03/03/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Colorado Shakespeare Festival, CU-Boulder Work To Keep The Bard In Business

What's past is prologue.

When the Colorado Shakespeare Festival enters its 56th season at the University of Colorado this summer, it will do so under a greater microscope.

From 2007 to 2009, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival racked up close to $1 million in losses. Several peripheral factors -- including the Great Recession, West Nile Virus fears and inclement weather -- weakened annual revenue at the summer theatrical program, officials said at the time.

The festival nearly broke even in 2010, but the growing deficit sparked broader restructuring efforts for the theater series that sits in residence at and is partly funded by CU.

During the early part of the 2011 season, then-artistic director Philip Sneed exclaimed the efforts appeared to be working as initial projections put the festival in the black for the first time since 2006.

However, both the 2011 and 2012 seasons closed with familiar fates: They landed in the red.

The festival's expenses exceeded revenue by $35,896 in 2011 and -- according to preliminary estimates -- by $117,315 in 2012, the program's financial statements show.

Although frequently lauded for its benefits to the school and community as a whole, the festival's financial performance has stirred unease among some program and university officials who want to be able to justify spending nearly $169,000 on a program that's losing money.

"Unless it's tied directly to student benefit, it

raises a problem for us," said Steven Leigh, who was appointed dean of the College of Arts & Sciences last year. " ... If it doesn't become self-sufficient, we really can't (subsidize) it for the future."

To accomplish both goals, several tweaks were made to the structure of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 2013, a year in which officials have budgeted a net profit of $25,363.

Among the changes:

CU officials have launched summer courses in conjunction with the 2013 program.

The festival's interim producing artistic director is undertaking several approaches to drum up ticket sales, donor and community support.

School officials approved $55,000 in capital expenditures for permanent equipment improvements.

"We want this to be successful," Leigh said. "We think it's strategically important for a lot of reasons."

The further integration of the Bard into CU's academia this year included the launch of the "Spring into Shakespeare" weekly series from January through May, a summer class taught by director Jane Page and another summer course, "Shakespeare in Performance," taught by scholar Harry Berger Jr., a professor emeritus at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

The hope is to broaden the partnership through other departments at the school and also convey to the public and donors the need for the program, Leigh said.

Like an extension service at an agricultural-focused school, Leigh said, "When the money dries up for that extension service, it means the farms have to contribute more."

The festival's current deficit sits at $117,000.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival was relieved of a nearly $985,000 shortfall on June 30, 2012, as part of a move by former Dean Todd Gleeson.

Amy Gathright Lavens, the College of Arts & Science's finance director, said Gleeson eliminated the obligation because belt-tightening measures in recent years gave the college the capacity and he wanted to "remove the distraction of the shortfall" from the agenda of Leigh, who took over on July 1 of that year.

It's not uncommon for a Shakespeare organization to be paired with an

academic institution, said Patrick Flick, manager of the Shakespeare Theatre Association.

"There are educational opportunities abound," he said.

Flick said he could not speak directly to struggles experienced by specific Shakespeare organizations in recent years, but said consumers and donors continue to have a tight clasp on their pocketbooks.

"I'm seeing that most of (the Shakespeare organizations) seem to be holding their own at least," he said. " ... It's a question of what your community values."

'Very hard time competing'

Former artistic director Philip Sneed, who resigned in January to become the executive director at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, said he fully supports the direction Leigh and Orr are headed.

Running a classical repertoire theater company in residence at a university was not an easy task, Sneed said, noting that because the Colorado Shakespeare Festival was affiliated with CU, it was not eligible for funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

Sneed estimated that if the Colorado Shakespeare Festival was a private, nonprofit organization, it could receive roughly $250,000 in grants from the SCFD.

"We had a very hard time competing with places like the Arvada Center, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts or the Curious Theatre (Company)," Sneed said.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival also is hindered by being under the wings of a university that has weathered significant budget cuts, he said.

There was pressure to find a balance between spending enough money to keep people coming, but not so much that it would break the bank, he added.

After the deep losses suffered in the 2007 to 2009 seasons, Sneed's organization posted a balanced budget in 2010. It was the only year of his tenure that the budget was balanced.

"It's ironic ... that's also the year where I think most critics and many patrons would agree the quality was really low," he said. "We did it really by cutting corners. Several critics said 'These plays seemed under-rehearsed.'"

They were under-rehearsed because salaries were cut, he said.

Sneed and associates took approaches that included shortening the season and running only one of the two theaters at any time.

Sneed said the timing of his departure was not tied to the financial performance of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Instead, he left because he had a "great career opportunity" in a higher-position role, he said.

"My timing was not the greatest, but that's the way it goes sometimes," he said.

Timothy Orr, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's interim producing artistic director, said that he has received overwhelming support from potential donors about the deeper educational integration.

Orr said his approach to 2013 season has been to "hunker down and focus on our own backyard."

CU officials nixed a decision to partner with a Shakespeare festival in Prague that would have resulted in both troupes performing at each others' locale. Instead of spending a month organizing that effort, officials moved up the work on their marketing efforts, he said.

'Focus our efforts on creating art'

To save money, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival also is spending some.

The College of Arts and Sciences approved a proposal requesting $55,000 to improve the electrical systems at the historic Mary Rippon Theatre.

In the weeks it takes to ready the theater for the annual festival, one week alone was spent hauling heavy soft cables -- thick as a grown man's wrist -- and stringing them up to lighting positions 30 feet above the stage and to 15-foot-tall and 35-foot-tall towers surrounding the stage and audience.

Those types of cables have a life span of eight to 10 years and would be costly to replace, Orr said.

"If times are tight for a theater company, or any company, they're going to try to stretch out the life of the cables," he said.

Last summer, the power system failed during the opening night of "Treasure Island," the final show of the season. The crew pulled together the working cables and ran the rest of the summer with only the front lights.

The College of Arts and Sciences OK'd an emergency budget request of $20,000 to replace the cables, but the shipment would not arrive until the final week of the festival.

Festival organizers held off on the order and instead went for a more permanent option.

The 2013 electrical system proposal consisted of the $20,000 from last year's emergency request, $3,500 from monies previously spent on soft cable installation, $11,500 from the producing artistic director salary savings and an additional $20,000 from the college that festival organizers would pay back at $5,000 in four years.

Orr estimated the electrical upgrades could save the program "thousands of dollars every year for decades."

In the coming weeks, work is slated to begin on installing weatherproof electrical boxes near the lighting positions and running the "hard" cables, in conduit, up to those positions. No significant excavation work is expected to occur at the historic stone theater, Orr said, noting the latter action will come at the hands of a gopher-like robot that will thread the cables underground and to boxes.

The work is slated to wrap up six weeks prior to the kick-off of the 2013 season.

"It's such a distraction to be doing maintenance and this kind of work every summer," Orr said. "Why not fix it permanently so we can focus our efforts on creating art?"

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or

Colorado Shakespeare Festival 2013 Summer Season

Plays: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Macbeth," "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," "Richard III," "Women of Will: The Overview," "Making America: No Little Rebellion"

When: June 8 to Aug. 11

Where: Univsersity of Colorado campus, Boulder

Website: ___



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