Notes from 1958: Phillip Wickstrom
To celebrate the rich history of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, we’re sharing stories from actors, directors and crew involved in the very first festival in 1958. This story comes from Phillip Wickstrom, a co-founder of the Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia, Washington, and a respected actor, director and teacher all over the Pacific Northwest.
I’m originally from Boulder. My grandparents, and then my parents, owned Boulder City Bakery.
I came out of the military service in 1955 and went to the University of Colorado. My brother, Gordon Wickstrom, was acting and directing at CU. He persuaded me to audition for the Shakespeare festival. [Then-Executive Director] Jack Crouch told me I was the first actor cast in the festival that year, but I think he just said that to be nice.
When I was there, and for a couple of years afterward, at the end of the school year, college students from all over would hustle to Boulder to audition for the festival. It was a fine pick of talented, very young actors.
We acted, of course, in the outdoor theatre with a grass-covered stage. “Backstage” was hiding behind the bushes. We made our entrances and exits from behind two great stone pillars on either side of the amphitheater. The groundspeople insisted on watering [the grass] every afternoon, regardless of whether it had rained, so it was always wet.
One night, we did get rained out. The curtain went up and we began, but soon the director came out and stopped the play. The audience was encouraged to go indoors to the little theatre and find a seat. We spent about a half hour [indoors] locating our entrances and exits, and then we finished the play. I don’t know whether it was any good, but people seemed to have a fine time.
Boulder was a dry city at that time. If you had enough to drink in Louisville, you couldn’t enter Boulder. Despite that, there were always young men drinking beer on the front porch of the fraternity house across Broadway from the theatre. In “Hamlet,” our Ophelia had to exit stage left and reappear stage right, which meant running all the way around the museum building. The fellows across the street used to sit there at night and marvel at this gorgeous lady running by. They tried to capture her, but she was too quick for them.
There were beautiful starry nights in Boulder in the summertime. Black skies, brilliant stars. One night in “Hamlet,” during the court scene, a guard standing on the side of the throne forgot where he was and looked up very slowly to watch the stars. I saw the audience follow his eyes, wondering what he was looking at.
That Mary Rippon Theatre, it’s a difficult theatre to work in. Acting in full voice is not impossible, but it isn’t easy. If we weren’t anything other than careful [with our projection and enunciation], we were scolded right off. We worked hard to be heard and understood.
Theatre has always been a part of my life, and I do trace that back largely to the 1958 festival. That’s the first time I took it all seriously. It’s amazing to think that wet stage was a preamble to the way I spent my entire career—acting, directing and teaching college theatre.