Listen closely when the Idaho Shakespeare Festival opens its 35th season
By Dana Oland – firstname.lastname@example.org
“Boom!” A loud clap of thunder ripples through the Idaho Shakespeare Festival amphitheater on a hot summer night. As the sound slowly rumbles away, it leaves a vibration in your chest. You look up and then around. Clear skies, then — “Boom!’
You tighten your collar and reach for a hat or plastic bag. Rain is a hazard of outdoor theater, except this isn’t real thunder. It’s a Peter John Still sound cue.
Call it the “Peter Effect,” a phenomenon that the resident ISF sound designer has been pulling off for 20 years at the festival’s various locations. [0x0b]
You can’t tell a Peter Still thunder crash from a real one, says the festival’s producing artistic director, Charlie Fee.
“I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened,” he says.
It’s bound to repeat this summer when ISF opens its 35th season the first weekend in June. This year, you’ll hear Still’s sounds in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” in June and “The 39 Steps,” a Hitchcockian farce, in September.
Still is the mad professor of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival who approaches a play with a penchant for cultural research.
“Peter brings a huge knowledge and perspective — and sometimes a truly crazy sensibility — of global music and theatrical traditions,” Fee says. “That has been enormously helpful to me and anyone who is willing to work with him, that allows us to go in directions I don’t think we would achieve without him.”
Still came to ISF in 1992 as part of director Bartlett Sher’s creative team for “Richard III.” Still started working with Fee the following year, fell in love with Boise and stayed.
Still grew up in the lush English Midlands. He studied music at Oxford’s New College, training in early music choral traditions. He learned about theater by working in it — in storefront theaters in San Diego, repertory houses in London, regional theater in the U.S., on Broadway and in Boise.
He settled in Boise in the late 1990s and took his citizenship oath at the U.S. Federal Building, “looking at the Boise Foothills,” he says with a smile.
Still works at ISF, its sister company — Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland — and Boise Contemporary Theater. He also helps Sher create work at the Metropolitan Opera, such as this season’s “Le Comte Ory,” and on Broadway with Sher’s 2006 Tony-winning revival of “Awake and Sing.”
THE MAGIC OF SOUND
Over the years Still’s sounds have elicited coyote howls from the surrounding hills, incorporated the actual birds in the amphitheater into the soundscape and created stirring moments on the ISF stage.
Last season’s ghost story “The Woman in Black,” a show that is in essence about imaginative theatricality, was the perfect sound feast for Still. He packed it full of thunder, wind, horse hooves on gravel, London street sounds, trains, screams and one magic squeak.
Actor Chad Hoeppner sat on a chair next to a picture frame, which became the window and seat on a train. As the train pulled into the station, he used his sleeve to rub the nonexistent glass. Hoeppner’s move came with the perfect “squeak, squeak, squeak” of a shammy rubbing on glass. (Actually it was the squeak of an antique spyglass.) And bam — in that instant the glass was there. That’s what sound adds to the art of theater, Still says.
Still is eccentric, quirky, captivating, maddening, difficult, mystical and brilliant. He chose the less-trodden creative path, following esoteric ideas, such as theories of subliminal sound and mystical approaches to Shakespeare’s texts.
“If you take a bad idea and keep working it, you’ll end up with something amazing, because no one else would have done it,” Still says. “That’s the truth of how it (theater) works. The way we’re brought up thinking doesn’t teach you that.”
Not all ISF directors will work with him. His shows are technically dense and difficult to run, Fee says with an exasperated sigh. One sequence can have more than 70 sound cues, which the production stage manager must call through the headsets.
“It boggles the mind how complex they are, and there is no simplifying for him. He can’t do it,” Fee says. “It’s so frustrating, and yet — is the play better? Probably. It seems like it when I’m working with people who aren’t Peter. They’re easier to call, but they’re not better somehow.”
