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Shakespeare Downtown? Idaho Shakespeare’s big growth prompts big ideas for the future

BOISEDEV MEMBER PREVIEW STORY

Conventional wisdom shows that artists are often bigger in death than in life. Four centuries after the death of William Shakespeare – he’s never been bigger. In Boise, Idaho at least.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee says his organization’s signature Summer Under the Stars is seeing tremendous growth.

“Season tickets are up 60% in three years. That’s crazy. That’s not a trend you find anywhere. In fact, the opposite is usually true,” Fee said.

If you try to get a set of four tickets for one of the company’s plays – particularly later in the season – you might encounter roadblocks.

[Riparian habitat to replace Boise sewage ponds near Shakespeare instead of homes]

“While every single performance has some capacity – you now can’t find four chair seats together for almost any weekend night,” Fee said. “So for a newcomer to Boise, it’s like ‘try this thing and we’ll sit you on a hillside.”

A tipping point

Idaho Shakespeare Festival August calendar
Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s summer calendar is packed. Many shows are at or near capacity. Via IdahoShakespeare.org

The metrics tell the story: Before the season, 76% of all seats already had a buyer. Last year, 98% of all seats sold. Fee said the festival grew at a manageable two to five percent clip for several years.

Then, around 2015, things changed. Festival-goers started to realize that the best – and perhaps only – way to get good seats was to buy a season ticket plan in advance.

“We hit a tipping point in capacity in the house. Once you hit that tipping point, people realize the only way to secure good seats is to be a subscriber.”

The Festival works to keep ticket prices affordable – relying on extensive corporate support. But Fee said they could really only squeeze a few more shows on the calendar around the weather conditions at the existing amphitheater on Warm Springs.

With demand beginning to outstrip supply, and Boise continuing to grow – what’s next for the theater?

ISF knows a thing or two about growing and morphing. Twenty-two years ago, the company moved from a facility on ParkCenter near the Albertsons HQ building. Before that, plays took place at the Plantation Golf Course.

But it all started in Downtown Boise, on the lawn of the One Capital Center on 9th Street. For four years from 1977 to 1980, the festival presented plays in the heart of Downtown Boise.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Downtown Boise?

Now, Fee said, Shakespeare could return to the city core.

“I like the idea of bringing an anchor arts organization into downtown with an audience the size of ours. It’s a real spur for entertainment spending downtown.”

While the signature outdoor amphitheater would keep humming along, an indoor facility downtown could add a year-round dimension to the program.

Though the idea is still in the early stages – and one of a few concepts on the table – Fee thinks Downtown Boise and Shakespeare are a great match. Maybe like Romeo and Juliet, without (spoiler alert) the tragic ending.

Right now, ISF hosts about 74,000 people each season. He thinks an indoor theater could attract just as many patrons, running from October through April.

“Finding development sites downtown is not easy,” Fee said. “We haven’t secured anything and we are not making any announcements.”

Athlos Academies Boise
Shakespeare Festival board members looked at a project in the former Macy’s building at 10th and Idaho in Downtown Boise, but the deal ultimately did not come together. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

ISF once looked at building a theater as part of a mixed-use project in the former Bon Marché/Macy’s building at 10th and Idaho. The project had a workforce housing component – and after a developer pulled out, the deal fell apart.

Fee said the building, which ultimately became Athlos Academies, could only accommodate a theater of about 400 seats. Ideally, they’d like to be closer to 600.

“We were going to spend a lot of money to create a theater that wasn’t as good as we could create,” he said. “It was better to go look for something we could build from the ground up.”

Partnerships and possibility

Partnerships would be key to any effort – with elected officials, businesses, civic organizations, and others. A theater anchored by ISF could also host other performing arts organizations throughout the year.

“It’s not been easy to find public leadership that says ‘you know what we prioritize is arts development,” Fee lamented. “I think it’s because they do not understand the incredible economic development opportunity. It’s a rather complex model in a community in a western state. It’s not something people understand very well.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Interior of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier before a play in 2010. Photo: Tracie Hall, CC BY-SA 2.0

He pointed to Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s facility on Navy Pier. It became a driver for the revitalization of the area.

The greater Downtown Boise area doesn’t currently have a facility the size or caliber Fee envisions. The Velma V. Morrison Center holds more than 2,000 guests. The Egyptian Theater hosts about 740 guests, but as a movie theater provides limited backstage facilities.

The City of Boise imagined building a 300-400 seat ‘black box’ theater as part of its main library campus. The library project remains in a state of limbo, and a potential theater has been removed from the plan due to cost. It could be phased – or added back in – in the future.

ISF is mulling a number of ideas, including a potential indoor facility at their current Warm Springs site. But Downtown is where the action is.

Idaho Shakespeare Festival amphitheater
The crowd before a performance at Idaho Shakespeare’s outdoor amphitheater in 2016. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev file

“Downtowns are critical to our communities,” Fee said. “You should really focus on making downtowns livable and exciting and entertaining.”

The success of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival creates a challenge. But that challenge creates an opportunity.

“We are in that difficult position – that we’ve sort of run out of the product and we’ve got an audience that really likes what we do – so we have to expand. And we plan to.”

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