Sitting at his hulky wooden desk tucked away within a jam-packed house on the CU campus, Colorado Shakespeare Festival Executive Director Philip Sneed is talking fervently about his newest project—something he hopes will transform the canon of American theatrical offerings.
Well, if not transform, Sneed and his cohorts could add to the principals of community theaters across the country, joining the ranks of Our Town and The Crucible, and craft a discussion about putting the American experience on stage. In the yet-to-be-named experiment—currently being referred to as The Making of America—CSF and collaborators will commission American playwrights to draft scripts about American history.
When he interviewed for his position in 2006, Sneed thought a lot about what could set this Shakespeare company apart from the rest.
“I was thinking about what made Shakespeare popular in his day,” Sneed said. “I thought about his historical plays. They were so popular because the audiences were seeing their own history on stage.”
Sneed wanted to cultivate scripts that cover specific moments and provide commentary and encourage discussion about U.S. history. At the same time, leaders of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts were thinking the same thing.
“This must be an idea whose time has come,” Sneed said.
Last month, CSF and Shakespeare & Company hosted a conference of playwrights, historians and others to discuss the project. They covered hefty questions about “the American story” and how to tell it. The conversation is inspiration for the first four plays being commissioned; funding for the writing of two plays has been secured, but CSF is now in search of funds to commission two more and to produce the plays. Sneed doesn’t expect production to start until 2012. That gives them plenty of time to work with the playwrights.
“We are taking the go-slow approach. This is going to be a decades-long project that will hopefully be picked up by our successors,” Sneed said.
On the plays: There are key moments, people or eras that Sneed would like to see put on stage—like the rarely told points of view of American Indians. It’s important, Sneed said, to reproduce history—whether it’s with comedy, tragedy, political drama or satire—with flair, making it entertaining and accessible but still intellectual. “We want to make history come alive in exciting and dramatic ways,” Sneed said.
On the project: CSF will take a curatorial role in overseeing the production of the plays and scripts. “We want it to work as a whole,” Sneed said. “We want to make sure they get it. …The Elizabethan era was an important time for playwrights. They all lived and worked and drank together. We are learning now there was more collaboration than previously thought. …That’s what we are working to achieve. We know that the conversations have started and we want them to continue.”
On the audience: More than anything, Sneed hopes the plays that come out of the project will someday trickle down into community theaters and high school drama clubs. “We do hope that it will add to the national debate,” he said.