Over a century ago, University of Colorado senior class commencement plays were performed under a grove of large cottonwood trees on the east lawn of Old Main. Prior to the advent of electric lighting, outdoor events were largely confined to daylight hours.
When electric lights became available in 1901, it was possible to play late into the evening and performances started at the fashionable post-dinner hour of 8 PM. After World War I interrupted the 19-year annual tradition, Dr. George F. Reynolds — an internationally-known Elizabethan theatre scholar — administered the theatre program at CU. In 1936, he helped develop the plans for the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.
Mary Rippon (1850-1935) was the first woman professor at the University of Colorado and the first woman in the United States to teach at a state university. Head of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature, she also served, without financial compensation, as Dean of Women. She was known as a kind, generous, and inspiring teacher who shared the savings from her meager salary with needy students, and whose enthusiasm for life and learning contributed to the enrichment of the entire community.
The Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre was officially completed in 1939, but no plays were staged there until 1944, when Shakespeare teacher and bibliographer James Sandoe was asked to direct a play for the coming summer. Because the University Theatre was occupied by the Department of the Navy due to the war effort, Sandoe decided to try out the Mary Rippon with a production of Romeo and Juliet. Over the next couple of years, he staged The Merchant of Venice (1945) and Henry IV, Part I (1946). The following summer, English professor Jack Crouch took over, which began an almost unbroken progression until today of Shakespeare plays on the Rippon. (The lone exception was 1957, when the annual Shakespeare play was staged in the indoor University Theater.) Crouch directed seven plays over the next 10 years and founded the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 1958, increasing the summer repertoire from one to three productions with Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew. He stayed on as executive director through the 1963 season.
In 1973, a record-breaking 16,931 people saw the CSF season during its run of 17 performances. And, with the production of Cymbeline in 1975, CSF completed the canon, becoming only the second American theatre to have done so. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival of the 1970s was characterized by increasingly complex sets (although in 1973 Sandoe's production of Pericles was performed on a nearly-empty stage). In 1974, CSF veteran W. Joseph Zender was commissioned to design a unit set that would allow the shows to return to a simpler primary setting. But by the following year his construction had disappeared and for the next two years, the plays were performed again on a platform stage. Through the years, the Rippon's problematic original design has been continually altered and improved and in 1981 Producing Director Daniel S.P. Yang engaged Richard Devin to make the Rippon space more theatrical and to create more lighting areas on the stage. The changes were dramatic and even today the improvement of the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre continues.
Each summer the festival hires directors, actors, designers and production personnel. Add to these a small administrative staff, apprentices, interns and volunteers and the CSF company may include more than 100 people from around the nation (and even the world).
During the early rehearsal period, a typical workday for many CSF personnel begins at 9 AM and may wind down as late as 11 PM. For the most part, the company is housed in proximity to the theatre and many members cook and eat meals, walk to work and explore the town together — establishing a camaraderie that results in a remarkable esprit de corps, which translates directly to the stage.
In 1992, CSF was named as one of the top Shakespeare festivals in the nation by Time magazine. That same year, the Festival received the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Denver Drama Critic's Circle Award for "Best Season for a Theatre Company."
CSF is active in community outreach and education year-round, providing performances and workshops to students — including its highly regarded "Twelfth Night Anti-bullying School Tour," seen by more than 12,000 Colorado school children — and a 3-week summer performance training intensive for young actors ages 6-18. Community programs held in the late spring include the "Classics 101" discussion series hosted by the Boulder Public Library and in 2013, the university will debut its "Spring into Shakespeare" program, a collaboration with the departments of the College of Arts and Sciences. Its Education Outreach website is an outstanding resource for teachers, students and "Bardophiles" alike.