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Does the Colorado Shakespeare Festival deserve a second act?

Does the Colorado Shakespeare Festival deserve a second act?
Jay Vollmar

Under the watchful eye of director Geoffrey Kent, a rehearsal for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's A Midsummer Night's Dream gets under way at the Charlotte York Irey Dance Studios on the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado. Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals," the working stiffs hired to put on a performance for the royal wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, are milling around the space — at least the actors playing these mechanicals are. The play within a play they're attempting is the tragedy of the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. One actor wears a flowing, curly Goldilocks wig. He'll be the lion who terrifies Thisbe, the mechanicals having all agreed in advance that this lion mustn't be so scary that he'll upset the ladies and get them all into trouble. The muscular fellow playing Thisbe slips on a dress. In one corner of the studio, Bud Coleman, chair of the CU theater and dance department, places a pair of shiny pink pointe shoes on his feet, stands and then rises, teetering, to the very tips of his toes. He'll be portraying Starveling, aka the mincing man in the moon, and he's going to have to practice that bourrée. In another corner, a small group that includes one of the play's heroines, Helena, is quietly dancing the Charleston in preparation for an entirely unrelated scene.

Nigel Gore, who's been cast as Bottom, walks to the front. Bottom — as you may remember from your high-school Shakespeare class — is the mechanical afflicted by fairy king Oberon with an ass's head halfway through the play; he's then courted by Oberon's lovely but bewitched consort, Titania. At this point, Bottom's been relieved of that head and reunited with his erstwhile friends; he's Pyramus in their play. Spotting the white scarf Thisbe left behind in her supposed flight from the curly-haired lion, he assumes she's dead and begins to lament and declaim. Gore hurls himself into that declamation with crazed intensity. Rarely has a passion been so torn to tatters on a stage. He roars. He rolls his "r"s ferociously. He staggers. Alliterates. Repeats. The man is beside himself with grief, incandescent with it. Now that his beloved is dead, his course of action is clear: He must kill himself. But how will he do it? Gore raises his wooden sword and examines it. There are so many possibilities.

Kent watches quietly, smiling. Gore pauses and comes forward to confer with him. The two agree that, as Kent suggests, Bottom should try out "five different deaths in pursuit of the perfect one." Obligingly, Gore raises the sword and begins sawing off the top of his own head.

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Just a couple of months ago, it seemed the Colorado Shakespeare Festival might fall on its own sword after this summer, ending an institution that stretches back more than half a century. The CSF got its start in 1944, when James Sandoe began mounting plays at the just-completed Mary Rippon Theatre, an open-air venue on the Boulder campus; it became an official entity in 1958, operating in association with CU and under the auspices of the College of Arts and Sciences. The festival boasts a professional company that stages several Shakespeare works every summer, with occasional forays into the work of other playwrights. When Philip Sneed became the artistic director in 2006, he made those forays more frequent, with varying success. But Sneed left in January to become executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities (see story, page 16); Todd Gleeson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the festival, retired last year.

That's when incoming dean Steven Leigh began asking penetrating questions about the festival, including the reason for its budget overruns. The college contributes around $165,000 annually to the CSF's overall budget of about $1.4 million. Despite this contribution, the festival usually ends each year in the red. And in June 2012, the College of Arts and Sciences had to cover cumulative losses of $984,889 that had occurred after 2007; six months later, the CSF ended its fiscal year still $117,315 in debt. Because of the losses, and because the state legislature's shrinking contribution to the university's budget meant the festival was supported more and more by student fees, Leigh was adamant that CSF activities should be integrated more fully into CU, furthering the academic mission and supporting student learning.

Over the past few years, there has been little passionate support for the festival, even from those who should be its primary constituents. Shakespeare lovers found the productions uneven — occasionally excellent, more usually somewhere between workmanlike and downright amateurish. And many critics felt there was no reason for the festival's lackluster performance either artistically or financially. Why couldn't the CSF, with its long and sometimes illustrious history, be one of the best Shakespeare festivals in the country? The town alone should be a draw for summer visitors, with all of Boulder's bookstores and coffee shops, excellent bars and restaurants, beautiful trails and plethora of athletic facilities. But out-of-town scholars, Shakespeare aficionados and cultural sightseers just weren't showing up. As for talent, actors and directors across the country, even well-known ones, needed jobs and were available, but while the festival did sometimes hire from California or New York, most of those outsiders turned out to be less than stellar. Meanwhile, although Sneed did negotiate a contract with Actors' Equity allowing him to cast some first-rate professional local actors, many of them from the Denver Center, a lot of Colorado's best performers — who would have cost far less than the out-of-towners to bring in and house — continued to be passed over. The festival had even been selling far fewer tickets than it once did to people who actually live in Boulder and Denver.

