Arts & Culture

Shakespeare Festival welcomes the world as it hosts international theater festival

A group of actors created magic in Downtown Boise when they turned a restaurant patio into a stage for the first Idaho Shakespeare Festival production in 1977.
A group of actors created magic in Downtown Boise when they turned a restaurant patio into a stage for the first Idaho Shakespeare Festival production in 1977. Idaho Statesman file

This story was originally published on Jan. 11, 2001.

Something about Idaho makes things seem possible. Call it pioneer spirit, stubborn determination or simply something magic in the air.

Whatever it is, in the summer of 1977 it inspired a band of Idaho actors to put on a show on a restaurant patio. They chose a Shakespeare play — a sure moneymaker they thought — and did eight performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the One Capital Center at 9th and Main streets.

It was a humble beginning. Today, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival has become a festival to watch. This weekend, the festival and Boise will be host to the 2001 Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference. As the world of Shakespearean theater comes to town, we take a look at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s legacy.

That first season, rehearsals took place in a horse pasture — with horses in attendance. Everyone involved acted, built sets, ran the box office, passed out fliers and kicked in cash. They poured their hearts into the effort and the risk paid off. More than 3,500 people paid the $3.50 ticket price to sit on the lawn and see Shakespeare performed.

“It was a success beyond our imagination,” said Doug Copsey, who co-directed the inaugural production.

That summer, Boise fell in love with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, a love that has remained true through changing venues and artistic leadership, rocky creative spurts and frequent financial woes. Through it all, the festival has continued to gather a loyal audience, garner community support and grow creatively.

Now it produces a five-play season with 93 performances at its permanent home — a $4 million amphitheater and park — each summer. It supports a growing company of creative artists who long to create theater in the Boise Foothills.

Poised for its 25th anniversary season, the festival is expected to play to 50,000 people, its largest audience to date. Still, its spirit remains close to its origins. The festival is intrinsically theatrical, eternally optimistic and deeply Idaho.

“We didn’t know it would last,” said Victoria Holloway, one of the festival’s founders. One reason it did, she said, is, “From the inception, we tried to involve the community into the festival life. It wasn’t just a group of actors doing theater. The festival belonged to us all.”

Loyal following

From the beginning, audience members such as Dianne and Charles Robertson became attached. “We started going that first summer and decided we never wanted it to end,” Dianne Robertson said. Today, she and Charles are still involved. At one point in the 1980s, Robertson signed a bank note to help keep the festival afloat.

Through numerous highs and lows, the community has held fast, from the Plantation Golf Course years, (1981-’83) when ducks waddled though plays, and dressing room tents nearly blew away; a move to ParkCenter in 1984 that nearly threw the organization into bankruptcy; and a 1991 season without an artistic director.

Through all the hard times, the festival survived, said Vangie Osborn, who served as general manager from 1984 to 1992.

“It’s always been able to pick itself up by its boot straps and make a go of it,” Osborn said. “People like to back a survivor. They’ve just seen it get stronger and bigger.”

Another factor in the festival’s continued popularity is the quality of the work: Throughout its history, it has supported interesting, credible theater.

Right guys, right time

A turning point came when the board hired Charles Fee as artistic director in 1992. In 1993, Fee brought Mark Hofflund in as managing director, and magic began to happen.

They were the right guys at the right time.

Young and energetic, both brought a deep knowledge of theater production from all sides of the process. Fee’s charm and easy manner coupled with Hofflund’s attention to detail makes them a formidable team.

Since settling in Boise, they have been able to infuse the festival with creative energy. They pulled together a dynamic board that got things moving and created a swell of community interest that fed a grass-roots, $4 million capital campaign for the amphitheater.

Still, the 25th season is a time to take stock and look ahead.

“We’re taking a hard look at where we are as a company,” Fee said. “We built a theater, but we didn’t finish it. We had 72 percent audience growth in the first three seasons at the new space. We’re doing ‘Hamlet’ this season, and we are ready to take it on without going out on a limb. We’ve grown up.”

The festival will continue to grow with the community, Hofflund said.

The immediate goal is to build dressing rooms at the amphitheater by this summer.

In the future, ISF will look to expand its programming to serve its growing audience.

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