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To Be Or Not To Be? Idaho Shakespeare Festival Weighs Options For 2020 Season

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Idaho Shakespeare Festival
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The Idaho Shakespeare Festival spent years to attain some amount of financial sustainability in case of a crisis. But ISF officials never thought it would be a global pandemic.

"I was truly expecting the first big emergency would be wildfires," said ISF Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee. "This is unlike anything we've experienced."

COVID-19 has been particularly cruel to the arts; theaters have gone dark across the world, and a number of theatrical companies have already canceled or postponed their 2020 seasons. But Fee said the Idaho Shakespeare Festival has several options to consider the fate of its own summer season of repertory theater.

Fee visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about those options, some critical dates and how William Shakespeare's own stages went dark due to an epidemic.

“We are not going to make a rush decision to just cancel our work, and we're going to take this one week at a time.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice.

COVID-19 has cast a long, wide shadow across so much of our lives: our schools, our systems of care, and the crisis has been particularly harsh to the arts. The great theaters of the world are dark right now, and while we wait for the ghost light to dim and the spotlight to shine again, this morning, we thought it would be appropriate to spend some time with Charlie Fee, Producing Artistic Director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. He joins us live this morning via Zoom. Charlie, good morning.

CHARLIE FEE: Well good morning, George. Thank you so much for reporting on COVID-19 in all the ways that you have been on the radio every day. One of the things that I think we all find during periods like this, particularly when we're all sheltering, is that our friends' voices coming to us on the radio and through our favorite news outlets really means something. Because we know each other, George, when you're on the radio, I feel like you're sitting in my kitchen having coffee with me, and it's really reassuring.

PRENTICE: Thank you for that. Can I assume that you are considering several scenarios regarding the possibility of a season this year?

FEE: Well, of course we are. We went into this crisis this year from a very, very solid and strong financial position. What that means is we have been for many years capitalizing our company and one of the most important things that we've been capitalizing against are emergencies.

Now, I have to say, I was truly expecting the first big emergency we would face would be wildfires and smoke. We've seen that have terrible effect on the company in Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare festival, and we know that that was coming. So we have been putting money aside for essentially this kind of emergency. Now, this is unlike anything we've experienced. We have gotten through other difficult times, 9/11, the recession of 2008 through 10, but in none of those earlier crises and of course other recession, in none of those were we stopped from producing our work. We don't have to make a rush decision to just shut down. We are not going to make a rush decision to just cancel our work, and we're going to take this one week at a time.

PRENTICE: So does that mean a possible contraction? I'm guessing then you have several options.

FEE: So because we perform in rep, that helps us because our very first show up is Much Ado About Nothing, and it's completely built and fully rehearsed. We haven't tapped it but that's okay. So we have that ready to go if can get the trucks out of Cleveland and I can get people on airplanes to come to Boise. Our first deadline is April 30th and on April 30th I have to tell the acting company and the whole entire production team, stage managers, etc, that they're either getting on a plane in 10 days or they're not. And if we can't guarantee that we can go into rehearsal on that date, we move it off one week and then we move it off another week. And I just keep rolling those weeks, and all the company is on board for this and we have to wait till we get a window where we all feel safe that we can travel, gather in Boise and rehearsed and know that we can bring an audience into our theaters, but I'm not at this point going to make a decision earlier than have to.

PRENTICE: And then you have a season of Ain't Misbehavin, Henry V, Emma and Sleuth. I'm going to guess then you get creative with that.

FEE: If we don't make it to bringing Much Ado onto the stage, even with a late start, because I'm willing to do it with a late start, and maybe we'll only have 10 performances of Much Ado. Maybe we open Misbehaving late or on time. We then wrap it with Henry the Fifth, maybe we don't. So you see what I'm saying is we just keep taking this a week at a time.

PRENTICE: Okay. So I'm going to put you on the spot this morning. You as an artist and your productions time and again help us rethink the human condition. So I'm curious where you're finding inspiration lately.

FEE: Well, the work that we do, particularly in this instance, the work on the Shakespeare plays, you cannot help but remind us that Shakespeare's company and the stages that he worked on were closed on a regular basis for health reasons, sometimes just purely for political reasons, but more often than not-

PRENTICE: It was the plague.

FEE: The plague, right? In a way, I think one of the things it tells us is look, these kinds of events, we're all going to experience and we're going to survive them and we're going to get back to our work and on our stages. And as you said, George, at the beginning, think about this, this may be the only time in all of history that every theater in the world is shot. Not just every theater, but every museum, every symphony hall. It's really kind of earth shattering to imagine that all of this art is just on hold. We're all trying to figure out: Aare people going to come back to the theater? Are they going to still be afraid to come back into a theater? Are they going to come with a sense of just, I need this so badly to be together with my community and in our community.

And so we're all over the map in thinking about what will happen and it's very difficult to imagine, on the one hand, we do think, "Oh man, if I can just get our season opened in Idaho at some point this summer, I know our audience will be there with us and it will really be a celebration." We'll only be in that theater if everyone feels safe to be there and then we'll be able to celebrate together and I do hope and believe that we will get there at some point this season.

PRENTICE: Charlie, I'm going to put you on the spot. Can you give us a taste of Henry V?

FEE: George, as if I can just conjure up a speech from Henry the Fifth.

PRENTICE: Well, give it a try.

FEE: Well, the opening of Henry is very unusual. And it's just an actor essentially walking on stage to address directly the audience sitting before him. And this begins with, "Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, piece out our imperfections with your thoughts. Think when we talk of horses that you see them printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth, for it is your thoughts that now must deck our Kings, carry them here and there, jumping more times, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass, for the which supply admit me chorus to this history, who prologue like your humble patience pray gently to hear kindly to judge our play."

PRENTICE: Charlie Fee is Producing Artistic Director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, which we anticipate with such greatness this year. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

FEE: George, thank you. Stay safe. Stay healthy. I will see you this summer.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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