young students to enthusiastic retirees, spreading his infectious love of history across the 75 counties of the state.”

Certainly, he has earned the retirement he’s about to take from Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Research Station.

I caught up with Skip just before he had to go deliver supplies for the 2015 Arkansas Archaeological Society Dig and attend the dedication of two memorials at an African-American cemetery he helped to map and record.

Q:  Congratulations on your upcoming retirement!

A:  Thank you.

Q:  How long has your career spanned?

A:  I joined the Arkansas Archaeological Survey in August 1977—almost 38 years.

Q:  Fantastic. Most of your career has been right here in our own backyard—in Arkansas.

A:  It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When I was doing my doctoral dissertation fieldwork in Massachusetts, there was an archaeologist about every 40 feet, it seemed like. And when I came to Arkansas, I had 75 counties to play in. I didn't need to go anywhere else.

Q:  Most people associate archaeology with sites of grandeur. What's so fascinating about excavating ordinary places?

A:  I don't think there are any ordinary places. There are fancy places where governors, kings and pharaohs live and die, but those are complicated sites, and we tend to learn more about governors and kings from them than about ordinary folks. I'm more interested in ordinary folks.

Q:  Can you tell me about one dig that was particularly meaningful?

A:  Well, there have been many. One was Sanders House, in Washington, Arkansas. Washington is one of those places that survived with the landscape somewhat intact from before the Civil War—the town plan is still there.

On the Sanders site, the house was still standing but it had originally been surrounded by lots of buildings, fences and gardens. Supposedly there was a separate kitchen, which we eventually found. These kitchens were not just cooking areas—they were slave quarters. So we were able to explore a whole variety of issues. Among other things, we discovered that these kitchens weren’t separate at all. They were connected to the house by a walkway. The explanations given for why there were separate kitchens—fire dangers, mosquitoes, heat and all those kinds of things turned out to be rather silly. The Sanders house had four or five fireplaces in the house itself. There was just one fireplace in the kitchen. There were no screens then, so there were as many bugs in the house as in the kitchen. It was social separation rather than a physical separation.

By looking ostensibly for a building we were actually looking for a whole way of life.

Our archaeology was part of the process that led to the reconstruction of the kitchen and all its associated outbuildings. 

Q:  I'm fascinated by the work you've done with documenting African-American cemeteries. 

A:  I got involved in cemetery work because the Arkansas Archaeological Society got involved in cemetery work. We got started with a grant program so that black cemetery associations could apply for help in cleaning up cemeteries.

We work with communities to find these cemeteries, to map them, on occasion use fancy toys to find graves. But mainly to record them as cemeteries. Again, ordinary folks.

Q:  Speaking of fancy toys, what's the next frontier in your field? 

A:  Probably remote sensing. Techniques to look into the ground before you dig. Metal detecting is one example, but ground communicating radar, electrical resistivity and magnetometry will find foundations, or evidence of foundations. So we're much more efficient—we can get a sense of what's potentially below the surface. You still get to dig. You just don't have to dig boring holes with nothing in them anymore.

Q:  Just for fun—if you were given a blank check to put toward any archaeological project in the United States right now what would it be?

A:  I'd like to find out more about the first Arkansas post, which we have now found—the 1689-1749 post, complete with a cemetery with Christian Indians buried in it. We found it during a society dig in southern Arkansas County.

We kept finding these caches of brass tinkling cones that were common on Indian and French pioneer outfits that turned out not to be caches at all, but what was left of burials. While we were exploring that, a site survey nearby came up with broken French dishes. It’s since been shown to be the first Arkansas post, one of the first pioneer settlements in the entire Mississippi Valley. It was buried by clay from the Arkansas River for many years.

I'd like to find out more about that site. The French would not have made it without the Quapaw, so here's an opportunity to examine Colonial relations between them.

Q:  Any suggestions for ordinary citizens wanting to get involved with archaeology in Arkansas?

A:  Get involved with the Arkansas Archaeological Society. Anybody who wants to volunteer and agrees to the set of ethics can come do real archaeology with us. Right now, there is a dig going on near the Parkin site in eastern Arkansas, with probably 150 people participating, anywhere from age 13 to 95—of which about 20 are professional archaeologists. It’s a great hobby and it's in your backyard. We have chapters all across Arkansas. 

