Arts June 20, 2017

Into the Wild

Summer at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival

In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all.

–Victor Victor Hugo

The calls of eagles and owls in the riverbank trees and the hush of warm summer nights are the soundtrack for performances where “hearts love and souls suffer,” and the Bard is honored at Boise’s Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Add the champagne glow of the setting sun on the foothills that are the permanent backdrop for the stage, and magic is in the air.

Known and respected for its Broadway-quality productions and repertoire that includes plays and musicals other than Shakespeare, the Festival is a treat that draw thousands every summer.

In close-knit, friendly Boise, the theater is a treasure lovingly built, equipped and maintained with individual donations, corporate sponsors and funding by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and others. Volunteers proudly staff audience services in an idyllic outdoor amphitheater with a tiered, grass picnic area where it’s okay to bring (or rent) short lawn chairs, another level with small tables and chairs, and another with traditional seats. Playgoers on picnic blankets come early and party with food and drink they have brought themselves or purchased at Café Shakespeare.

Part of the joy of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is sharing food and drink with friends in a gorgeous setting.

The play’s the thing, of course, but festival audiences may also see some of the wild animals who wander through town. Deer may greet you near the ticket office, and regularly “enter stage right, cross the stage behind the actors, and exit stage left,” says Managing Director Mark Hoffman; actors have even ad-libbed to include the sudden presence of wildlife.

It isn’t easy, or cheap, to stage complex musicals and plays to fill a season, but the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee, together with Managing Director Mark Hofflund, have managed to do it, winning awards and delighting audiences with performances that are almost always sold out.

A packed house enjoys a summer performance of Shakespeare’s comedy ” As You Like It.”

In a tour-de-force of artistry and organization, in 2011 they formed an alliance between the now 40-year-old festival, the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Incline, Nevada.

Staging a production at one of the three classical repertory companies, then moving the actors, production staff, sets, props, costumes and everything else across the country or up the mountains to Tahoe is a formidable, some say crazy, feat worthy of Caesar’s army. But it works, and audiences in all three locations are treated to more theater than they would be otherwise because of the cost savings. And dear to both Fee’s and Hofflund’s hearts is the chance to provide year-round employment for theater people, a rare guarantee for a profession which is usually vagabond. The loyalty of employees grateful for the setup is part of what makes all three theaters more stable.

The Festival’s 2017 summer season includes Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” along with the horror thriller “Wait Until Dark,” the crime-solving Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”—a “big, stagey” musical, Hofflund said. It’s a musical version of the Disney film.

A highlight of the season is sure to be “Hamlet,” regarded as the most famous play ever written, with the greatest role an actor can take on. Because it’s so difficult, it’s not often performed—a company must have actors worthy of the role, for one thing, and a season appropriate to the task.

This season, Fee has cast two Hamlets to play in rotation: Jon Dyrud and Laura Berg. What led him to cast two actors in the coveted role? “Laura is an actress whose work I love; she’s extremely skillful,” Fee said. Dyrud is also a respected veteran of the Festival; Fee cast him without audition. “Laura is 5 feet 6 inches and Jon is 6 feet 3 inches, so there’s one difference. But it’s their interpretations and styles that are such an interesting contrast; one is more emotional and the other is more intellectual. I won’t give away which is which.”

“Usually, only a single actor would get an opportunity to play the role,” Fee added. “Hamlet is a broad character who could be male or female. This year audiences will be able to compare and see what they think.” The festival website displays who is playing Hamlet on a particular night so playgoers may choose which performance they see.

Asked how she reacted to being cast, Berg said, “Hamlet is the role for young men. They grow up in the theater wanting to play him. I didn’t feel that; it wasn’t on my radar. I came at it with fresh eyes; I hadn’t even read the whole thing until I was cast.”

Fee decided that pronouns would not be changed when Berg plays the role. She added, “I’m not a girl or a boy—I’m just Hamlet. Most audiences are willing to go with that.” The play opened in Cleveland several months ago, and rotates to Boise on June 2.

Another unique feature of the 2017 season will be a chorus made up of volunteer community members for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Since hiring union actors for the chorus would be cost-prohibitive—“about $40,000 a week,” said Tom Ford, musical director for the production—a special deal was made with Actor’s Equity.

Festival actors and technical and production staff love to spend a summer in Boise, Hofflund said. “They take advantage of Idaho’s great outdoors while they’re here

Festival company actor Nick Steen offered, “The first time I worked at the festival, what surprised me about Idaho is just how much like home it already felt like from the moment I arrived. The whole community seemed so physically active and friendly. The day after I arrived, I went for a walk around a small lake right off of Parkcenter, and it took all of five minutes before a stranger kindly greeted me on the path.”

To Hofflund’s point Berg added: “A director I know wrote about the need for ‘artistic homes.’ It’s what I love most about Boise. Theater people hunger for a community that makes us feel engaged, and even though we’re only there four or five months a year, we love it because of the people. I have always told people there is no better place to do theater than Boise, Idaho.”

2017 PLAYS

“Wait Until Dark” May 26 – July 30

“Hamlet” June 2 – 25

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” June 30 – Sept. 1

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Aug. 4 – Sept. 3

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” Sept. 8 – Oct. 1

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.