It's mid-morning at Idaho Shakespeare Festival's downtown office and phones are ringing from every paper-piled cubicle. Actors' mailboxes burst with colorful reminders and last-minute notices. In a dark side room near a barely lit stage, a cluster of people speak in cadenced verse. Charlie Fee, ISF's producing artistic director, emerges from the room followed by a young woman who walks briskly and talks hurriedly.
There's a certain urgency to the place that is both exciting and nerve-racking. The festival opens the doors for its 32nd season on June 7, and everybody, it seems, is frantically tying up loose ends. Fee has been the producing artistic director of Idaho Shakespeare Festival since December 1991. Since that time, the festival has grown to become an Idaho institution.
This year's lineup includes Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Macbeth, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, James Lapine's Into The Woods, and Greater Tuna by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard.
Each summer, thousands of Boiseans gather their picnic baskets and descend upon the Warm Springs Avenue amphitheater. Blankets are unfurled and lawn chairs unfolded for an outdoor cultural tradition that, for many, is the epitome of relaxation.
ISF is one of 65 companies involved in the Shakespeare in American Communities program put on by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is also the only company that produces its full programming in two cities. In July 2002, ISF merged with the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland to expand its performance capabilities.
Each year, both companies produce plays, then load up the sets, costumes and many of their staff members to perform the plays again in the other city. Fee, who's also the producing artistic director for the GLTF, explains that this helps to greatly reduce overall production costs because they're able to re-use most of the original production elements. The arrangement also helps to extend contracts for many of the cast members, often keeping them employed 42 weeks out of the year.
"An enormous number of people are signing up to work in both cities, and many of them are picking one or the other city to live in," explains Fee. "So we're creating a kind of year-round sustainable business model by working with two separate cities in two separate companies and it's really fascinating."
Though this year's budget is $2.6 million for Boise alone, Fee says that each production costs $30,000 just for sets and costumes alone. Add $50,000 in labor costs to build the sets and $10,000 per week for festival actors, and the numbers begin to rise exponentially. Partnering with the GLTF has helped this medium-sized theater company afford the large casts that are necessary to do justice to a Shakespeare play.
"Maintaining large-scale works—Shakespeare plays and musicals—with a company structure is very expensive and very difficult. There are very few companies in America that can do it anymore," says Fee.
But ISF has figured out an extremely successful way to apply a commercial touring model to a not-for-profit theater company. In the process, the festival has also been able to allocate a chunk of its budget to supporting community outreach and education.
Every year, ISF puts on touring performances for 50,000 school children around the state of Idaho. There's a program geared toward elementary students called the Idaho Theatre for Youth, and a program for middle and high school students called Shakespearience. In addition to their touring productions, ISF offers year-round classes at the Drama School, which is located in the Fulton Street Center for the Arts.
"Theater needs to be about education, about educating our audiences," says ISF director of education Renee Knappenberger. "If we don't have any sort of educational aspect to the theater, then it will die at some point. You need to continue bringing in people to excite them about theater and to excite them about the profession to continue the cycle."
ISF also offers children's summer camps called Camp Shakespeare, Camp Improv and Camp Musical. And for high school sophomores through seniors, there's the festival's renowned apprentice program, which involves intensive instruction in acting and a final showcase performance on the festival's main stage. This year, the festival will introduce a new intensive educational program for college students called the Young Company.
"The Young Company is really filling the gap between being a professional actor out of college and the apprentice program," says Knappenberger. "We were seeing so many of these kids who were so talented and ambitious, ending the apprentice program and going into college and really not having anything to do until they gained some professional experience."
With all of the varied performance and educational pathways ISF has wandered down over the years, it's no surprise that staff members seem overwhelmed at the start of another hectic summer season.
Though the phones might not stop ringing until the end of September, everyone seems to take comfort in the fact that their hard work is infinitely appreciated by the Boise community. Here's hoping they each have the chance to dig their toes into the grass, pour a glass of wine and be an audience member for a night.
For more information and a full schedule of this season's plays, visit idahoshakespeare.org.