Q:  One more thing: do you own a bullwhip and a fedora?

A:  I haven't been issued them yet! Someone did give me a tricorn hat once, but I've never worn a fedora. And oddly enough, I've never found a use for a whip!


Growing a healthier Arkansas

Most Arkansans aren’t surprised when they hear reports from the United Health Foundation ranking Arkansas 49th in its annual America’s Health Rankings in 2014. Or they might shake their heads when they hear that, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, one-third of Arkansas children entering kindergarten are overweight or obese.  

It’s stats like these that prompted the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to invite more than 60 key advocates to develop New Frontiers in Combating Obesity: A 10-Year Plan for Arkansas.  The soon-to-be-released plan is a collaborative effort of several organizations that have worked to combat obesity in the state. Among those organizations is the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention (ArCOP).

Founded in 2007, ArCOP is a broad coalition of more than 1,200 members who are invested individuals, nonprofit organizations, companies and government agencies. These members work together to decrease obesity by increasing physical activity and providing access to healthy and affordable food for all Arkansans.

ArCOP’s signature project is Growing Healthy Communities, which currently counts 56 counties among its members. Enrolled communities have multidisciplinary teams who develop community and school gardens, walkable cities, farmers markets, community centers that offer cooking classes and gyms, and other elements that afford the community access to physical activity and good food. Batesville and Lake Village led the way in the first years of the program, and Hot Springs and Benton are recent successes.

One of this year’s most successful events in the Growing Healthy Communities project was the Mayors Mentoring Mayors Lunch and Learn Series. Through a partnership with the Arkansas Municipal League, nine mayors from across the state hosted 38 other mayors to share their success stories and strategies for building better communities. Cities whose mayors are knowledgeable and excited about creating healthy communities are the most successful in the Growing Healthy Communities program.

Andrea Ridgway is one of the founding members of ArCOP and is this year’s chairperson. She says that one of the advantages of working as a coalition, as opposed to a nonprofit or a government agency, is their ability to act quickly and with more freedom. The diversity of its membership and leadership team also means that their projects and working groups have a large pool of expertise to draw from. ArCOP is funded through a variety of grant programs, and its member partners attend meetings, participate in the working groups and assist in developing funding opportunities.

ArCOP, like the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and so many others across the state, envisions a healthier Arkansas where all its citizens have opportunities to grow and flourish in communities that support active living and healthy eating.


The social entrepreneurship landscape

The landscape of entrepreneurialism in Arkansas is rapidly evolving. A key element in its development is the concept of social entrepreneurship, or the idea that a business can make a profit while being committed to bringing about positive social change.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the Clinton School of Public Service, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and the Office of Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville are partnering to host the 2015 Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp here at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain the weekend of July 17-19. Teams of aspiring social entrepreneurs went through a competitive selection process to come to the boot camp, and they'll spend the weekend getting valuable input from a host of social entrepreneurship experts, both from Arkansas and beyond.

But we're kicking off the weekend with a public-facing event. Steve Clark, co-founder of Noble Impact - an organization that trains young social entrepreneurs at the high school level - will deliver a keynote address to kick off the Social Entrepreneurship Boot Camp. But instead of Steve simply talking about his perspectives on SE (though that would be sufficiently spectacular), we decided to use a different format, and we invited Roby Brock, editor of Talk Business & Politics, to conduct an interview with Steve.

Roby's interview of Steve, which will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, July 17, is free and open to the public. We just ask that you register in advance so we can manage the numbers. You can register for free for the Steve Clark/Roby Brock keynote by clicking here.

The teams of aspiring social entrepreneurs will be on hand, as will some of our mentors, so it should be a great time to network and learn more about this important topic.


Arkansas MarketMaker highlights local food, brings producers and consumers together

Well-known farmer and author Joel Salatin says, “This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.”

Millions of Americans agree with Salatin, and as a result, the local food movement has grown in the last decade. Beyond just seeking out local food, Americans are also starting to show a real interest in where all of their food comes from. But this comes with challenges.

The challenge for consumers and food-related businesses, like restaurants or grocers, is finding sources for their food. The challenge for producers, like farmers and farm businesses of all sizes, is finding markets and consumers of their products. Arkansas MarketMaker is a solution to these challenges.

