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Author: Becca Vaclavik

Nice Work If You Can Get It

CSF’s Answer to Young Artists’ Number One Problem

Just two summers ago, CU Theatre student Wessie Simmons applied to work front-of-house for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Last summer, Simmons returned, this time as a stage management intern. This summer? Simmons will work under her first-ever Equity contract as the assistant stage manager for the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.

Her story closely mirrors that of Teresa Gould’s, who started as a CSF stage management intern in 2019; worked her first Equity contract (also at the festival) in 2022; and now works full time for CU’s Department of Theatre & Dance.

For two theatre technicians to make such major professional leaps so early in their burgeoning careers is certainly impressive—and it isn’t a fluke. This level of progress is part of an important symbiosis between CU and CSF.

Learning-by-Doing: Shakespeare’s Original Practice

Typically, making the transition from performing arts university student to working theatre professional can be a challenge, which Festival Artistic Director Tim Orr knows firsthand.
“As a young artist myself, I was always confounded. How can I get my first professional job? How can I start making connections and friends? How can I get something on my resume that sets me apart at a future audition?”

One answer lies in historical stage practices, Orr says. “For actors, the traditional method is to work in a repertory company and play small roles while watching the more experienced performers. All of Shakespeare’s plays are written with roles for that very purpose: to start training young actors so that they have the opportunity to watch and occasionally step in and go on for leading roles.”

Here on the Rippon and Roe Green stages, all CU acting interns—of which there are four each summer—are paid a summer stipend, take on speaking roles alongside professional actors from across the country, and understudy the leads. They are valued and necessary members of the company.

It’s an immersive style of training that is important for designers and technicians, too. All artists need to learn through a combination of observation and hands-on practice, says festival production manager Jon Dunkle, and repertory festivals offer a critical bridge to close the gap between learning a craft and actually getting paid to do it.

“Summer theatre festivals have always been a bit of a stepping stone or training ground. There is an important academic and educational part of what we offer in the ecosystem of the broader American theatre.”

For the Benefit of All

It’s a particularly special asset for CU’s Department of Theatre & Dance to share space and opportunities with one of the only Equity theatres in the entire region. “I tell our applicants: You’re going to come here, and you’re going to learn something new,” says Dunkle. “You’re going to work on fabulous theater, you’re going to gain some resume credits, and you’re going to make a bunch of friends.”

And there’s no price of admission—quite the opposite. All Colorado Shakespeare Festival interns and apprentices receive a student stipend to offset their costs of living over the summer.

“They also learn how to talk to people and how to resolve conflict, and how to advocate for themselves,” adds Wendy Franz, CSF’s managing director. “Ultimately, young artists learn resilience; that they’re capable of far more than they even realized.”

Skills like proper negotiation and collaboration are especially important as the theatre industry continues to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of today’s university artists spent one or two of their critical training years either not creating art at all, or creating art online or without audiences. Now is the time to get back up to speed, and CSF creates a world-class space to do so.

But to be clear, this is not an act of charity for the festival. By coordinating with CU, festival leadership has the opportunity to recruit some of the most promising talent in Colorado. Dunkle first connected with CSF audio supervisor Wes Halloran, for example, in 2019. Halloran mixed a show for Theatre & Dance, and from the audience, Dunkle could tell how skilled Halloran was and promptly recruited him for a paid summer position. Halloran has worked with CSF every summer since.

A Career-Building Launch Pad

While there are many artists who return to work for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival time and time again, the goal is always for them to improve and advance their career, whether here or elsewhere in the industry.

“Ultimately,” says Dunkle, “Once you do an apprenticeship with us, you don’t need to do one again. You are prepared to apply for a professional gig.”

Franz agrees. “At its best, the theatre industry is a super small community in which there’s always just six degrees of separation, right? We want our CU student staff to learn the value of having a great work ethic, being a good communicator and collaborator, and what it means to be curious and create meaningful relationships with fellow professionals who will vouch for them as they make their way through their career.”

Today, CU students who started at CSF can be spotted on stage and behind the scenes locally, with companies like the Denver Center and the Arvada Center, and working in Chicago, in L.A., and on Broadway.

The hope, Orr jokes, is that they even outgrow summers with CSF: “There are some artists that we would love to have back but we can’t afford them anymore! That’s beautiful. They’re on one of the coasts, doing their thing. “And that’s the whole point.”

Photo: Jo Hoagland with Christian Tripp (left) in Coriolanus, 2022.
Photo by Jennifer Koskinen