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Pop Quiz with Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s Charlie Fee and Mark Hofflund

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Posted: 12:00am on May 18, 2012
Luck and pluck brought Charlie Fee to the Idaho Shakespeare Festival as artistic director in 1992. The board chose the tall charmer from California from a field of about 100 candidates — despite the fact that at the time he had never directed a play by William Shakespeare.

After a solid first season, Fee hired his longtime friend and colleague Mark Hofflund — who had never been a managing director — as his stalwart second in command, and the die was cast. These two first-timers set out to create theater in Boise.

“At the time, I told Mark, ‘Who knows what this will be? It could be one year or five.’ But I knew we wanted to build a theater, and I thought we could do it,” Fee says.

This season marks their 20th anniversary together at the helm. In that time, they have achieved what they set out to do and more.

With Fee’s charisma and creativity and Hofflund’s intellect and attention to detail, they make a formidable team.

They met in the theater graduate program at the University of California, San Diego. They share a vision and creative ethic that strike a balance between savvy business acumen and creative flair.

In 1998, they opened ISF’s multimillion-dollar amphitheater for summer production. They’ve created a strong artistic company that brings artists back year after year to create theater against the backdrop of the Boise Foothills. They acquired Idaho Theater for Youth and developed the theater’s Shakespearience education programs and have a direct impact on kids from elementary to high school age across the state.

But perhaps most importantly, they have changed the model for how a regional theater can operate by forging unique partnerships with Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland 10 years ago and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival three years ago.

Fee also is the producing artistic director at those theaters, and he moves productions and casts from city to city. That makes ISF the only regional summer repertory company in the country producing work in three states.

How did you choose Mark as your managing director?
CHARLIE: Mark and Lynn (Allison Hofflund) came through on a vacation that first summer. We had dinner and when they left, Lidia (Fee’s wife) said, ‘You’re looking for a managing director. Why not Mark?’ I was like, ‘You’re absolutely right. Done.’ We made the call the next day.
It took a little bit of pushing Mark to take this kind of risk. The truth is, we were both at a point in our careers that if we weren’t going to do it at that age, we weren’t ever going to.
MARK: Lynn and I were driving through the desert on our way back to San Diego, when Lynn asked me the same question. ‘Did Charlie ask you about a job?’ But I wasn’t really looking for a job. (Mark was literary manager at The Old Globe theater.) When I got the call, I wasn’t sure. I asked one of my mentors at The Old Globe, (managing director) Tom Hall, for advice. He said, ‘If you like and want to work with Charlie, you should do this because the two of you will come up with a model that we don’t know yet,’ not knowing what he meant.

What makes you two good partners?
CHARLIE: I trust Mark. He’s from the same theatrical tradition. I knew he’d be strong in community relations, just from knowing him. He would be a good fundraising team for me and for our board of directors. And after being at the Globe for 10 years, he has that deep institutional programming, which we needed here because we wanted to create a more institutional theater company.
MARK: I’ve always had a high regard for Charlie and Lidia. On a fundamental level, Charlie’s someone who has been among my peers and also among my mentors. I had some good mentors at the Globe.

How did you start creating your company?
CHARLIE: I wrote a five-year plan that first summer that included building the amphitheater. First, I deeply believe in a company structure. I grew up around ACT (American Conservatory Theater) in San Francisco, a large repertory theater, sustaining artists over many years. I knew we would bring together people we wanted to work with to develop a body of work. We would define and create our aesthetic as a team. We were looking for people who would make multiyear commitments.
I looked for emerging artists who had just left grad school or were in their first professional blush. It’s this period where you lose a huge number of talented people because they can’t get work and they think they have to be in the big city. I’d go to them and say, ‘OK, fine, but in the meantime come and do this and work on developing a company with us.’
MARK: Charlie had an incredible vision that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. It was a little against the way theater was going. Then it was moving away from the repertory idea, but in Boise that’s what made sense. And then, it was just the two of us in the office most days. We got to invent how we were going do this.

