Stage Struck: How Idaho Shakespeare Continues to Raise the Bar 

ISF will follow 2018's record-breaking season with Witness for the Prosecution, Taming of the Shrew, The Music Man, Julius Caesar and Million Dollar Quartet.

Cardinal Rule No. 1: Don't bury the lead. The big news here is that the Idaho Shakespeare Festival will soon unveil its much-anticipated 2019 season: Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution; two Shakespeare productions, Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew; and two musicals,The Music Man and Million Dollar Quartet.

That slate will come in the wake of a 2018 season that was the talk of the town and broke all ISF box office records. Just days before ISF launches its season ticket sales for 2019, Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee sat down with Boise Weekly to chat about his company's recently wrapped season and the creative process of raising the bar for next year.

When did you get your first inkling that the 2018 season might exceed expectations?

We already knew there's intrinsic growth in the community; and with that, our audience has been growing over time. The 2017 season was huge for us, so quite frankly, I had projected flat growth for 2018. I thought there was no way that we would see that kind of growth two years in a row. Our season ticket sales began last November, but by mid-December we were 40 percent ahead in sales of the previous year.

click to enlarge ANDREW MOORE/IDAHO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Andrew Moore/Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Can we talk a bit about how Shakespeare festivals all around the world have adapted, introducing more contemporary plays and musicals?

We're a large company now, so I feel a responsibility to bring people into the theater. My job as a producer is to try to create the most interesting work on stage that we possibly can, work that we're proud of. But if I'm not involving the whole community, then what really is the point? Look, we'll do Julius Caesar next year and we're really excited about that. About 10,000 people will come to see Julius Caesar. But about 22,000 people will come to see the musical.

I think that by now everyone knows what a smash Mamma Mia! was for you this past summer. But then came Pride and Prejudice, and it was nearly impossible to get a ticket to either show.

We didn't see that coming. By the end of June, we couldn't continue online sales. I called the box office and they said, "Charlie, we just don't have any tickets." It was stunning.

Can I propose to you that there was a theme that ran through this last season?

I'm fascinated. Tell me.

For many reasons, 2018 was a difficult year. My sense from all the people I spoke to at the amphitheater this summer—audiences and performers—was that the festival was a safe place. For certain, you entertained us and took us away from all the world's turmoil for a couple of hours. But this year's productions also challenged us, asked us to question the human experience. Nearly everyone I spoke to said, "There's something different, something special going on at the amphitheater this summer."

Wow, I agree. There was some deep need to come together. There was an incredibly strong vibe in the house. It was one of those seasons when someone would come up to me after every show and say, "That's my favorite show that you've ever done."

HOW TO BUILD A SEASON

Look at ISF's schedule since it began in 1977 and you'll see that in the first seven years of its existence, the company primarily performed Shakespeare. But beginning as early as the mid-1980's, it began introducing comedies and dramas outside of Shakespeare's canon; and in 1988, the company performed its first musical production, Quilters. Through the next two decades, more contemporary plays and musicals were sprinkled into each season along with at least two Shakespeare productions. But then, beginning several years ago, Fee found an ideal formula that audiences immediately responded to.

click to enlarge Charlie Fee - IDAHO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Idaho Shakespeare Festival
  • Charlie Fee

How do you start stacking a season?

We're always in conversation about the things that interest us, the plays that would be fun to do and which plays land well with our audience. What gives me enormous aid is that I now have a structure to our season. That structure has changed over time and will continue to change. But right now, we have certain genres—let's call them "slots"—to fill. We're generally going to have two Shakespeare plays and we want one of them to be a comedy. Right now, those Shakespeare plays will be the second and fourth productions of the season.

And lately you've found an interesting genre that has successfully filled that first slot.

The murder play.

In that position in the past you've slotted Deathtrap, The Mousetrap, Dial M for Murder, And Then There Were None...

And this year, we had Misery, which isn't really a murder, but it has many of those elements.

And your third slot is...

A musical or something big with music in it. That's followed by the second Shakespeare production, and then we've had wonderful success with our September productions, which for the past few years have also been musicals.

THE 2019 SEASON

As it has for the past several years, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is expected to open next year's slate in late May 2019, when the lights will come up on Witness for the Prosecution. Beginning the following weekend, that drama will run in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew. In late June, The Music Man will join the repertory; and in early August, Julius Caesar will begin. In early September, ISF will clear its slate so that the musical Million Dollar Quartet fills the amphitheater with classic rock-and-roll until month's end, finishing out the season.

Can we assume that you'll be directing again next season?

I'll be directing Witness for the Prosecution, our season opener.

That's another classic from Agatha Christie.

Through our productions of The Mousetrap and And Then There Were None, I have learned that she's absolutely as good a playwright as a novelist. I personally think she's a better playwright. Quite frankly, I found some of her novels a bit tedious, whereas her dramatic sense and structural sense as a playwright is incredibly exciting.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Witness have a pretty big cast?

Seventeen or 18. It's relatively large compared to the other mysteries. I must tell you that there's a new production of Witness for the Prosecution running in London right now, and it's a big hit. I took a group of people to London recently and said, "We've got to see it." They said, "Are you kidding?" I said, "Guys, I don't care if you want to come or not. I can't wait to see it." Everyone went, and it was totally delicious.

You've also got a pretty familiar name directing The Taming of the Shrew.

The amazing Sara Bruner. Sara has spent a good chunk of her life, since she was 18, in Shakespeare plays. She has played Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew herself. She knows that world inside and out.

What's doubly fascinating is that Idaho audiences have had a pretty special relationship with her through the years.

That's absolutely right. I think it was a year ago when I told her, "You have to direct Shrew." She was back and forth: "Oh God, no. Oh God, yes. Oh God, no. Oh God, okay." Then I said, "... You should also direct Julius Caesar for us." Sara is a deeply trusted member of this company. She always will be. I also want her to direct as much as she can. She eventually said, "Great, I'll do them both."

Wow, Julius Caesar. It appears to be the drama for our modern times.

It has been on my list of major titles for the last three years. And then, of course, Trump happens. I thought, "Hmm. I either want to do it or avoid it." Look, an essential discussion here, as clear as day, is, "What happens if a democracy is pulled apart by a demagogue?" Shakespeare is always on the razor's age.

click to enlarge ANDREW MOORE?IDAHO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Andrew Moore?Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Let's talk about something a bit lighter. Like a musical.

We struggle and struggle for the right title. The Music Man has been on our list since we began doing large-cast musicals. But we stopped considering it because we felt like it was too big, and we couldn't afford it. But this year, somebody in the cast asked me again, "What about The Music Man?" I said, "It's too big." That same person responded, "Compared to what? How many actors did you have in Pride and Prejudice?" I went to our director and choreographer and mentioned The Music Man. They said, "Done."

It's the quintessential all-American musical. For goodness sake, there's a barbershop quartet, lots of kids and a big brass band.

Done. Done. Done.

Your final show for the season will be another musical.

Million Dollar Quartet.

I saw the show in New York and couldn't get enough of it. Talk about The Great American Songbook.

It's about this event that took place on one day at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, where an impromptu jam session included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

I know I've asked you this before, but are you where you want to be with the festival?

If you're not upping your game, what are you doing in life? But the fact is, I work with large groups of people that I adore.

Plus, you have a bit of a love affair with your audience.

It has been a revelation. It keeps me utterly excited and challenged. It's completely thrilling, all the time. It never gets boring.

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