If “all the world’s a stage,” as a character says in “As You Like It,” the spotlight shines on Kilgore each summer during the Texas Shakespeare Festival.
Entering its 33rd season, the TSF is an established event in East Texas. But it doesn’t just happen – it takes hundreds of volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
“The Texas Shakespeare Festival cost $750,000 this past year, because it’s a professional theater and everybody gets paid,” said Raymond Caldwell, TSF founder and artistic director.
Major actors receive $350 a week for the 10-week season. Even theater interns get $150 a week. The actors stay in Kilgore College dorm rooms for free; most of their meals also are provided.
“It’s very, very difficult … to make money on live theater,” Caldwell said. “Theater buildings are incredibly expensive. Equipping a theater is very expensive, and the utilities are very expensive – all those lights.”
Though the festival has sold from 99 to 101 percent of its tickets for the past three years, ticket sales cover just a fourth to a third of its costs.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival Foundation began in 1994. The college paid for the festival from 1986 through 1994, but TSF was growing and needed more funding, Caldwell said.
The foundation raises money for the festival and is governed by 21 board members from towns throughout East Texas. Foundation funds pay the salaries of two associate artistic directors, as well as utilities at the Festival Center, the Kilgore-College-owned building housing the TSF offices.
The foundation has bought equipment for TSF, from lighting fixtures to ticket-processing software, Caldwell said. For the past seven years, it has raised enough money to ensure TSF ends the season in the black.
Kilgore College pays for Caldwell’s and TSF managing director John Dodd’s salaries and doesn’t charge TSF rent, he said. Everything else is paid for by ticket sales, fundraising efforts, foundation funds and grants from the Rosa May Griffin Foundation and other foundations.
Complementing the foundation is the Texas Shakespeare Festival Guild, which has more than 900 dues-paying members and organizes festival volunteers. As Caldwell said, “You donate to the foundation; you participate with the guild.”
Longview resident Lynn Wells, a former foundation and guild board president, outlined some of the guild’s activities.
When they arrive in May, company members receive welcome bags with items such as toothpaste, laundry soap and snacks. The guild provides a continental breakfast six days a week until the actors leave at the end of July. Guild members also prepare a hot lunch three times a week.
On most Monday nights – company member’s night off – the guild has a party or dinner for the company, which can number 100 people.
“It’s just such a phenomenal festival here. It’s kind of magical. East Texas is so lucky to have something like this,” said Wells, who has volunteered with the TSF for 19 years.
Meaghan Simpson was a graduate student during the 2009 season. She’s now TSF’s associate artistic director along with her husband, Matthew Simpson.
The guild’s “stamp and touch is everywhere. You get a basket of necessities right away – toilet paper, granola bars, highlighters. It’s a very thoughtful and lovingly prepared gift basket,” Simpson said.
She knows firsthand the importance of the foundation.
“Matthew and I literally wouldn’t be here without it. We thank them daily,” Simpson said.
According to its website, more than 8,500 people come to TSF annually. In 2017, theater-goers came from more than 150 towns in Texas, 44 states and seven foreign countries.
This year’s season begins June 28 with Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost”; other plays are Shakespeare’s “King John”; Moliere’s “Tartuffe”; “110 in the Shade,” with script by N. Richard Nash, lyrics by Tom Jones, and music by Harvey Schmidt; William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” about Emily Dickinson; and an original children’s play, “The Lovely Step-Sister,” written and directed by Grace Abele.