MarketMaker is a user-friendly database operated out of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Office. It is intended to help market and connect growers, food producers, retailers, or anyone else with a food-related business to each other and to consumers. Developed by Darlene and Richard Knipe via the University of Illinois Extension Office, the database is used in more than 20 states. Arkansas joined the network in 2010.

So how does it work? Anyone with a food-related business can create a profile with details about what the business does, its location, contact information and other details. MarketMaker then then maps each location and allows users to search by location or business type to find the products they want. For example, in Arkansas a consumer can search for “Tourism” sites and find the Post Family Vineyard in Altus or J & P Ranch in Scott.

As Arkansas MarketMaker program director Beverly Dunaway says, the more participation the database has, the more effective it is for all users, and in the long run, the better it is for the agriculture industry in Arkansas. Farmers probably have the biggest challenge in using the system as they often work long hours and simply do not have the time or energy to devote to marketing their products. MarketMaker makes this aspect of business development fairly simple for busy people. It also consolidates all of their information into one profile so they don’t have to create profiles on multiple directories or databases elsewhere.

Another benefit of participating in this multi-state network is having access to food businesses in other states. If a restaurant in Louisiana is looking for regional produce, it may find a grower in south Arkansas or Mississippi. This type of network can also be a real boon for the farmer who wants to expand his or her sales nationally or for retailers who want to provide regional specialties in their stores or restaurants.

Growers, food producers, retailers, or anyone else with a food-related business is invited to create a profile at Creating an account is free, and Dunaway is happy to help people use Arkansas MarketMaker to its greatest effect. The database is also free to consumers to use to track down their favorite peaches or fish to use at their next family reunion or to find a great corn maze in autumn.


The best ways to take in Shakespeare

As the daughter of a poet and English professor, I was raised on Shakespeare. By the time I was 8 or 9, I knew Romeo’s balcony soliloquy by heart, earnestly asking “What light through yonder window breaks?” My dad took me to film screenings at his college, where I saw Franco Zefferelli’s timeless film version of the star-crossed sweethearts, and sat breathless and agog through Roman Polanski’s gory and macabre Macbeth. We went to drama festivals where I laughed as hard at A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s hapless Nick Bottom as at any of my favorite sitcoms on TV, and fell in love with the feisty Katharina, from Taming of the Shrew, the way other girls my age did with Jo of Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables.

Long before the Bard’s plays were required reading at school, I knew them as pure entertainment – just as Shakespeare intended them to be. And though I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of his written words on the page, and the additional meaning that deep reading can reveal, I ardently believe that any reading of Shakespeare’s plays is hollow unless the work is also seen performed.

This June, WRI is facilitating both, with an in-depth seminar on The Merchant of Venice to be held Friday, June 12, through Saturday, June 13; and an outdoor performance of As You Like It by the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre Saturday, June 20.

The seminar is open to anyone willing to read, discuss, and think deeply about the text. An offering of the prestigious St. John’s College Great Books program, it’s a unique opportunity to engage with a classic work and discover its relevance to modern issues. Participants will be led through two, two-hour small group sessions by Dr. Victoria Mora, vice president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. The program will include accommodations and meals, and materials will be provided.

As You Like It will be staged outdoors, my very favorite way to experience Shakespeare. The first time I saw The Tempest – the story of shipwrecked castaways – was on a wind-swept Atlantic coast, and it was unforgettable. What an equally inspired choice to use the beautiful natural landscape of Petit Jean Mountain as the fabled Forest of Arden for As You Like It. All the world a stage, indeed.

The family-friendly performance, part of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival, is free and open to the public. It’s a great way to introduce kids to Shakespeare, or to acquaint yourself with one of his romantic comedies. But first and foremost, it’s going to be loads of fun. See you there!

Arkansas Women Blogger member Kyran Pittman has been chronicling her "big, little life" online and in print since 2006. Along the way, she became a contributing editor to Good Housekeeping magazine, where her work frequently appears; and the author of a memoir, "Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life," published in 2010 to critical acclaim (including a 4/4 star review in People magazine). A Canadian ex-pat, she lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with her husband and three sons, where she continues to tell her "story of us" at, a Babble Top 100 Mom Blog.