 

True, there have been unavoidable challenges. How do you appeal to young people when so many of them are intimidated by Shakespeare or think of him as obscure and out of date? And even if you could convince them of the playwright's relevance, students at both CU and local high schools are scarce in the summer, so you can't swell audience numbers with busloads of youngsters who've been assigned to attend the plays. The venue itself, the open-air Mary Rippon Theatre, is a mixed blessing. The setting is beautiful, and audience members find it pleasant to settle into those semi-circular rows of concrete seats — mercifully softened these days by cushioned, fold-out, festival-provided chairs — to watch dusk fall, drink cider, listen to birdsong and laughter, and wait to be entertained. Even bad weather doesn't necessarily hurt, unless it causes actual cancellation. Handled by inventive actors, Colorado's rainstorms can add excitement and surprise to the action.

What doesn't add anything positive is the sound of traffic from nearby Broadway — which would have been much less of a problem when the theater was first constructed, says interim producing artistic director Timothy Orr. And it obviously diminishes audience enjoyment, particularly for those struggling to understand Elizabethan speech in the first place, when an entire chunk of dialogue gets whipped away by the wind or the actors find themselves forced to face forward and yell to be heard instead of interacting naturally with each other.

Last summer, after years of discussion on the topic, Sneed brought in amplification — and it proved a blessing. The microphones were skillfully positioned and really did help, though amplification also has built-in drawbacks. When you're speaking the lines, says director Kent, who has played several major roles on the Mary Rippon stage, "you want to be able to riff like jazz. With amplification, when you decide you're going to boom a line you didn't boom yesterday, you're going to top out the mic. On the other hand, the mics really do widen your range of choices and open options for the actor."But if from the outside the Shakespeare-festival landscape seemed infested with dragons, quicksand and thorny woods, that's not at all how things look from the inside today. Talk at length to Kent, interim director Orr, board president Kathryn Keller or dean Leigh these days, and you sense an energy that goes beyond routine anticipation: exuberance and a genuine sense of rebirth. Change is in the air, they say. The festival is coming to life, and all kinds of good things are becoming possible on both the artistic and the management fronts. Several corporate sponsors, including Blue Mountain Arts, Elevations Credit Union and Wright Water Engineers, have stepped up their contributions. Marketing and public relations started earlier than usual this year and have been made more efficient; there's a new, better-looking and more informative website. As a result, ticket sales are off to a roaring start: As of last week, $65,000 more had been taken in at the box office than at the same time last year. A shout-out in last week's New York Times, which identified the CSF as Colorado's hottest summer ticket, hasn't hurt, either. "Anyone wanting to get tickets should do it soon," says Orr. "They're flying out."

Orr arrived in Boulder as an actor in 2009, having been the general manager of the Sacramento Ballet for four years, and joined the festival staff two years later. Leigh attributes a great deal of what may well be a successful turnaround to Orr. "He's in the interim position," Leigh says, "but he hasn't just taken a caretaker role. He's been very active, and he's doing an outstanding job."

The search for a new artistic director is under way, and this person could be either a faculty member or a visiting artist. For his part, Leigh is hoping for an endowed chair that "could attract a strong, high-quality artist" and help the festival financially, as well. As for the academic connection the dean envisions, there is already a lot more interaction between faculty members and the fifteen-person festival board, according to Keller. Spring saw a series of CSF-sponsored events — films, panels and lectures — under the title "Spring Into Shakespeare." This summer, Harry Berger, an eminent Shakespeare scholar, will be teaching a class called "Shakespeare in Performance" through the English department, and one of the festival directors, Jane Page, will teach a class in the theater and dance department. And, yes, students in both classes will not only attend all summer productions, but they'll also watch rehearsals and interact with the artists.

 

Leigh's plans for reorganizing the College of Arts and Sciences include the creation of a school of fine arts that will bring together the existing departments of theatre and dance, art and art history and the film-studies program, and create a curriculum that crosses disciplines and includes an arts-management course. The CU Art Museum, the Brakhage Center Symposium and the Shakespeare Festival would all report to this school's director, and Leigh hopes that a center for Shakespeare studies will emerge there.

