Idaho Shakespeare Festival celebrates 40 seasons of creating theater in Boise

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

Something about Idaho makes things seem possible — pioneer spirit, stubborn determination, or maybe it’s something magic in the air.

Whatever it is, in the summer of 1977, it inspired a small band of actors and visionaries to put on a show on a restaurant patio. They chose a Shakespearean play — a sure moneymaker, they thought. They rehearsed in a horse pasture (with horses in attendance), built a temporary stage from scratch and produced an eight-show run of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the brand-new One Capital Center patio at 9th and Main streets.

“On opening night, someone came running backstage and told us that 350 people were in the audience,” remembers Doug Copsey, one of the crew that spearheaded the theater’s founding. “We were like, ‘No way’ and had to run out and see. And that was the smallest audience of that first run. We couldn’t believe it.”

In all, 3,500 people paid $3.50 for a ticket, and what would become the Idaho Shakespeare Festival was on its way.

Boise fell in love with its summer theater, and it’s a love that’s remained true through changing venues and artistic leadership, rocky creative spurts, financial struggles and encroaching development.

Today, under Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee and Managing Director Mark Hofflund, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is one of the most vital summer theater festivals in the West. It’s a full-throttle theatrical enterprise that shares its artists and productions with its sister companies in Cleveland and Nevada. The Boise production season stretches to absolute capacity from late May through September, drawing more than 60,000 people to see a play. Its educational programs — Shakesperience and Idaho Theater for Youth — reach more than 50,000 high school and elementary students across the state each year. And with an operating budget of just over $3.3 million and more than 200 summer employees, including 12 full-time staff members, the company is a significant part of Boise’s creative economy.

“It was a success beyond our imagination,” says Copsey, who co-directed the inaugural production. “And now, 40 years later, and I’m amazed that it’s still going — amazed, humbled and gratified.”

A cultural icon

A night at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is as much a part of the Treasure Valley’s cultural landscape as it is part of its geography.

Over the years, the audience followed the company as it hopscotched across Boise after outgrowing the One Capital patio: Plantation Golf Course (1981-’83), where ducks waddled onto the stage; ParkCenter (1984-1997), where geese often took on supporting roles; and finally to its current $6 million-plus amphitheater, interpretive center and nature reserve off Warm Springs Avenue, where eagles fly overhead and the most dramatic backdrop is often the Boise Foothills. Nature is never far from center stage.

“I remember a great evening when I attended ‘The Tempest’ (2015),” says Boisean Susie Fisher. “Before the opening scene, dark clouds had gathered and a massive windstorm blew through. It rattled the sets. When the actors came for the opening shipwreck scene, the storm just disappeared like magic. Both actors and audience looked skyward in awe.”

The community helped fund the new amphitheater in the mid- and late 1990s. It opened in 1998 with Fee’s Beatles-inspired “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the audience experience became more than a night of theater.

The amphitheater area is part nature walk, part picnic, part community gathering place — all with a side of high-quality, accessible theater. People can wear shorts and sandals and bring their own food, beer and wine. Young children are even welcome on the first Sunday of each production with a family night discount.

“It’s wonderful that through thick and thin, the community continues to find itself reflected in this theater company,” Hofflund says. “And we’re lucky to have an artistic leader who continues to grow the company, both as an artistic and business entity.”

The business of show

ISF is a success story that could maybe only be written in Idaho, a place far enough off the beaten cultural path to escape severe scrutiny, and where hope for the future is still a viable pursuit, says actor Tom Ford.

He’s been coming to Boise from New York for 10 seasons, over 15 years. Ford made the move permanent in 2014 and now works as an artistic associate in Boise and Cleveland.

“I’ve watched Boise and the Festival grow up together in a very beautiful way over the past decade,” Ford says.

Fee is considered a visionary. With Hofflund as his more than capable second, Fee has been able to navigate ISF into a unique position.

By 1998, the year the amphitheater opened, Fee had built a strong repertory company, drawn from Idaho and the theater world at large. He started thinking about new ways to keep the community engaged for a longer season. He applied a model from the dance world. Ballet companies produce “The Nutcracker” every year.

“I wondered how that could work in theater,” Fee says. “Would people come back to see a show again the next year?”

