Good William Hunting 

Thirty years of Shakespeare in Idaho

How did Idaho come to be the home of one of the country's newest and most impressive outdoor Shakespeare theaters?

click to enlarge DOUG COPSEY
  • Doug Copsey
It is a journey as magical as the sprites in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and as sweeping as Prospero's powers in The Tempest. It is the story of a motley band of dreamers, "looking for a way to make a living at their craft" and energized by the talent, drive and faith of Doug Copsey, who put together a professional theater in downtown Boise, Idaho, that has evolved from a casual, blanket-on-the-lawn site at the Main Street Bistro and $3.50 tickets in 1977, to what Copsey calls today "a world-class state-of-the-art theater."

The detailed history of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is the subject of a beautiful new picture-packed book, written with a wonderful, warm and entertaining narrative by Copsey, entitled With Our Good Will: 30 Years of Shakespeare in Idaho. It pays tribute to the many people responsible for the creation and flourishing of this unique theater and shows how exciting it is when a small community responds to leadership and determination.

"I will never forget that blissful innocent summer when the Idaho Shakespeare Festival was born. I suspect we all knew how lucky we were to be a part of the magic, but if we didn't know it then, I have no doubt we do now." And so begins the journey, with this quote from actress Barbara McKean elegantly scrolled across the first two gleaming white pages in the book, a sample of the fabulous design created by Chris Latter throughout the entire volume. Latter, aided by the endless array of photos by David Bogie, brings Copsey's words and the festival's personnel and past to vivid life.

In memory, it may seen like the summer of 1977 was blissful, but to the cast and technicians for the first production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was more blood, sweat and tears. They labored to turn the vast concrete plaza at One Capital Center into the enchanted forest outside Athens. They also dealt with city regulations, traffic, weather and the constant shortage of money.

With the financial help and encouragement of building owner Doug Oppenheimer, and an impassioned speech by Ada County Highway Commissioner Mike Silva (an actor and director from the Boise Little Theater) to close off car traffic around the center during the show, the show was ready to go.

I was one of 300 people who gathered there that first opening night 30 years ago, carrying old blankets and bags of snacks and drinks. I knew many of the actors from their work at Boise State and community theaters. I also knew the catalyst that brought them together with Copsey, a vet attending Boise State on the G.I. Bill, was their appearance with him in the university's acclaimed production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Director Michael Hoffman of Idaho (Soap Dish, Restoration, A Midsummer Night's Dream) was a Boise State student when he appeared in Cuckoo's Nest and he has acted and directed for the festival. He said, "For me, the start [of the festival] wasn't really A Midsummer Night's Dream; the start was Cuckoo's Nest." Along with Hoffman and Copsey, the play featured two actors who have become 25-year festival veterans: Dan Peterson and Stitch Marker. Victoria Holloway, co-director for the first festival show, was also a skilled designer whose costumes brought sparkle and color to this and many of the plays to come.

The company was amazed by the audience's response. There were 400 attending the second night--a Thursday--and 500 to 600 over the first weekend. They were on a roll.

During the second summer, there were the usual emergencies. John Elliott stepped into a major role eight days before opening because an actor disappeared. But attendance soared to more than 8,500. In 1979, the festival expanded to two shows and added a fourth week. Holloway directed Romeo and Juliet and Copsey appeared as the Prince of Verona. (I can still see him entering majestically with a live red-tailed hawk on his arm. Talk about being upstaged.)

In 1980, the season expanded to three shows and set a new attendance record of 11,300. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival was accepted, established and in the black financially and able to pay the cast and crew a nominal amount. Then, in March, 1981, the sky fell in. Ray's Restaurant had been bought by Angell's, and the new owners wanted to add outdoor patio dining and music. The festival was out.

