Actor and director Sara Bruner remembers when the Idaho Shakespeare Festival changed her life
Sara Bruner built her acting career on the Idaho Shakespeare Festival stage. She grew up in Burley and joined the company at 18 as an intern, and through the years she became one of ISF’s most recognizable performers.
Not quite an ingenue, not quite a character actress, she found her niche in the Boise company with her clear, signature voice and a rich variety of roles, including Shakespeare’s iconic Juliet, Desdamona and Ophelia, and musical theater gem Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
She left the ISF fold in 2013 and landed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — often called the mothership of Shakespeare Festivals — where she also became a company leader. It’s one of the most high-profile theater festivals in the world, boasting year-round productions in multiple indoor and outdoor venues, and new work by internationally known playwrights.
Now Bruner, 41, returns to her home company this summer to make her ISF main stage directorial debut with two of Shakespeare’s plays.
“I’m just diving in. So I’m only directing this year, and I think that’s a great next step — although harrowing,” she said in a phone interview from Ashland.
Her production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” which she directed this spring for ISF’s sister company, Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, will open ISF’s Boise season on May 24. It’s being restaged by the festival’s producing artistic director, Charlie Fee, because Bruner also is directing an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” at OSF that opens May 29. Then she returns to Boise in July to direct Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar,” which runs in repertory with “The Music Man” throughout August.
Bringing Bruner back has been a long time coming, Fee says. He has asked her for several years to direct for the festival, and though she’s done work in Cleveland, like restaging its production of “A Christmas Carol,” this was the year it all fell into place.
A new direction
This move came as a “slow burn,” Bruner says.
“There was no definitive moment where I was like, ‘I’m going to direct,’ although it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Bruner says. “It is part of the journey for me as an artist. Now I’m at this point where I can’t shut this voice up anymore.”
What gave her the courage? Last year Bruner received the prestigious Gant Gaither Theater Award from the Princess Grace Foundation. Princess Grace of Monaco’s family set up the organization after her death to continue her passion for supporting emerging artists in dance, film and theater.
”I’ve never won anything. I couldn’t believe I got it. It really gave me a boost of confidence and momentum,” Bruner says. “Once that happened I started to see this path open up.”
In the room
As an actor, Bruner always took deep dives into a play’s text to get inside her characters. She embodied them with a highly physical acting style and straightforward delivery that makes even the most complex dialogue clear. Now she molds those sensibilities to her approach as a director.
That makes for some serious fun in rehearsals, says actor and fellow ISF company member Lynn Robert Berg.
“We just get up and start doing stuff,” Berg says, speaking from his home in Cleveland. “She’s present in the room and is ready to work with whatever happens. Whatever you give her she will play with it. She’s super creative and thoughtful. And I don’t just mean that she’s kind. I mean she’s thought a lot about what she wants to do and say. It’s been really fun. I think it’s the best production of ‘Shrew’ I’ve been in, and there are some bold moves being made here.”
Making the shift from actor to director is not easy, Fee says.
“Having grown up as an actor in the company, it’s difficult to change sides in the room,” Fee says. “And for a woman it’s even more challenging. But Sara has been working toward this for a long time.”
Fee saw the spark years ago in Bruner and began giving her opportunities to grow. He promoted her to artistic associate in 2010 and brought her on as his assistant for several plays. He also asked her to direct the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespearience educational outreach productions — 48-minute adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that tour high schools across Idaho. It was a great training ground, Bruner says.
She directed “Caesar” for Shakespearience in 2018 and cut the play from 20,000 words to about 6,000. That’s how you get to know the story you need to tell, she says. She did the same with “Shrew” in 2005. (Bruner also appeared in two ISF productions of “Shrew,” first as Bianca, the younger sister, in 2007, and then as the Shrew herself in 2011.)
“I’ve been in the room many times with these plays. It’s great to have these long relationships with them,” Bruner says. “The longer I work with these texts, the more questions I have. Then I try to balance that knowledge with the beginner’s mind.”
Bruner wields cross-gender casting with precision in her “Shrew” to not just avoid the obvious pitfalls of the play, but to upend them. She boldly edited the text to a manageable length, she says, and reassigned lines and pronouns.
The show, she says, “pushes the boundaries in the way it’s cast, and it’s not well behaved.”
Though “Caesar” still is in the design phase, you can expect the same approach and vision, which she says she is eager to bring to the theater company that gave her a start.
“I’m so excited to come back to Idaho for so many reasons,” Bruner says. “I love the Idaho audiences, and the wild abandon and expression the company has on stage, and that our audience completely embraces it.”