As leadership changes, questions arise about Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s future

Timothy Orr, interim producing artistic director
Photo courtesy of Colorado Shakespeare Festival

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is one of those Boulder institutions that, like the genre it celebrates, seems like it’s been around forever. Though longevity has its place, could a series of present troubles threaten the CSF’s future?

While no one is ready to hit the panic button just yet, changes to the CSF’s funding structure — combined with the recent, unanticipated resignation of Producing Artistic Director Philip Sneed, who on Feb. 1 took a better-paying job as executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities — have raised questions about the direction of the 55-year-old summer event, including concerns about the CSF’s financial viability.

Steven Leigh, dean of the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Arts & Sciences, which oversees the CSF’s operations, has already set about finding Sneed’s successor, appointing CSF staffer Timothy Orr as interim producing artistic director while a search process unfolds. Leigh says a new chief will likely come from the ranks of theater professionals with academic credentials or tenure-track faculty prospects skilled at running a major producing organization.

Citing state budget cuts that have slashed per-student spending by 50 percent over the past 10 years, Leigh says, “We’re a tuition-funded university, so if we’re going to do a quality festival, we need to integrate it with the life of our students. We’ve been subsidizing the CSF on and off for some time — $135,000 this past year. It has to contribute to our academic mission in order for us to spend money on it.”

And if the CSF doesn’t, or can’t, adapt?

“We may not be able to do it anymore,” Leigh says. “But I think we can make it and that subsidies can be justified — if our students are gaining directly from that subsidy.”

Philip Sneed, former producing artistic director | Courtesy of Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Sneed points out that state policy further complicates matters by prohibiting university-related institutions from accepting grants from the Scientific Cultural & Facilities District, an organization often credited with supplying lifeblood to Denver-area cultural institutions.

There’s also the question of how to continue offering a product that’s priced at the same levels charged by larger, local professional theaters — but may not always measure up in overall quality.

“You can’t charge $50 for tickets with only student actors playing the roles,” Sneed says, explaining that, at those prices, even the most sympathetic audiences have a hard time looking past an undergraduate portraying one of Shakespeare’s older characters, no matter how good the actor might be.

“I was committed to maintaining the standards and quality of the work so that it could compete with the Arvada Center and Denver Center,” he continues. “With competitive ticket prices, I wanted competitive actors. To do that costs money. … We were gradually professionalizing. I certainly thought we were getting to the point of balancing the budget while maintaining quality.”

Regardless of which direction the CSF takes, mounting the current season remains the top priority for Orr.

“The timing was pretty difficult. Phil gave notice five days before our auditions, with 300 people competing for 24 acting positions — a process I hadn’t been involved in previously. I had to get my head wrapped around all of that. [The new direction] is one we’ve all been having great conversations about.”

Orr says he intends to keep on expanding the CSF’s outreach to area schools, as well as to look for creative ways to attract new audience members.

“Our core focus is our summer festival. But everything else we do is intended to enlarge the family. And to produce these plays, which are worthy … I’m not worried at all. It has always been the case that, for a lot of people, you discover these enrichments later in life. My concern right now is on educating people, removing roadblocks to getting here.”

For now, then, the Ship of Bard continues to sail, no matter how tempest-tossed the ocean beneath, nor how portending the cannon fire, near or far.

An angel could step forth to endow a permanent artistic director position. An entrepreneur might start the ball rolling on opening up access to SCFD funds. Old and new, warring against each other, might create something newer still, something that hasn’t yet been envisioned — either on or off the stage.

It’s Shakespeare, after all, the playwright whose works have well outsold all others combined throughout the history of the known universe. As his plays so often remind, the only limits to realizing continued success are largely self-imposed.