The organizers scrambled to find a new venue. With the help of the White Savage Associates, they found a cozy enclave on the Plantation Golf course in a filled-in duck pond. The ducks stayed, and frequently added an unusual element to comedies and tragedies alike. The festival performed at the Plantation from '81 to '83, but the move adversely affected its financial situation. By 1982, Copsey felt burned out, spending most of his time year-round with organizational work, and he helped in the search for a new artistic director.

The dynamic Mark Cuddy from the Denver Centre Theatre Company took over, with the urgent goals of attracting audiences to Plantation and finding a more permanent home. He succeeded in what seemed like a gift from the gods. For $1 a year, the festival leased an empty lot from Ore-Ida, next to its building on Park Center Boulevard in '84. "We basically built the theater out of nothing with no money," Cuddy said.

What they built was a wonderful bowl theater with good sightlines from every blanket, and Cuddy went on to initiate and direct some of the most creative and delightful versions of Shakespeare's works imaginable.

With Cuddy's departure in 1988, the festival became a bit rudderless, and without an overall artistic director, it found itself facing a potential scandal in '91. Director Dennis Bigelow staged a production of Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind that included frontal male nudity. When the board previewed the show, they realized they could have a problem with the Idaho laws on obscenity. They asked the director to remove the scene. He refused. They canceled the show. Due to the publicity and furor about the infringement of "artistic" creativity, the festival had its largest audiences ever that year--one show short and no nudity.

Thanks to the dedication and incredible skills of longtime business manager and fund raiser Vangie Osborn, the festival flourished, got out of the red, and the search for an artistic director went into full steam. Tall, scholarly Charles Fee, from the Sierra Repertory Theatre in Northern California, was chosen and came on board in March 1992 and the next year he hired a friend, Mark Hofflund, as managing director. Hofflund, a soft-spoken charmer, graduated from Princeton University and the University of California San Diego. He had been an actor, assistant director, dramaturge and the director of the Play Discovery Program at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

In the intervening years, the Fee-Hofflund team has worked wonders, with fabulous shows, successful fund raising and the creation of a world-class amphitheater off Warm Springs Avenue at Barber Pool on the banks of the Boise River. While the festival produces modern and classic plays, as well as musicals, along with Shakespearean shows, the new theater's design is definitely a tribute to the Bard's Globe Theater in London. The ring of steel poles encircling the theater measure 100 feet in diameter, the same size as the original Globe.

Hofflund, who has served on the Boise City and Idaho arts commissions, the Shakespeare Theatre of America's executive board and now has been appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Arts Council, emphasizes the educational outreach of the festival and relishes what he calls "the creative opportunities" in his work behind the scenes.

Hofflund points out that the educational aspects offered by ISF are so important, they have a full-time educational director, Carole Whiteleather. Although Whiteleather is a popular Equity actress who performed in many shows during the Mark Cuddy/Park Center years, she rarely has time to act these days, since she is in charge of the Idaho Theater for Youth, the year-round ISF Drama School, Camp Shakespeare and the summer apprentice program. She also runs the "Shakespearience" tours for junior and senior high schools. This touring group was chosen by the National Endowment of the Arts to be one of 15 companies who visit all 50 states with Shakespearean shows and workshops for students. "We reach 55,000 kids with these various programs each year," she said, "and visit 98 percent of Idaho's counties."

Artistic director Fee is well aware of the challenges he faces to keep the festival a viable and beloved feature in Idaho. "The truth is, you're either growing, or you're shrinking; there's no in-between," he says. He has a five-year plan to build another theater at the river site--an indoor venue--to allow the festival to offer year-round productions, as in Ashland and Cedar City. He has also teamed up as a producing director at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, sharing costs and productions, which benefits both companies. Fee sees this as the business model for live theaters in the future. In the fall of 2002, the three shows he took from Idaho to the indoor Cleveland facility received critical acclaim in that city.

Fee and the ISF "family" look to the not-too-distant future when the festival will have two theaters and a $6 million annual budget. Fee declares, "You've got to watch for opportunity," and that's exactly what ISF has done for 30 years. So for the next decades, we bid "excelsior!" to our Idaho festival.


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