Leigh saw the CSF's Richard III — also starring Gore — on his very first day on the job last summer, and it convinced him of the festival's worth, despite its financial problems. The production also suggested possibilities for the kind of academic inquiry he'd like the festival to inspire. A skeleton believed to be Richard's was discovered last fall in a parking lot in Leicester. Those bones raise interesting questions, Leigh says, the first of them being, "Is it actually Richard III? To my knowledge, the analyses haven't gone through peer review yet. They have some data, but DNA can be kind of tricky. I'd like to see the data they have and analyze it.... The entire issue is fascinating, a wonderful blend of science and art."

Leigh is a biological anthropologist; he's particularly interested in Shakespeare's "attentiveness to human biology" and apparent prescience on some contemporary scientific issues. "Shakespeare gets my attention when he talks about how humans grow and develop," Leigh says, pointing out that in The Tempest, Prospero calls Caliban "a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick," which anticipates the contemporary nurture-nature debate in all its complexity. And then there are the famous words of Jaques in As You Like It: "And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe. And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale." These words, Leigh says, cohere with a theory of aging put forward in 1957 by George Williams, who argued that the same genes that "make us good when we're young make us bad when we're old. Genes that make babies cause problems in later life. For instance, high blood pressure is good for a male trying to attract a mate, not so good when he's older."

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Geoffrey Kent is rehearsing another scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream — which will open the festival on Friday, June 7 — at the studio, the floor of which has been marked with tape to simulate the dimensions of the Mary Rippon. Kent's Helena, Taylor Fisher, an expressive redhead, is pursuing Demetrius (Sammie Jo Kinnett), with whom she's in love. But Demetrius loves Hermia, who loves Lysander, so even though Helena trails him like a lovestruck puppy, blocks his way, grovels, yells, weeps and at one point bares her shoulders seductively, he grumpily resists her overtures.

Kent is the kind of director actors like to work with. He comes to a project with clear and specific ideas, but he's just as interested in the ideas of his cast. "When actors do things at auditions, they're also gifting you with ideas," he'd said earlier. Now he allows the scene to progress uninterrupted, absorbs the actors' interpretations, makes a suggestion or two — keep this, develop that, drop this other, try this move — and watches again. His own predilections as a performer serve him well. He's deeply invested in Shakespeare's language; before the company began on-their-feet rehearsals, he'd had them read the script together several times and discuss punctuation, word choice and meaning. But he's also a very physical theater artist, in demand from companies nationwide to choreograph stage fights; he's intensely alert to an actor's physicality, the way the body moves and communicates meaning on stage. There's lots of scuffling and running around in this scene, and at one point a frustrated Helena leaps onto Demetrius's back. But the slapstick doesn't come at the cost of the language. During the course of the afternoon, Kent and his actors find varying colors in the text, so that in a scene often played for laughs alone, there's a moment when Demetrius actually softens toward the desperate Helena. Or at least he suddenly notices her pretty white shoulders.

 

Some of Kent's casting is unconventional. Hermia, another intensely physical role, is played by Jenna Bainbridge, a beautiful young actress who has appeared in a number of Phamaly (Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League) productions and who has a pronounced limp. Even this early in the rehearsal process, it's clear she and Kent intend to make full and expressive use of this limp — whether for comedy, pathos or irony — rather than trying to minimize or hide it. And while in most productions Oberon's fairy servant Puck is played by a nimble young boy, or at least someone profoundly ethereal and otherworldly, here he's portrayed by Larry Hecht, one-time head of acting at the now-defunct National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, as a lumbering, slow-moving workman, stubborn and lazy, the kind of guy you'd find on a long coffee break while your toilet overflowed. This interpretation gives a whole new meaning to Puck's promise to Oberon to "put a girdle about the Earth in forty minutes."

Sneed, who selected the summer's program with Orr, was originally scheduled to direct Dream himself. By the time Kent was tapped by Orr, auditions were only six days away. After that, there'd be a mere three weeks to rehearse — and while all the directors have only three rehearsal weeks, the others had months to map strategy and confer with CSF designers and tech people. Kent has a lot of on-stage experience (he's won two Westword Best of Denver awards) and has done some directing. But though he'd been closely involved with the Shakespeare festival for many years, he has never directed for the company before.

"I saw my first Shakespeare play at the festival in 1990," he says. "It was Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tony Church [formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company]. I fell in love with Shakespeare on the spot. I was in junior high, and I'd never seen anything like it. I had read it, but I hadn't seen it done by actors. Until you see an actor bring the text alive, you haven't seen Shakespeare.

"Also, it was the first time I'd seen a sword fight on stage. It was like watching an action movie."

