By Steve Bunk, 1-4-2011
Cold weather traditionally means no work for a lot of repertory theater actors, but an extra-long break during these holidays is all that the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s troupe will be getting. In February, they’ll start working again, and a good many of them won’t be done until December. Under the leadership of artistic director Charles Fee, the Boise-based festival has perfected an innovative business model that has achieved the seemingly impossible: turning local theater into a full-time gig.
The 2011 season will be Fee’s 20th as artistic director of the Idaho festival, which will be celebrating its 35th year of existence. Since 2002, Fee also has held that post at the venerable Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, and in 2010, he assumed artistic directorship of a third group, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, whose outdoor stage sits on the western shore of the magnificent lake.
The practical result of this synergy is that not only do three repertory companies get a lot better bang for their bucks, but professional actors associated with the organizations can work steadily year-round. For example, selected actors and crew drawn from the three groups will be in Cleveland in February to start rehearsals for two plays that will open there in the spring. Later, they’ll bring those plays to the theaters in the other cities.
Fee, who earned an MFA in acting from the University of California, San Diego, before becoming artistic director of a community theater in Northern California, has demonstrated the rare touch of pulling financially shaky rep companies back from the brink of extinction.
He did it with the Idaho festival, which was essentially performing in a big yard, had one full-time staff member and an annual operating budget of less than $300,000 when he took the job in 1991. Seven years later, the much larger company had an impressive new amphitheater and was in the black for the third of what has now been 15 consecutive years.
He also did it with the Cleveland organization, which was carrying a full-time staff of 24 and was in financial straits in 2001, the 50th year since the troupe was founded by the father of actor and writer John Lithgow.
“My first thought was this isn’t really what I want to do,” Fee recalled. “I’m not going to leave Boise for a theater in Cleveland that’s in crisis.”
Eventually, he agreed to take the Cleveland job for one year, on the quantum-leap condition that he would stage some of the Idaho work through the Ohio company. It was an idea he had been entertaining for years.
Observing other Shakespeare festivals around the country, Fee often had wondered, “Why are so many of us producing the same work, and paying people to do virtually the same thing?”
He was dismayed that such expensive productions were performed a few times and then tossed out of the schedule. “We’re all spreading our resources so thin that no one’s actually creating real work at real wages for anyone.”
Sharing cast, crew, materials, and related expenses between two companies seemed an obvious fix, albeit not an easy one to achieve.
“In Cleveland, the writers were very skeptical of this whole relationship,” Fee admitted. Theater critics and other commentators regarded Boise with raised eyebrows, but all that changed after the first Idaho production, “Much Ado About Nothing,” was staged at the Great Lakes festival.
“Thankfully, they ate their hats,” he said. “It’s that simple: you just have to do great work.”
A pattern was established in which two shows staged in Cleveland were then performed in Boise’s next season, and vice versa.
In the summer of 2007, Fee was contacted about becoming artistic director of the financially ailing Lake Tahoe festival, but he was in the midst of a $20 million renovation of the theater for the Great Lakes festival. By 2009, that theater was running well, and his staff was talking about adding a third company to the project.
Fee explained the reason for the proposed expansion: “We had essentially invented this idea, and we had gotten really good at it.”
At about that time, he got another call from the Tahoe festival, and arranged to work its schedule into the group’s 2010 plans. In January, Fee had carpenters available in Cleveland, so the set for the comedy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” was built there. It was staged in Boise in early summer 2010, followed by Lake Tahoe performances in July. Fee subsequently was appointed artistic director of the Tahoe festival.
The boards of directors and other people in the various cities have expressed worries that one company might get more attention or financial benefit than the other, but Fee has worked through such fears by emphasizing he does not regard them as different companies, but as a whole project.
Even so, as financial entities, the companies remain entirely separate. Fee said the key is transparency, so each company knows exactly what the costs and savings will be when materials and personnel are transferred from one place to another and back.
Another concern of the boards and other people was that not all the actors would be local, but that’s a red herring to Fee, because professional actors often are selected for repertory troupes through regular auditions held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.
The real challenge regarding actors and crew, as he sees it, is in arranging for them to move from one venue to another. “It’s a shell game, and the key is to keep the best people employed the largest amount of time.”
If an actor doesn’t want to go, say, to Cleveland, or has commitments elsewhere, the larger size of Fee’s talent pool gives him options he otherwise might not have for a substitute actor. When performers move from one place to the next, they mostly stay in rented apartments in Cleveland; in Boise; about half of them stay with families; and at Lake Tahoe a third stay in private homes.
Staff remain separate, with the exception of the executive director in Cleveland, Bob Taylor, who recently assumed the same job at Lake Tahoe. Staff members in the different cities know one another and exchange ideas and information about marketing or other strategic and logistic considerations. The Cleveland full-time staff was quickly reduced by Fee from 24 to 14. Boise has 10 full-timers, and Lake Tahoe has three.
The combined budget of the three festivals is about $7.4 million, with a total annual audience of about 220,000.
In spring, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” will be staged in Cleveland and will play for the second consecutive season in Boise, which is another way to reduce production costs.
Some time ago, Fee discovered that a local audience is not depleted by one season of a given play, particularly if it’s a crowd-pleaser. “People will come back and see it again, and bring friends, because they know the piece,” he said. “It’s a great way for audiences to start the season with something they already know.”
It’s true that the bard deplored the tedium of twice-told tales. Even so, Charles Fee has learned there is reward in the repetition of great stories.