So who came on board then?
CHARLIE: Bart was the first director I hired, who we knew from San Diego. (Bartlett Sher directed at ISF from 1992 to 1999. He has gone on to direct at the Lincoln Center Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera. Sher won the 2008 Tony for Best Direction of a Musical for “South Pacific.”) We also brought in costume designer Kim Krumm Sorensen and Peter John Still (resident sound designer). By the second summer, we had Mark, Gage Williams (resident set designer), Rick Martin (resident lighting designer). The same thing with actors — a lot of people who come back year after year.

Is that still how you’re building?
CHARLIE: We’re older now, so we’re hiring people who are older and who come from deeper backgrounds. The acting company is still being found in the same way. We’re bringing a lot of new young talent in this season, people I’ve not worked with before. There are new designers, a new composer, a new director (Jesse Berger of Red Bull Theatre in New York City will direct “The Winter’s Tale.”) The company is growing faster than ever now because of this new model. With three theaters, there are literally more roles to fill.

What’s next?
CHARLIE: There are lots of nexts. You know us, we don’t just set out in one direction. We have a bunch of ideas that are percolating all the time, waiting for the opportunity. The next could be a fourth theater — but it’s not the thing I’m focused on. When Tahoe happened, we had been focused on finding a third theater. Right now we have to solidify and expand Tahoe’s season (two plays for next season). It’s really becoming clear that there are other ways to move our work to other cities that don’t have to do with having another full-on company.

CHARLIE: Yes. We could do “Mousetrap” and “Winter’s Tale” (the two shows originated in Boise) in Cleveland, then take them to Columbus (Ohio), for instance. Then bring the focus back to Boise. The whole point is to keep the company working.

In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
CHARLIE: Benjamin Franklin. It would be fun. He just knew everything.
MARK: Lynne Rossetto Kasper. (Host of American Public Media’s “The Splendid Table.”)

What are you reading?
CHARLIE: I read magazines. The Atlantic, which I just love, and it’s my favorite reading on planes. I am a podcast addict. My top podcasts: The BBC “In Our Own Time with Melvyn Bragg” — it’s history and philosophy and it’s the best podcast on Earth; “Start the Week with Andrew Marr,” also BBC; Slate Magazine “Culture Gabfest” and “Political Gabfest” and “This American Life”
MARK: “The Years with Ross” by James Thurber. (Originally published in 1958, it’s available from Perennial Classics, paperback edition, $14.99). It’s a biography of The New Yorker founder Harold Ross. He’s a guy who came out of the American heartland and started a thing that failed. Then he started it again until it was successful. I was at an arts meeting and a friend was telling me I needed to read this book. He literally found a copy on a decorative bookshelf in the hotel lobby, and they gave it to me.

What’s on your playlist?
CHARLIE: I get addicted to a single thing, and I listen to it for several weeks. Right now I’m addicted to Mumford and Sons and the soundtrack to “Pina.” That’s our party music now. I loved the movie, but the music is just great.
MARK: I don’t really listen to music although I’m surrounded by it; I grew up with it and love it. I don’t have an iPod. If I can unplug, I go out for a run, and I listen to the music in my head.

What keeps you in Boise?
CHARLIE: The most obvious things — friends, the lifestyle. I love to mountain bike in the Foothills. When I’m in Cleveland, I pine for them. Boise is a really great place to live because it’s not filled with the daily indignities you have to suffer in most cities, where it takes so much energy to do anything, like go grocery shopping. And, of course, our work.
MARK: I agree. It’s that combination of quality of life, quality of the people and the opportunities, for both me and Lynn. She’s been able to carve out a very creative life for herself here as an actor and director. The opportunities here are stunning, and they’re ones we wouldn’t get as readily someplace else. Boise is a place where you have the ability to accomplish things that benefit other people in schools, in politics, in so many walks of life.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
CHARLIE: I have too many is the problem, and I don’t want to talk about the ones I really have. I know — crime novels. I love Henning Mankell. He’s one of the Swedish guys. He’s got this character Kurt Wallander who’s really human and wonderful. I can’t wait for the next book.
MARK: Running in the dark.

Whom do you most admire?
CHARLIE: Nick Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre in London, for transforming a huge company and creating thrilling work.
MARK: Everyone who has ever tried to teach me something.

What is your motto?
CHARLIE: Feature what you can’t fix.
MARK: Love what you do.

Click to read more at Idaho Statesman