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Idaho Shakespeare Festival works on plan for season in wake of pandemic: what could happen and change

Since 1977, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival wove itself into the fabric of Boise summer nights, entertaining audiences under the stars.

But in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, like nearly everything else, ISF finds itself in unprecedented territory.

“We are just desperate to see our audience,” Idaho Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Charlie Fee said. “If there’s an audience and everyone agrees that it’s safe — then we will do it.”

The 2020 season as planned would include five plays. The first, Much Ado About Nothing would start on May 22nd. Four more productions would run through late September.

But just like so many other best laid plans – this one may go awry.

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“Probably we won’t be able to open the third week of May,” Fee said. “The chances of that are really small.”

The plan: week by week

ISF and its sister company in Lake Tahoe put together a detailed plan and contingencies for the season. Starting May 1st, the plan will start to click into place.

“I will have the whole company of Much Ado in a Zoom conference and I will give them the thumbs up or the thumbs down,” Fee said.

If his thumb points to the sky, rehearsals will start eleven days later. The festival will start booking flights and reserving apartments and hotels.

But if Fee’s opposable digit points to the Earth, everything will hold.

“If I say no on May 1, that moves our whole schedule off one week – and it would move the opening of our season back one week,” he said.

The weekly decision-making calls will continue, based upon the latest conditions in Idaho, as well as in areas actors and other members of the company could be traveling from.

The process would continue. At a certain point, Much Ado About Nothing could face cancellation. Each play could face a similar fate.

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“It’s quite brutal. For the acting company and all of our artistic team and production staff,” Fee said. “These poor folks – this is our job. They don’t have other careers to go back to next week. They are all professionals at what they do.”

Decisions will take into account directives from Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and other health and safety officials.

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

Festival will be cautious

Fee said the festival will be both prudent – and careful.

“We have to err on the side of being very careful,” he said. “Once I saw we’re going to go – the amount of money that is needed to do that is considerable. I have to book airline travel for 30-40 people, plus hotels and apartments and the apartments have to be committed to months.”

Once the go sign is given, it’s not something that can be easily pulled back.

“What’s very dangerous for a not-for-profit company like ours, we have to guard against destroying our company by making a bad financial choice.  We are going to be very conservative.”

Fee said the Festival remains in a strong financial position. It recently secured a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan/grant. He said they could refund every single ticket purchased this year and still be in position to reopen next year. But, he says many patrons are very generous and could donate unusable tickets.

“We are putting in place everything we can to protect the Idaho Shakespeare Festival so that when we get through this crisis we can go back to being a producing organization,” Fee said.

Keeping audiences safe

If production does restart this year, patrons could see a number of changes – both small and large.

“Our job is to take care of the company and take care of our patrons and everyone has to feel safe,” he said.

Food serve at Cafe Shakespeare could add additional protections. New mask and sanitization stations might pop up around the venue. The company also started studying reductions in seating.

“Our average house is about 700. Let’s say we had to go to 350 as the maximum number. There’s a point at which you’re losing so much money by reducing the size of your audience that you can’t afford to put the show on. Everyone is trying to figure out the math on this.”

The festival may also start to survey patrons in coming weeks on what they might be comfortable with.

‘Probably not so much kissing’

The production of events may also shift.

“With Beatrice and Benedict (of Much Ado About Nothing)… probably not so much kissing. Maybe there’s just not so much touching in general. The actors are kind social distancing up on stage. We could do it in a way that the audience wouldn’t really think about it. Maybe its an air kiss in a moment that calls for a kiss.”

In past seasons, the festival featured plays with audience interaction – and even seated some patrons on stage. None of this year’s plays called for that, and Fee says they’ll be especially mindful.

“We are not going to put anybody at risk,” Fee said. “We understand our responsibility to the whole community – we hope that there is some chance we can see each other at our beautiful theater this summer. But if not, we are going to be back as soon as possible.”

Don Day
Don is the founder and editor of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow.

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