Livermore Shakespeare Festival in California dramatically raised the bar this year for its 10th anniversary program, featuring Hamlet and the Merry Wives of Windsor, with the Queen Anne Victorian at Concannon Winery again serving as the set backdrop.
The organization has strived to put on high-quality performances for all its 10 years, but it has done so with a limited use of union professional actors, members of the Actors Equity Association (AEA). Actors typically work as freelancers, a hard way to make a living. Qualifying as an AEA actor is an important step in actors’ careers, in part because the union provides health care as long as the actor works a specified number of weeks for theaters that hire them as union employees.
This year, Livermore Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Lisa Tromovitch and her guest director for the Merry Wives of Windsor, Virginia Reed, held auditions as usual but found that many of the actors they wanted to cast were Equity members. This required a significant bump up in the production cost because of health care and Equity salaries, but both directors were convinced the added expense was worthwhile to realize their visions for this summer’s program.
The Livermore Shakes Board of Directors, staff, and company volunteers called on the company’s loyal donors to find out what they thought about increasing the number of professional actors the festival hired. Donors contributed $7,500 in additional money to support the additional Equity contracts.
“Our dream is to become a destination Shakespeare Festival,” very much like Ashland or Santa Cruz, says Peggy Riley, donor and company dramaturge. “Livermore has lots to offer: wineries, golf, hiking, boating, swimming, and—thankfully, after years without—some nice restaurants and a walkable, engaging downtown. So Livermore and the Shakespeare Festival can offer a wide range of activities in addition to the plays. In order for all this to happen, our company has to grow and become better known. And, in order for that to happen, we have to offer the highest-quality productions possible. That means professionals, and that means money.” So Riley and her husband were happy to make a contribution.
“It is not the easiest task to try and make a living on what most artists are paid in this country,” says Jackson Davis, who plays Falstaff in this season’s Merry Wives. “Fewer than one in five professional stage actors are fortunate enough to get enough work and the kind of work that affords them access to health care. In these lean times, it is all the more impressive that those civic-minded supporters of the arts in the Livermore region answered Lisa's call to enable the Livermore Shakespeare Festival to be one of the few theater companies in the Bay Area that contribute that extra measure of financial security to professional actors.”
The Livermore Shakespeare Festival has momentum, and this move will increase it. As of this writing, ticket sales were ahead of last year. “It is very encouraging for us in the Bay Area acting community” says Patrick Jones, who is playing the title role in Hamlet. ”What I like the most about working for Livermore Shakes is their hungry, ambitious, attitude. In comparison to other more established summer Shakespeare festivals, they are an adolescent, but that's a great place to be—no resting, no sitting back, lots of optimism, lots of forward thinking. It's a mountain of potential.”
Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor run in partial rep through August 12. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $39, with discounts for seniors, students, and educators. Tickets are on sale through Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or via www.LivermoreShakes.org.
Rita Koselka, Livermore Shakespeare Festival
July 15, 2012