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK
Still’s small cave-like basement room has been his home away from home since the building opened as a theater 11 years ago. (The ISF offices are in the Boise Contemporary Theater’s building.)
The office is lined with shelves that are stuffed full of plays, books on bird sounds and theater aesthetics, binders full of cues from past shows, bits of wire, electricians’ tools, blocks of wood, the bass drum used by the Sgt. Pepper mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” working and broken guitars, bells, whistles and a jumble of other things that make interesting sounds.
He spends more time in his office on his computers and 1980s vintage Soundcraft mixer than he does in his apartment.
It’s easy to forget he’s there, says Hannah Read, marketing director of ISF and a costume designer for BCT.
“There have been many late nights when we’re working and it’s midnight, and suddenly there’s Peter emerging from his basement,” Read says. “And oddly it’s usually at a time when we need something done.”
Still likes to stay behind the scenes. He tried acting once in a stage-crew send up of a Christmas panto (a traditional British holiday comedy). At the end of the run, the backstage crew puts on a parody.
“I had three small roles in one of them, which is enough to understand that walking out in front of 550 people is pretty much the same stress level as a minor car wreck,” Still says. “That’s a standard piece of knowledge that any theater person can tell you. An actor really has no skill, except themselves. They either like you or you fail. It’s very different.”
He wears backstage crew-wear — T-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans (cut-offs in the summer) — every day, even when he’s not at the theater. He rides his bicycle year-round, seriously practices aikido and is known for esoteric dinner parties where he prepares 18th- and 19th-century recipes such as elk en croute and pheasant with mustard cream sauce.
Still practices Shintoism, an ancient religion. Shinto mysticism dovetails into Still’s approach to classical theater, he says.
“The more Shakespeare you do, the more you’re taken out of your own culture, and the more you learn about theater,” Still says. “More people are getting into the mystical side of things; it’s really not that obscure. The thing about my interest in Shinto is it really is the closest thing to pre-Reformation, slightly pagan Catholicism, the thing that Shakespeare and his family, and milieu were nostalgic for. It wasn’t Catholicism as we think about it. This was also about going off and dancing in the woods and in the churchyard.”
WHAT YOU DON’T HEAR
OK, this is where it gets spooky. Besides the audible cues, Still employs subliminal sound in his designs. So there always is sound going on, though some of it is below human perception (but not a coyote’s). Still is convinced subliminal sound changes the dynamics on stage.
“I’m trying to make scenes work from the get-go from moment to moment. If you feel a lack sometimes it only takes a subliminal sound to fill the absence and make if feel right.”
It’s an idea Still came up with working at ISF’s ParkCenter location where street noise was constant. In 1993’s “Julius Caesar,” he added a low-level gunshot that you couldn’t hear on stage, but “I felt on edge,” Still remembers. “It created a mood.”
These techniques get used in Hollywood, he says. Sound editors underlay animal cries in car crashes, or low-pitch pipe organ sounds under dramatic music to create tension.
“We (humans) are very sensitive,” Still says. “Different sounds activate different parts of the brain. You can stimulate emotions on stage.”
Your nonconscious mind processes subliminal input. That’s where you feel things before you intellectually understand them.
“It works with evolution and instinct. So does telling a story. That’s why you come out of play feeling whole, because your mind has been filled two different ways,” Still says.
There really is something to it, says BCT artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark.
“I’ve seen it work on stage and from the audience,” he says. “There was a subliminal dog cue in ‘Zoo Story.’ Jerry, my character, is making reference to a dog growling. The sound was coming from a speaker mounted under the floor. It really gave me something.”
Still does some of his best sound work at Boise Contemporary Theater, where he has complete control, and a stage manager, Kristy Martin, who doesn’t mind calling hundreds of cues she can’t hear.
“There’s no question that the quality of the work being put on stage is higher because of Peter being here,” Clark says. “He’s this extreme on both ends of the spectrum. The attention to detail and this impressive scientific approach to things, then he always leaves a door open for something to be totally by chance.”
