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Arts as a business: the Idaho Shakespeare Festival

This is the second in a four-part series on the economic impact of local arts groups.

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s performances regularly sell out thanks in part to loyal season ticket holders. Photo courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival is defying conventional wisdom — thanks to a loyal group of fans who support the company year after year.

“As an industry overall, regional theater is not seeing much growth in season tickets,” said Charlie Fee, producing artistic director for the Boise-based company. “It’s been going the other way for more than a decade. Audiences are less and less interested in tying themselves into a full season of entertainment.”

But even in that environment, subscription sales for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival were 45% of ticket sales in 2016, and are now at 64%, Fee said. “We don’t see that kind of growth in Cleveland,” he added, referring to one of the Shakespeare Festival’s two sister companies (the other, in Lake Tahoe, doesn’t offer season tickets). “We’ve had growth, but nothing like this growth.”

Consequently, the company is trying to increase the number of performances – it went from 93 in 2016 to 99 today – but it’s limited in how much earlier and later it can extend its season due to uncertain weather, Fee said.

Subscription tickets offer a big advantage, Fee said. He likens the Shakespeare Festival to a manufacturing company.

“We build plays,” he explained. “We build sets. We build costumes. We build props. How far out are you looking at orders in your manufacturing? I need to deliver 18 months from now. If you don’t know who’s buying it, you’re in a very volatile position.”

Photo courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s annual budget is $4 million, mostly spent on staffing. There are 12 administrative staff members with year-round salaries and benefits, as well as 10 production staff. The three companies enable Fee to keep them busy. Even people who aren’t employed full-time, such as support staff, carpenters, stitchers, milliners and electricians, are often getting paid for close to 50 weeks of work, he said.

“The most difficult part of a seasonal company is, how do you build consistency in your production team when you have only three months’ worth of work?” Fee said. “Boise’s not big enough to support them the rest of the year, so you’re constantly hiring new teams. That’s not a good business or artistic model.”

Having the three companies means he’s been able to develop a much deeper bench, he said.

Actors are all union, earning around $950 per week plus benefits, while roles such as fight captain or dance captain can earn $1,100 per week, Fee said. Shop people have more of a variation but typically start at around $32,000 per year and top out at about $50,000 per year, he said.

Photo courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

A big expense is housing for the actors and shop people when they are not in their home city. It added up to $350,000 this year alone, and the company paid the tab.

“We’re renting Airbnbs because we can’t go to a major apartment owner anymore and ask for 20 apartments for three months,” Fee said. “This is no longer sustainable.”

The company builds its own sets, and builds or purchases about 70% of its costumes, though it does rent some specialty items. For “Witness for the Prosecution,” this year’s Agatha Christie production, barristers’ costumes and wigs had to come from London, Fee said. His materials budget for this year is $52,000 for costumes, $50,000 for sets and $13,000 for props.

And this can vary widely. For example, “Taming of the Shrew” costumes cost just $1,000 because they were created in Cleveland, but “Music Man” cost $17,000 because they were created here, Fee said.

Charles Fee, Idaho Shakespeare Festival artistic director, at a rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Of the company’s budget, 71% comes from earned income, primarily ticket sales but also souvenirs, the Shakespeare Café and educational programs such as summer camps, Fee said. The remainder is contributions, corporate sponsorships and grants, about 64% of which comes from individuals, he said.

But with the crowded house – 98% capacity in July, with the final week of “Shrew” at over 100% due to selling more hillside seats than usual – Fee is looking at other options. Expanding the Boise theater isn’t really practical because it would require basically starting over, he said. Plus, the theater’s intimacy is a draw.

So Fee is looking at the company’s home in Cleveland, Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square.  It’s one of seven theaters in the district, owned by a single umbrella nonprofit, which bring in 1.5 million visitors every year. Great Lakes Theater, the Cleveland company, manages the theater, and whenever it’s not in use, the parent company can rent it out.

The Shakespeare Festival is studying this model and hopes to have a plan for a second similarly sized theater in the next three to five years, which would cost about $30 million and allow the company to essentially double its capacity with an additional 100 performances plus tech rehearsals.

And when the company isn’t using the space, it could be available to the community. “Nothing is less productive than an empty theater,” Fee said.

About Sharon Fisher