Philip Sneed is leaving his position as artistic director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, a position he's held since 2006, at the end of the month. He will become executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, replacing Gene Sobczak, who had left a marketing position at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to head the Arvada Center, and returned to the CSO last year as CEO.
An e-mail that Sneed sent to friends and colleagues earlier this week speaks of his new position as an "extraordinary opportunity" and affirms his ongoing support for the Shakespeare festival -- which last year produced Twelfth Night in conjunction with the Arvada Center.
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"We're really looking forward to having him here," says Arvada Center publicity director Melanie Mayner. "We need somebody who has development skills and also leadership qualities, good community relationships and a very visible position in the community. Philip brings all that to the table. He's proven himself to have great skills in fundraising and donor development as well as creating relationships not only here in the region but nationally and internationally. We know he'll continue to position the Arvada Center as the premier multi-disciplinary facility that it is."
Sneed has served two terms as president of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America. His tenure at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival saw several triumphs: He collaborated with Russia's Maxim Gorky Theatre on a joint production of Gogol's The Inspector General, and last year brought Shakespeare and Company's Tina Packer to Boulder, where she directed a first-rate Richard III starring Nigel Gore (he will return as this year's Macbeth) and, with Gore, performed her own five-part series on Shakespeare's women, Women of Will. This piece will be shown for the first time in New York at the end of the month.
And after years of audience complaints about the problems of sound in the outdoor Mary Rippon Theater, where actors have to compete with the noise of traffic, wind and summer storms, Sneed had last summer's performances mercifully miked.
Sneed "expanded CSF's profile in a big way," says Geoffrey Kent, company actor and a nationally known expert on stage combat and choreography. "He brought in all those crazy Russian actors and Tina Packer, but he also expanded the quality of the acting company by hiring more experienced and Equity actors. Before he came, you had very young casts, thirty-year-olds pretending to be fifty. Now we have age-appropriate actors with Shakespearean resumes. He created a resident company -- and those don't exist any more. As an actor, it's nice to have that relationship with the audience, the confidence of knowing you can take risks and fail and still be back."
The Equity contract is nice too, Kent acknowledges: "Thanks to the union, I have health insurance. And that moves me to tears on occasion." Still, despite the infusion of talent -- a core of actors like Kent, Jamie Ann Romero and Steven Weitz, guest appearances by such Denver Center Theatre Company stars as John Hutton and Leslie O'Carroll -- the festival's offerings have been uneven during Sneed's tenure. Some were stellar. But some visiting directors made unfortunate choices in interpretation, and performances in key roles were occasionally amateurish. Festival productions received mixed reviews, and local awards were few.
Box-office receipts also fell -- in part because of the poor economy. An attempt to stage an annual holiday offering also failed to increase audiences, and between 2007 and 2009, the company had a deficit of almost a million dollars.
As a result, the university's College of Arts and Sciences was given a greater supervisory role. Steven Leigh has been Dean of Arts and Sciences for roughly six months, and worked with Sneed this past summer. "I was impressed with the quality of the festival," Leigh says, "and clearly it's important to the community."
Leigh is still considering how the next directorship should be set up, what the festival's focus should be, and how it might tie in with the academic curriculum. He points out that eminent Shakespearean scholar Harry Berger will teach at CU this summer, and will engage with the festival and the actors. Leigh also hopes the festival will become a draw for students considering summer school. "There are very good resaons we should think about Shakespeare and how the festival fits the academic mission," he explains. "We do have to get past some questions about budget. Those are legitimate issues and we're working on it."
For now, Timothy Orr -- who started work with the festival as an actor in 2007 and joined the staff full-time in 2011 -- will serve as producing artistic director and oversee this summer's schedule: Richard II, Macbeth, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The latter was originally slated to be directed by Sneed; Kent is taking over. Overall, Orr expects the transition to be seamless.
"What I'd like to see us do is concentrate on how can we do Shakespeare really well," says Kent. "Knock it out of the park. Some of it's casting, some of it directing, some of it training. When Shakespeare's done well, it's so amazing.
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"I was raised on the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, saw my first Shakespeare play there and my first swordfight," he adds. "My best friends in life I met there. In my blood I'm excited to see where it's going to go next; it's my love and my joy to protect it and keep it moving forward."