That makes it stand out.
Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Voices.IdahoStatesman.com/oland.
Boise City Revue
Posted by Diana M Cammarota in Places
If it were up to me, With our Good Will: 30 Years of Shakespeare in Idaho would be required reading not only in Idaho schools, but schools all over the world. Doug Copsey’s look back at the formation of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, from their 1977 beginnings on the steps of the One Capitol Center in downtown Boise, to its current home in one of the most beautiful outdoor amphitheaters in the world, is a book for anyone with even the slightest interest in business, history and the triumph of human determination. Even if you’ve never so much as glanced at a Shakespeare play, this book will inspire and enlighten you in ways that you can never imagine.
Published in 2006, With our Good Will offers a rare, first-hand look at how the Idaho Shakespeare Festival came into being. Designed to look like the big book of family memoirs that it essentially is, its pages are brimming with everything from snap shots of original letters, budget records and invoices, to photographs and drawings that are works of art in their own right. The text is rare because the story told within is straight from the source. It’s not often that movers and shakers like Doug Copsey have the ability to sit still long enough to put pen to paper, but, as readers will come to see, the author’s gift for storytelling is as keen as his talent for acting, directing, producing and organizing successful enterprises.
The story of the Festival begins just after Copsey’s return to Boise in 1976 after nearly a decade away. After cutting his teeth in Helen Farrer’s drama department at Boise High School in the mid-1960’s, Copsey went on to obtain his undergraduate degree in Theater Arts from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1968. After further training in film and video production, Copsey returned home to Boise and picked up his first acting gig as guest artist in a Boise State production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The actor was inspired by the pool of talent he encountered at the University, but he was equally disheartened knowing that these artists would eventually need to leave Boise if they wanted to make a living at their craft. At that time, the only outlet in town was the well-established but all-volunteer Boise Little Theater (founded in 1948), and Copsey thought it was time to create a professional company.
“Look down and think Greek” was the fateful suggestion to developer Arthur “Skip” Oppenheimer, as he and Copsey gazed out of Skip’s 8th floor office of the then brand-new One Capitol Center. What Boiseans see now as the outdoor dining area of Angell’s Bar & Grill on the corner of 9th & Main, Copsey saw as a spectacular outdoor amphitheater, just begging to come to life. “The blank, concrete whiteness,” he mused, “cried out for the color of sets and costumes, the movement and action of actors, dancers and musicians.” Copsey thought that surely the designers had this in mind when building this natural amphitheater.
The developers were not aware of any such plan, but the idea of bringing outdoor theater to the downtown area – and more folks to the center – was certainly something worth considering. The newly opened Main Street Bistro, Boise’s first full-scale restaurant, occupied the ground floor and could have used a shot of adrenaline itself. Recognizing this opportunity, as well as an opportunity to support the arts, the Oppenheimers opened their space (and their checkbooks) to Copsey and his crew to see what they could do. With a total budget of $4500.00 ($1000.00 of Copsey’s own money and a $3500.00 loan from Doug Oppenheimer), the wide-eyed cast and crew embarked on the seemingly impossible task of transforming One Capitol Center into a verdant, functional and convincing outdoor theater and at the same time persuading people to come. The show to run at “The First Annual Main Street Bistro Summer Theatre Festival” in 1977 may have been A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but, at times, it played out more like a comedy of errors.
Several members of the original core group were fellow Cuckoo’s Nest cast members, and the rest were friends and enthusiasts that could be “cajoled into chasing a wild and crazy dream.” In the months leading up to opening night, actors worked as stagehands, directors as costume designers, and rehearsal space was shared with the likes of horses and Cocker Spaniels. City officials were pushed to the limit as were the budget and the occasional temper, but on opening night, all signs of struggle were ushered off stage, and in their place appeared all the sights, sounds and magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over 350 people came that night, and, by the time the run closed on August 6th over 3500 people had come to share in this “crazy” dream. After the bills were paid and creditors made whole, each member walked away with $225.00 for his or her eight weeks of hard work.
