Former Shakespeare Festival director Phillip Sneed looks back

Philip Sneed, former artistic director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is now executive director for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities — and although the people now running the festival decline to say much about his time there, they're clearly looking forward to a Sneed-free season.

In the six years he ran the festival, Sneed says via e-mail, he increased the diversity of festival offerings and added two musicals to the programming, including Woody Guthrie's American Song. He initiated an international cultural exchange that brought four actors from the Maxim Gorky Drama Theatre of Vladivostok to join an American cast in a production of Gogol's The Inspector General on the festival stage in 2011, and last year invited Tina Packer, onetime director of the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company, to perform her acclaimed Women of Will in Boulder with her acting partner, Nigel Gore. But Sneed says he made a strong commitment to Colorado artists as well, and negotiated a contract with Actors' Equity that allowed him to hire such local professionals as John Hutton, Sam Gregory, Rachel Fowler and Leslie O'Carroll.

Sneed also laid the groundwork for a new program intended to commission a cycle of plays on American history — analogous, he says, to Shakespeare's history plays: "I can only say that I hope CSF is able to continue these and/or similar innovative initiatives," he adds. But although a reading of the first of the history plays, Constance Congdon's No Little Rebellion, has been announced for this summer, no specific date appears on the CSF website — and with organizers now placing a tighter focus on the festival's core mission, it's unclear whether this project will go forward.

"The festival still needs to find a way to balance the budget without lowering the quality of the productions," Sneed notes. "In fact, the quality needs to be increased from what I was able to achieve."

But he defends the quality of his productions. During his tenure, all reviews were tracked, Sneed says — 171 in all — and rated from one to five, with five being the most positive. When the numbers were crunched, the average over the six-year-period was 4.1. "I grant that our number rating is subjective," Sneed says, "but I tried to be fair, no matter how damning the review was."

And the former director questions whether the use of the word "overrun" in connection with the festival's deficits is fair. "Actually, we didn't have any cost overruns; in fact, we had a great reputation with the College of Arts and Sciences for sticking to our expense budgets," he writes. "The deficits came from revenue shortfalls. No matter how hard we worked at coming up with conservative revenue projections based on actual ticket-sales history (to the extent possible, given that we were doing some plays and musicals for which we had no historical basis for comparison), we continued to be surprised by the impact of the recession. The fact is that CSF is among the most difficult kinds of theatres to produce on a balanced budget — as a classical repertory company, they have almost all of the same costs as a producer of big musicals (large casts, large numbers of period costumes, even choreographers and music directors), with much less appeal to the general public."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman