By Published: June 1, 2020

CU Shakespeare Festival aerial photo

Shakespeare’s enduring legacy is on display at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. 

The Bard’s turns of phrase, witty puns and beautiful verbiage still have a place in today’s emoji and TikTok-ruled society.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival makes sure of it.

For more than 60 years, the festival has kept William Shakespeare’s language alive, sharing his famous (and not-so-famous) words with new generations of theater-goers on the CU Boulder campus.

After a 2020 COVID-19 hiatus, the tradition plans to continue in 2021 with a spiced-up performance schedule and dynamic cast, which includes Sam Sandoe (BioChem, Thtr’80), who’s been performing with the festival for 50 years.

“Shakespeare’s language is some of the greatest ever written, and the importance of the ideas and the conflict and the human nature of it all translates century after century,” said Sandoe. “So this 400-year-old playwright is still valid and important to us now.”

CU Shakespeare Festival OthelloFor Sandoe, Shakespeare is a family affair. Though the festival was officially founded in 1958, its origins date back to 1944, when CU librarian and English instructor James Sandoe — Sam Sandoe’s father — directed Romeo and Juliet at the newly constructed, 1,000-seat Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.

James Sandoe, who directed many performances at CU and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, passed along his love of the Bard and the university to his four children. He died in 1980, but Sam Sandoe says he still thinks of his father often during rehearsals.

After tagging along to performances with his family as a child, Sandoe began acting in the festival as a teenager in 1970 and fell in love with Shakespeare. Even while working full time for CU Boulder’s University Communications team from 1996 to 2017, he rearranged his schedule to make time for rehearsal, often leaving his house at 5 a.m. and not returning again until midnight.

He’s acted in so many plays that he’s on track to complete the entire canon — meaning he’s performed in all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, some more than once.

“For somebody who is not in theater full-time to manage to notch all of Shakespeare’s plays is an act of endurance — and it took me half a century,” Sandoe said. “I’m proud of that.”

CU Shakespeare Festival Aerial PromotionEven after all these years, Sandoe, 65, still revels in the collaborative process of getting a show ready for opening night.

“You’re working with a bunch of creative people, trying to translate words on a page into something dynamic, and that’s a great deal of fun and a great challenge, but it’s very rewarding,” said Sandoe, who lives in Boulder.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is a professional theater company housed within the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences. The festival — the second oldest Shakespeare Festival in the country — regularly collaborates with students, faculty and staff from CU’s English and theater and dance departments, and it offers a graduate certificate in applied Shakespeare.

“There’s a long, long history of Shakespeare scholarship here on this campus, and there is a great deal of passion and love for Shakespeare among our scholars,” said Tim Orr, Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s producing artistic director.

Professional actors temporarily relocate to Boulder from May to August when they land a part and work alongside local actors like Sandoe. Professional directors collaborate with festival staffers to determine an artistic vision for each production. Up to 23 cast members can be involved in one performance.

Celebrities like Val Kilmer and Annette Bening have performed in the festival, which still hosts many performances in the Mary Rippon amphitheater.

The lineup for the festival — which runs from June to mid-August and sees roughly 30,000 audience members a season — is determined two to three years in advance, to avoid repeating titles too often. Orr said he considers each season as a whole, taking care to offer a diverse array of shows so someone could reasonably attend all of them. That also means incorporating some non-Shakespeare plays into the lineup, such as Homer’s The Odyssey or Cyrano de Bergerac, and adding a modern twist to classic plays. “When it comes to the text, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” said Orr.

“When it comes to telling the story, I want to see something new. Every line of Shakespeare could be interpreted two or three different ways, so that gives you a nearly infinite number of interpretations of what he meant.”

If the festival resumes in 2021, for instance, actors will wear 1950s costumes and tromp around France for All’s Well That Ends Well, and there will be a 1980s glam punk rock vibe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I’ve never produced or even seen a season of theater that was in pre-production for two years,” said Orr. “More time to dream. More time to imagine. It should be amazing.”

CU Shakespeare festival ensemble Even after 400 years, the themes and emotions depicted in Shakespeare’s work remain relevant — and they keep audiences coming back, year after year.

“Shakespeare didn’t feel anything that you or I don’t feel,” said Orr. “Like any great artist, he’s just a master at expressing it and conveying the experience so that you and I know that we’re not alone and that we’re not the first people to have experienced this.” And being in Boulder doesn’t hurt, either.

“You’re going to hear amazing language that has never gone out of production, and you’re going to see it in one of the most beautiful venues in America, under the stars, under the mountains,” said Orr. “It is not only seeing a Shakespeare play, it is the full experience of seeing it here.”

Photos by Zachary Andrews and Jennifer Koskinen