He opened the ISF amphitheater with his ’60s-inspired, Beatles-infused “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was a runaway hit. The next year, he opened the season again with the same production — with a few different actors and with equal success — and added another play that would run through September.

The formula became a way to expand the season and keep production costs in check.

Then in 2002, an opportunity came up to expand further. Fee became artistic director at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater and helped create a unique theatrical business model.

The two companies are perfectly matched: Cleveland runs its season September to May and Idaho runs from about June to September.

Each company creates two plays that travel to the other city. For example, ISF’s 40th season will open in May with Fee’s production of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” a play that ran in Cleveland in March. ISF’s “My Fair Lady” will open Cleveland’s season in the fall.

The arrangement reduces production costs for both theaters and increases the company of actors, directors and designers who now can work nearly year-round.

“There is a deeper sense of collaboration,” Fee said. “You have artists having a dialogue with each other over a longer period of time. You get a second production that tends to elevate the work. So our sense of the work has deepened.”

In 2010, he furthered that idea. ISF entered into a strategic alliance with the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Nevada. This partnership is different because Tahoe doesn’t produce its own shows. So, Fee “ships” past ISF productions from his lineup to Nevada. He will send his bossa-nova “Comedy of Errors” and then expand the plan with Victoria Bussert’s production of “Forever Plaid.” That musical will return to Boise later this year as ISF’s September show.

The next 40

Just as it is for a person, celebrating year number 40 is a milestone that begs a pause. For Fee and Hofflund, growth is essential to the life of the organization, but they want it to be done in the right way. Do you create more alliances? Do you build an indoor theater here?

“You can’t just add another theater to the mix and call it good,” Fee says. “Actually, you’d have to add two to make it work. No, I’m interested in growing in a different way now.”

Fee’s connection to his audience and the work has always been personal. He came up with family night, that first Sunday of a run when parents can bring their young kids, the year his wife, Lidia, was pregnant with his daughter Alexa, who now is 21. When she hit high school, he realized the importance of student pricing and launched student packages here.

Now, as he’s seeing his friends and loyal patrons age, he’s concerned with making the amphitheater experience sustainable for them.

“My mother is in her 90s and still goes to theater in San Francisco, but it’s a whole different experience for her now,” he says. “Can she hear? Is it safe to walk around?”

That got him thinking about everything from amplification to global warming.

A few years ago, the festival invested in hearing devices. Most people can generally hear clearly at the venue, but if you are impaired in any way, or if the wind is blowing, a listening device can help.

“Last summer, I would walk around with them on my arm, but I couldn’t get anyone to take them,” he says. “And now, we have more days that are over 90 degrees. That affects how people enjoy the work. Those are the conversations we’re having now.”

Building an indoor space in Boise is in the ether, too, but it’s a ways off.

“There will be a time when the community comes to us and says ‘We want this,’ like they did when we built the amphitheater,” Hofflund says. “The rightness of the idea, of the space, is just the beginning. The rest is a very complex equation of development that is more about the entire city than our organization.”

Fee is also looking to the future to create a succession plan for its artistic future, though that’s 10 years or more away. “But the board and I are in that conversation,” he says.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s 40th season

▪  Agatha Christie’s classic thriller “And Then There Were None,” directed by Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee, will open the season on Friday, May 27, with run dates through Sunday, July 31.

▪  Next up is a production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” from first-time ISF Director Tyne Rafaeli. It will run in repertory from Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 26.

▪  Resident Director Victoria Bussert’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” sits at the center of the season, playing dates from Friday, July 1, to Friday, Aug. 26.

▪  Resident Director Drew Barr’s vision of Shakespeare’s gender-bending romance “Twelfth Night” runs with dates from Friday, Aug. 5, through Sunday, Aug. 28.

▪  Bussert returns with “Forever Plaid.” The jukebox musical will run Friday, Sept. 2, through Sunday, Sept. 25.

May 27 to Sept. 25, Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. Season packages start at $110 for three midweek and Sunday shows or $130 for Fridays and Saturdays. Student season passes start at $50, and flex packages start at $270. Four- and five-show packages and box seats also are available. For more information and show times, visit