Things looking up for Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Donations dove, but ticket sales were up as CSF turns profit

CSF put on Complete Works (Abridged) this year.
Lexi Schwartz | Boulder Weekly

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has had a financially difficult decade, at one point relying on the University of Colorado Boulder for nearly $1 million in assistance. With Shakespeare Santa Cruz (a California festival focused on the Bard) and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival both closing down this year, the Colorado tradition looked to be in a dark place.

However, for the first time since 2000, the festival turned a profit in the 2013 season, generating 17 percent more revenue than in 2012. With ticket sales that outpaced the previous year by 10 percent (reaching their highest level since 2009), the next hurdle is bringing donor support back into the equation.

“We didn’t have quite as much donor support as in the past,” says College of Arts & Sciences Dean Steven Leigh. “We spooked a lot of donors. … It’s understandable with the uncertainty why we didn’t have quite the donor impact we had before.”

Looking forward, he says, “donors are still very interested, and the fact that we might have turned a corner will help with that.”

Leigh says he expects those who may have been hesitant to support the festival, given the amount of publicity around its finances, will be more encouraged by this year’s profit, quality and planning.

The thing on Interim Director Timothy Orr’s mind is making the 2013 season’s results sustainable, and driving community support for the 55-year-old tradition.

Part of his strategy is to pay down some of the festival’s previous costs, and thus a portion of the 2013 revenue will pay off the entirety of loans that covered two recent renovations to the Mary Rippon Theatre. Orr’s goal is then to “free up a lot of money in the budget for years to come. … The surplus can then go into production, putting it on stage for all of us to enjoy.”

Orr attributed the increased box office sales this year to long-range planning as well. Tickets for the season went on sale nearly five months earlier than they had in the past, and the season opened earlier and ran longer.

“This gives people more opportunities to see the plays, and allows for word-of-mouth,” Orr says.

The festival recently announced its 2014 season: The Tempest will open on June 7, Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet on June 13, Henry IV: Part I on June 18, The Merry Wives of Windsor on June 28, and Henry IV: Part II on July 27.

To increase donor support and ticket sales once more, Leigh says the financial focus must stay on the festival and its audience.

“It wouldn’t be productive to say, ‘Here’s a bill, now go pay it.’ It’s not productive to just have a transfer of cash from the festival to the university,” Leigh says about the notion of asking the festival to “pay back” the university’s subsidies right away. “It would be really more productive for us to think about using the surpluses we have for mutual benefit.”

This past season the festival attempted to increase student involvement, in an effort to generate more mutual benefits from the university event.

“Students up until this year just haven’t been engaged,” Leigh says.

To fix this, two courses were offered in the summer term that brought academics together with the festival, in the English and theatre and dance departments.

“Once a week we would send in actors, designers, directors, to talk about what it means to put these [works] up on stage,” Orr says. “Us going back in to augment the classes that are being taught, that’s pretty new, that’s pretty cool.”

Students also had the opportunity to attend rehearsals and performances and meet with a speech and language coach on staff.

Leigh envisions those augmented classes spreading through more departments, to reach even more students and faculty. He says the history, humanities and biology departments could be the next fields to spread into.

“Our goal would be to have a Shakespeare studies center that could coordinate that curriculum and enhance the experience of our students,” Leigh says. “Shakespeare has a lot to say about biology, particularly about growth and development. I’d like to see a course on biology … how ideas of nature and nurture have changed through time to the contemporary period.”

By increasing student and faculty involvement, he hopes donors will see a refreshed value in supporting the festival.

“We need to think about making this sustainable,” Leigh says of the festival’s success.

He seems encouraged by the numbers and the positive impacts of the team’s changes in marketing, planning and creativity this year.

Looking ahead, he simply says, “The future is bright.”