20 years of Foolery in the Wood River Valley

Twenty years ago, a merry band of players landed in Hailey to create a life for themselves and nurture a community through their love of theater. They call themselves “Fools,” but nothing could be further from the truth. These savvy theater artists turned what could have been their biggest weakness — living in a small town — into their greatest strength by going deeper into the roots of their community rather than seeking a larger audience.

“Twenty years! It’s crazy,” Company of Fools core artist Denise Simone says. “As I stop and look back, I don’t just see the life of the theater company. I see life: births and deaths and divorces. We decided to do this beautiful souvenir book and, when I look at it, it brings tears.”

If they had landed anywhere else, things might have been different, but the confluence of creativity, resources, scenery, size and isolation in the Wood River Valley helped set the stage for this company’s success.

“I can’t describe or tell you why this happened,” Company of Fools core artist John Glenn says. “Denise and I weren’t 18 when we came here. We’d worked a lot of places and knew what we wanted to be different here, and there is something about Idaho that makes it possible. I mean look at what happens here. Look at Matt (Cameron Clark) and BCT (Boise Contemporary Theater) and what they are able to do, and the (Idaho) Shakespeare Festival and what an amazing event that is when you attend. We are so blessed to be here.”

Company of Fools is as much a community organization as it is a professional theater company. It produces riveting, thoughtful and well-acted productions of contemporary plays, from Pulitzer Prize winners and up-and-coming playwrights. They sit on boards, offer outreach into under-served communities (such as troubled teens and adults), turned the Liberty into a gathering place beyond the plays on stage, and collected a loyal following.

Simone’s then-husband Rusty Wilson founded Company of Fools in 1992 in Richmond, Va. He and Simone brought it to Hailey at the suggestion of their longtime friends and fellow actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who still own the Liberty. Willis and Simone met in college and continue a close friendship.

Their colleagues Glenn and R.L. Rowsey came along for the ride, and together they built Company of Fools into one of the strongest performing troupes in the region. The company received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2004, and Simone received an individual Governor’s Award for Excellence in 2014 for her acting.

The company’s unique structure comes out of the organic theater movement of the 1970s, with not one artistic director but four “core artists” who each brought different strengths and abilities to the table.

Together they’ve educated an entire generation of Wood River Valley kids through their Stages of Wonder program for elementary students and theater classes and workshops for high schoolers and the community. They cast from a growing pool of actors from the Sun Valley area, Boise and beyond and bring directors and designers to work in Hailey.

They made business and creative decisions together, planned each season, acted in and directed the plays, and along the way forged a community connection that most arts groups only dream of.

“We’re neighbors in this town,” Simone says. “Because we’re closer to the ground here, we feel that pulse quicker than theaters that are in much larger locations and because of that, we’ve remained this small boutique theater on Main Street in Hailey that will stand up anywhere.”

When the economic downturn happened in 2008, many theaters and other arts groups folded across the country. Both Company of Fools and its Treasure Valley counterpart, Boise Contemporary Theater, made changes, cut back their seasons, but both survived.

“We didn’t close the doors,” Simone says. “We were tenacious. We were family and we had a community that wrapped around us and we made it through.”

Of course, things change over time. Wilson departed in 2005 and returned to Virginia, where he’s a freelance theater artist and teacher. Rowsey retired from the company in 2010. Now he heads music education for the Sun Valley Symphony, is music director for Caritas Chorale and other groups in the Wood River Valley, and sits on the Hailey Arts Council.

Glenn and Simone run the company now. They take turns juggling the tasks of administration with Simone’s time on stage and Glenn’s time in the director’s chair.

In 2013, Company of Fools merged with the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, a multi-faceted arts organization that runs museum-quality art galleries, presents educational programs, music, dance and film screenings in venues around the Wood River Valley. The Fools have a presence at the center’s main hub on Fifth Street in Ketchum, along with their main stage at the Liberty.

The merger of the two groups created the largest arts organization in Idaho and freed the Fools from worrying whether or not their company would go into the future.

“It was really a question of sustainability,” Simone says. “We had to wrestle with our egos to let go a bit, but because of the support we receive, it felt like our community wanted us to continue.”

Now they are looking for ways to further ensure the company’s future and are entertaining the possibility of passing the enterprise on to another creative team in the future.

“We have been on a continuum of a big change that started five years ago,” Simone says. “I’m excited about the conversations we’ll be having in a year.”

Both Simone and Glenn are exploring new interests and projects, both on and off stage and are again wanting to deepen their experience of creating theater. To celebrate the 20th year of the company, a donor gave Glenn and Simone funds to do some professional development, money that couldn’t be used for lumber for a set or costumes.

Glenn spent seven days in New York City, saw 14 plays, met with old friends, and spent time at the Lincoln Center Library doing research and investigating new plays for future productions.

Simone is going to take a train trip from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and New York City. She plans to take workshops at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, and the National Center for Creative Aging to learn to apply her theatrical chops and teaching skills in new directions.

They’re both coming up with new ways to deepen their ties to the community. Simone is working on a plan for the company to become the community’s official storyteller and touch more segments of the community along the way. And, of course, they plan to continue to produce their work on stage.

“The core of who we are really has never changed since the beginning,” Simone says. “We tell stories, and we connect to community.”