66 summers of Shakespeare

Boulder’s Premiere Shakespeare Festival returns June 11 with a focus on ‘hope within loss’

Courtesy: Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Tim Orr’s history with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) began as an actor in 2007 — his favorite roles at the company include Lucio in the 2010 production of Measure for Measure and Horatio in the 2009 production of Hamlet. In 2011 he  joined the staff as the associate producing director and was eventually promoted to his current role as producing artistic director. 

“It’s been a slow, steady progression every year,” Orr says. “We have been building the brand and 

expanding the budget by focusing on what we hope we do best, which is the plays of William Shakespeare.”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) has been delighting crowds since 1958. Last summer, the festival celebrated its 65th year in operation with its first full production season at its usual capacity since it was forced to cancel its 2020 season due to the pandemic.

In 2021, CSF produced an all-outdoor season in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre before returning in full force in 2022. “It was great to be back,” says Orr. “And what I noticed from our patrons was that there was a real hunger for Shakespeare.

“As a company, we want to mix in newer titles and create the classics of tomorrow,” Orr says, “but man, our audience really loves Shakespeare.” 

In order to give patrons the classic Shakespeare they’re seeking, this year’s CSF will offer three classics from the Bard on the outdoor stage: Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and an original practice performance of The Comedy of Errors. But at the indoor Roe Green Theatre, the company will present a lesser known Shakespeare work, The Winter’s Tale, as well as One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s contemporary adaptation of the 1743 Italian comedy Il servitore di due padroni.

Creating the festival

Planning for this season began during the height of the pandemic, and these titles were selected when the organization thought it might be coming back with a complete season in 2021. 

“Obviously, that was not the case,” Orr says. “We are always working two to three years out on the next season for CSF and making adjustments as needed.” 

And though the pandemic was an unexpected bump in the road, Orr had been working at the organization long enough to feel confident they would survive. 

Putting together a festival of this scale “is a lot,” says Wendy Franz, managing director of CSF and director of The Winter’s Tale. “There are six of us who are full-time, and we operate like a small nonprofit or start-up. What we do from May to August is very intense; we have two casts of around 45 actors, plus another 70 artisans, to produce all the shows.”

Heidi Schmidt, CSF’s resident dramaturg, begins talking to directors about the seasons’ shows in October or November

“A lot of my dramaturgical work so far has been getting a sense of where the directors are coming from, reading the scripts, and asking myself what will be the biggest barrier to the audience getting the most out of this production,” Schmidt says.

The creative team agonizes over questions like these at production meetings until their first day of rehearsals, which began this year on May 23. 

“We rehearse and open a season one [show] at a time,” Orr says, until all shows are open and in repertory by the end of July. 

The 66th season

Its first show of the season is the witty romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which opens at the Mary Rippon Theatre on June 13. The play tells the story of how bickering enemies Benedick and Beatrice become lovers.

Much Ado About Nothing is everything we love about Shakespeare,” Orr says. “It has romance, themes of growing up, falling in love and what our relationships are with our parents. I think it is important to remind ourselves that for a lot of people, especially young people, this is probably their first Shakespeare play, and it may even be their first time at live theater; so, we want to invite them into that experience by presenting this relatable story in an understandable way.”

After opening its first outdoor show, CSF will premiere The Winter’s Tale in the Roe Green Theatre on June 25. 

“Though we love the classics, there is a segment of our audience who adores Shakespeare’s richly complex plays that don’t get produced every two to three years,” Orr says. “We haven’t done The Winter’s Tale in a long time, but it is this psychological drama that has elements of comedy and has so much to say about our current time.”  

Though Franz is a fan of Shakespeare, she hadn’t read The Winter’s Tale until Orr asked her if she was interested in directing the show. She was struck by the intensity of the play’s story, which features King Leontes inexplicably accusing his pregnant wife of infidelity, an act he ultimately spends two decades repenting for. 

“Even though the king abuses his power, I was moved by how many characters throughout the play stand up to the tyrant to protect the vulnerable,” Franz says. “As awful as it could have gone, people kept it from going too far and made it possible for a magical resurrection at the end.” 

Next up on the outdoor stage is CSF’s take on King Lear, which opens July 9. In the titular role of the king, the tragedy features Ellen McLaughlin, who originated the role of Angel in the original production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. King Lear foolishly gives his property away to the daughters who profess their love the most rather than the daughter who actually loves him. 

“I was drawn to King Lear during COVID,” Orr says. “It said a lot to me about how hard the pandemic was hitting our parents and grandparents; however, I felt it would be too soon to approach that title in 2021-2022 because we might not have enough perspective.” 

After the madness of Lear, audiences can cleanse their palates with the uproariously hilarious farce One Man, Two Guvnors on its indoor stage when it opens July 23. The play, set in Brighton, England, in the swinging 1960s, is a fresh adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia dell’arte The Servant of Two Masters

“During the pandemic, I watched the filmed version of One Man, Two Guvnors starring James Corden, and I enjoyed how much it was a party in the theater,” Orr says. “The play was everything that excites us about adaptations; it’s a smart reimagining of a classic play that still maintains the spirit of the original work. It’s not quite a musical — it might be easier if it were — but there is a band who plays interludes; I wanted us to get some experience with musical theater, and this felt like a great way to learn as a company.” 

‘Hope and loss’

Rounding out the festival is its yearly one-night-only original practice production of The Comedy of Errors on Aug. 6, which has already sold out. This exploratory style seeks to stage plays as they would have been produced during Shakespeare’s era. 

The original practice productions are one of Schidmit’s favorite parts of the festival because “the raw energy of putting an under-rehearsed Shakespeare play in front of an audience to see how much still works is really extraordinary,” she says. “I love how this project turns the 21st-century aesthetic of polish and precision on its head. Things that seem like imperfections from that point of view are its greatest strengths — we watch actors fumble and recover with grace, humor and a lot of joy.” 

This is the theater’s last summer in the Rippon Theatre in its current form due to renovations the university is making to the venue. “We won’t have an outdoor season in 2024, and possibly not in 2025,” Orr says. “It’s important for people who love the CSF to come this year because this is the last time that the old theater that people love will be in its current form.”

Though last season was officially CSF’s first full season back after the pandemic, one of the things Franz observed while putting together the program was how enthusiastic the creative teams were to be producing theater again. 

“I was getting excited from reading the director’s and dramaturgical notes because there is a common theme of hope within loss, and I think that is poignant coming out of the pandemic,” Franz says. “And I hope that people pick up on those themes when they see the shows this year; we all go through this stuff together. Whether it’s joy or tragedy, we get to carry the lessons we learned through the theater with each other.”