Notes from 1958: Richard Bell
April 3, 2017
To celebrate the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season this summer, we’re sharing stories from actors, directors and crew involved in the very first festival in 1958. This story comes from Richard Bell, the co-founder of Boulder’s Upstart Crow Theatre.
Growing up, I had done a little theatre in high school. My first experience with it, though, was as a child radio actor. My father was the Far East correspondent for NBC News, so I did some voice work on his station.
I went to high school in Kansas in the late 1940s, and the Korean War was going on at the time. I was afraid of being drafted, so I decided I would learn Russian to be an Army linguist—that way I wouldn’t have to fight. The nearest place where I could study Russian was at CU, so that’s where I went. As fate would have it, the only Russian teacher there was sick that summer. So instead I tried out for a play on the Mary Rippon. It was “Twelfth Night,” and the director was [English actor and Broadway director] B. Iden Payne. That got me hooked on theatre.
Of course, that meant I had to fight in the Army after all. The silver lining was, I was able to do a little bit of theatre during the war: We performed in an abandoned movie theatre at Fort Bragg.
When I got out and came back to CU, I went back to the theatre department and did a number of roles. I had done Mercutio [in “Romeo and Juliet”] a couple of years before, and I was in “Doctor Faustus.” So when the Colorado Shakespeare Festival started, I was cast in it. I played three small roles that summer, including Guildenstern in “Hamlet” and Cinna the Poet in “Julius Caesar.” I also built props for all three shows, and my first wife was a costume assistant.
We didn’t have the long runs the festival has now. We played for three weekends, and each play would get three or four performances only. We filled the theatre each night.
I remember vividly that the stage was grass, because it rained every single day and the stage was constantly soaking wet. Every morning, I drove to a lumber yard in Longmont to get a bucket of sawdust to spread across the grass so people wouldn’t trip. It didn’t always work. One of the dancers—my first wife, Mary Bell—had a running exit and had to be caught by a male dancer all the way offstage. He tried to carry her to his exit and he was reeling on the wet grass the whole way.
In “Julius Caesar,” I stood in one night for a fencer who didn’t show up for the performance. I had to exit on one side of the stage and re-enter on the other side quickly. We didn’t have a backstage, so that meant I had to run like hell around the Henderson building dressed in Roman armor with a sword. I bumped into a guy coming out of the UMC and we both fell down. He got up, saw what I was wearing and said to me, “Quo vadis?” [Latin for “Where are you going?”]. I thought that was very bright of him.
There were 10 scholarships awarded for students that season, for $100 each, and I was not given one. But the irony is that all 10 of the actors who got scholarships each gave me $10 of their scholarship, so I ended up with $100 and they all ended up with $90.
I was in it for a few years after that. I came back to the festival after graduate school in 1963 and ‘64 to serve as executive stage manager. One summer, they thought they’d completed the Shakespeare canon with “Cymbeline,” but I pointed out that they hadn’t done “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” I volunteered to direct it. It may have been the first production of that play in America.
We did very simple sets in the earliest days. For one play, I think it was “Troilus and Cressida,” we didn’t even have masking to mark our entrances. The designer said, “We want to watch the actors get into character as they get on stage.” The director disagreed and threatened to tear down his set. There was masking on the ground the next day.
For that play, we had two lanterns that were eight feet high. During one of the performances, people accidentally knocked them down and set fire to the sets. I was playing Flavius, the servant, and I started to beat out the fire with the tray I was carrying, and others followed my lead. We got a standing ovation.
My favorite directors back then were Jack Crouch, Jim Sandoe and Ricky Weiser. They were all interested in doing the plays as written by Shakespeare, with very little editing. One of the things Ricky did was sit down with the cast at the first rehearsal and restore the scripts back to the original folio text. I liked that, I really valued it. To this day, my Shakespeare still hews to what they taught me.
The whole company was very close in the early years. Did we quarrel with each other? Sure, but we were all friends; it was a real company. In 1983, the Upstart Crow did “King Lear” for the first time, and I played Lear. I had a heart attack after the first weekend, and Jack Crouch agreed to take my place if he didn’t have to wear a costume and could carry a script. He had my back.