Behind the scenes: campus and community celebrate Shakespeare
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s history with the University of Colorado is as storied as the plays performed on their shared stages.
Over a century ago, CU seniors regularly staged Shakespeare performances on the lawn outside Old Main as part of commencement week, beginning in 1897 with “As You Like It.” Senior Shakespeare performances continued regularly through 1916, but with the United States’ entry into World War I, the regular practice ended.
Many years later, in 1944, CU professor James Sandoe was asked to direct a summer play on campus. Because of the university’s rich tradition with outdoor Shakespeare performances and because the Navy was occupying the University Theatre due to the Second World War, Sandoe decided to stage “Romeo and Juliet” in the relatively new (and untested) Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.¹
It became an annual tradition, and in 1958 Jack Crouch, a CU english professor and Sandoe’s colleague, formalized the summer event by founding the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
While the festival’s seasons and plans have evolved in the decades since, its ties to the CU campus are integral to its ongoing success, says Producing Artistic Director Tim Orr: “I want to see the festival grow and continue to be the absolute best it can be, while still maintaining the atmosphere and culture of an outdoor summer festival. That’s who we are … Working with the university makes all of that easier than it would be if we were producing the work alone.
“We’re part of something bigger.”
Managing Director Wendy Franz agrees. “Right now, we’re in this wonderful sweet spot. CSF has established itself as a professional theatre company in the region. We attract talent from all over the country—and yet, at the same time, we’re deeply embedded in the university. Education continues to be a major part of our mission.”
The festival’s relationship with the university has grown in bursts over the years, but it anchored its position in 2013 when CSF began its partnership with CU Presents—the hub for performing arts at CU Boulder—as part of an initiative from Provost Russell Moore to raise the visibility and prestige of the arts on campus.
For CSF, the collaboration opened access to existing campus resources in the form of box office support, and marketing and PR expertise. And for CU Presents and its other campus partners—the Artist Series, the Takács Quartet, the Department of Theatre & Dance and the College of Music—the collaboration elevated the work on CU Boulder stages.
“The festival brings top quality professional theatre to our offerings,” said CU Presents Executive Director Joan McLean Braun, “And it brings a true year-round arts experience to the community. Adding the festival to the remarkable Takács Quartet and 80-plus year old Artist Series strengthens the ‘Can you believe we get to see this in Boulder!’ aspect of what we do.”
CSF’s work with CU Presents has been a fruitful alliance, said Franz: “I can’t overstate the ways in which that relationship and partnership have benefited CSF. It frees Tim and me up to have more bandwidth to support the creative work, which is awesome. And that’s a huge secret to the success that we’ve been having in recent years.”
It would be foolish to assume the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s work with the university comes to a halt in May when campus empties and CSF “takes over” campus. Many university faculty, staff and students, particularly from the Department of Theatre & Dance, stay on as choreographers, designers, cast and more. Just like in the earliest festival years.
“So many artists have come through this place and have learned something and taken something away and have gone onto big careers,” said Orr. In this way, working with CSF presents a unique professional opportunity on campus for students.
The learning students receive working alongside professionals from across the country provides an invaluable supplement to their CU education and can amplify their professional opportunities after graduation. That supplement wouldn’t be possible without help from the Boulder community.
Each summer, CU students are invited to CSF as paid acting interns, supported by endowments from festival donors. These endowments ensure that the internships are protected from fluctuations in the festival budget and, perhaps most importantly, help students overcome economic barriers that keep diverse bodies and voices out of the rehearsal room.
“That’s really important in terms of creating sustainable accessibility for students from various backgrounds,” said Franz. “More and more donors have been really excited about the prospect of helping to support that program and ensure that it continues in perpetuity.”
Of course, in August, the dynamic revolves again and CSF returns to its auxiliary role on campus. Theatre & Dance reclaims the artistic spaces. Students and faculty focus on academics. CU Presents turns its eye to music ensembles, touring cirque acts and new operatic works.
But the glow left behind by the best theatre under the stars can be felt for months to come—by the CU community, by CU Presents and by all of Colorado.
Said Franz: “It’s that word: collaboration. I think that is sort of the heart of all of it. It’s a beautiful example of how we are far stronger together than we would be separately, and that’s a really a lovely example to set in our culture today.”
“Thanks to that unique collaboration between Colorado Shakes, campus and community, the festival’s summer glow will continue to shine for decades to come,” says Orr.
“What we’re doing here is very special. The future is very, very bright for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.”