Success had come in surprising and welcome measure to the men and women of the budding Festival, but the struggle was far from over. By the following year, the coffers were once again empty, and Main Street Bistro had closed its doors. Indoor rehearsal space remained elusive, and it seemed that just about all that survived the winter was some salvaged lumber and a few sturdily stitched costumes. But, the spirit of the crew remained, and while the summer of ’78 season would take some doing, they had a few things going for them. The Oppenheimers allowed use of the amphitheater for another year, and Ray’s Oasis – the successors to the Bistro – were as supportive as could be. This year, however, the fledgling company was financially on its own. There were no loans to count on, and a source of significant funds from the previous year was snuffed out. A large portion of the seed money from their first season came from selling advertising space on the surrounding fence, but the city had put a stop to that, citing violations regarding the placement of billboards within the city. But, true to form, the players worked their way around this deficit by printing up the company’s first program, and an affectionate community snatched up the advertising space in no time flat. Despite a series of potential disasters including destructive winds, oppressive heat and a disappearing Duke of Milan, The Two Gentleman of Verona drew more than 4500 audience members and garnered much-deserved attention from the local media.
By 1980, this scrappy group of talented individuals that seemed to come from nowhere was very much on its way to becoming the world-class institution that we see today. By the end of that fourth summer, they had expanded their seasons by offering multiple shows and longer runs, formed a patron committee, executed well-organized marketing and public relations efforts, held their first public fundraiser and incorporated officially as a non-profit under the name of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Attendance was topping 11,000, and the entire community seemed to embrace this cultural phenomenon. But, to say at this point that they lived happily ever after would very much be remiss. Growth and expansion also meant increased cost and debt, and with the pace at which members had been working over the years, fatigue understandably began to set in. 1980 was also the year that they needed to leave One Capitol Center and begin a 17-year search for a permanent home. Ray’s Oasis was moving out and Angell’s Bar & Grill – with plans of their own for that fabulous outdoor space – was moving in.
I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to discover in With our Good Will. It will lead you on a wild ride through their three years at the Plantation Golf Course and the fourteen years next to Ore Ida on Park Center Boulevard. It will introduce you to the entire cast of producers, directors, actors, officials and philanthropists – as well as some memorable guest appearances from wandering ducks, buzzing mud wasps and a pair of amorous Llamas. It will lead you, finally, to the special place they now call home – The Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater and Reserve at 5657 Warm Springs Avenue – a place that seems to have always attracted magic. A place that Native Americans called “Peace Valley” and early Boise settlers called the “moonshine capital of the world.” A place where each winter, the noble bald eagle comes to roost and where over 200 species of wildlife live in harmony with the cottonwood trees and the Boise River. It is, perhaps, as it was best said by board member Norena Gutierrez, a place where “people find themselves again, in the stories Shakespeare tells, and truths of time are always acknowledged…”
Doug Copsey is still moving and shaking. He continues to write for area publications and over the last three years has helped form the Idaho Writers Guild – an arm of The Cabin (a literary center for Idaho located in Julia Davis Park) – and is head of that group’s Governing Committee. His connection to the Shakespeare Festival continues as both an ardent fan, and as a member of the Advisory Committee, and he wants folks to know that he continues to be “humbled and amazed by the support this community continues to give to what has become one of Idaho’s artistic jewels.”
I owe a hearty thanks to the Festival’s Directing Manager, Mark Hofflund, for his patience with my tedious questions, and for his service to the Festival for almost twenty years.
With out Good Will is available at most booksellers as well as at the concession stand at the Festival. The author will be hosting several pre-show book-signings this season and for this schedule – or for more information on the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Including educational programs, tours and the upcoming season – please visit: www.idahoshakespeare.org or call 208.429.9908.
See you under the stars!
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