As soon as Kent accepted the job, he began reading and re-reading the script: "I immersed myself in it. Dream is a near-perfect Shakespearean comedy, and my primary goal was to not pick an interpretation that would get in the way of the play."

He finally decided — having watched his mother binge on Downton Abbey — to set his version of Dream in the English countryside of the 1920s. This was a time of profound change, he points out, with "jazz music just coming into England and exploding, the raunchiness of the songs, hemlines rising" — and women rebelling against the status quo and seeking suffrage. All of the women in the play "either have a voice or find their voices," Kent says. There's Hermia, who defies her father and runs off into the forest to unite with her beloved Lysander; Helena, who also defies convention to pursue Demetrius; the woman warrior Hippolyta, about to marry her conquerer, Theseus, as the action begins — and very clearly not entirely conquered; and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in some ways profoundly regal, but in others deeply vulnerable to her partner, Oberon. Since Titania and Oberon are magical beings, their shifting and strife-ridden relationship influences the health and fertility of the entire countryside.

"Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, the humor in Dream comes from the women's fierce independence," Kent says. "Hippolyta can't believe Theseus would order Hermia to marry a guy she doesn't love or go to a nunnery. Hermia can be played like a cheerleader — pretty, and all the boys like her. But it's more fun to explore what fuels her to make her own decisions."

The time period also works for a second, very evocative reason. The fairy world is a huge part of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and 1920s England was obsessed with fairies. A series of photographs of supposedly real fairies was taken in 1917 by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two little girls who lived in the village of Cottingley and claimed to have seen fairies near the stream that ran through their garden. Belief in the supernatural was strong at the time, and most Victorians were quite comfortable with the idea that the countryside swarmed with small magical beings. Half the children in England were being read to sleep at night with Rose Fyleman's famous poem: "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden/It's not so very, very far away/You pass the gardener's shed and you just keep straight ahead—/I do so hope they're really come to stay." Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer, and he used the little girls' photographs to accompany a 1920 article for The Strand magazine. All kinds of debate, excitement and discussion followed. "People then had no trouble believing in the fantastic and the wonderful," Kent says. "Fairies were so in the zeitgeist."

 

The fairies in Dream pose an interesting problem for directors in these more cynical times. Should they be played by dancers, children, lithe adults, ordinary adults, flickers of light? In Kent's production, the ancillary fairies are puppets manipulated by actors, while the primary fairy figures — Puck, Oberon and Titania — are anything but the filmy creatures of Victorian children's books. They come across as regular people who simply happen to have supernatural powers. But in some ways, this matter-of-fact interpretation is right in line with the Victorians' nonchalant belief.

The Demetrius-Helena spat over, the endlessly inventive Gore is again tackling Bottom's suicide attempt. He begins carving away at his chest with that blunt sword, makes an imaginary cavity and extracts his own heart — you can see the thing pulsating bloodily between his hands. Or rather, you think you can. It's a tribute to his insane intensity that when he tosses this invisible heart to the prompter, she holds out her hands to catch it. And then shudders visibly.

**********

The rest of the season promises to be just as heartfelt — and intriguing. Tina Packer, who helmed Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts for three decades, will return to present Women of Will, her extraordinary exegesis on Shakespeare's women, with Gore, her regular acting partner. "When she and Mr. Gore get down to the business of acting, it's not just poetry in motion, it's thought made flesh," said Ben Brantley of the New York Times when the show played in New York. Jane Page will direct Macbeth with Gore — who won a Best of Denver award from Westword last year for his work in the title role of Richard III — in the lead. She has set the play in contemporary Afghanistan. Then there's Richard II, and the comic warhorse The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

But right now, Gore is working on his fourth — or perhaps fifth — suicide, a lewd and graphic variation on the method by which Richard II was murdered: He's sticking the sword up his bum.

Well-wishers are hoping this year's festival won't fall on that same part. While the summer's lineup is promising, the permanent artistic director won't be in place until next spring — so it's too early to know whether this will be a genuine turning point for the festival. What is clear, though, is the devotion of the participants, their deep interest in Shakespeare, and the enthusiasm they're bringing to their myriad tasks.

"Shakespeare just goes so big," says Orr. "Big ideas, big stakes: life, love, mortality, greed, power. However far you as an actor or director think you can go in terms of the emotional stakes, Shakespeare is already there — in fact, much further out, waiting for you."

Kent picks up a period-perfect 1920s toaster and tosses it to Gore: "Try electrocution."

"Sure," Gore says. "Can we plug it in?"

Geoffrey Kent is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Anthony Camera

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