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.
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.