Final act: Shakespeare Festival discontinues operations

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 06:51 PM

The final curtain has fallen on the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.
After 37 years in High Point as the state’s official Shakespeare company, the festival officially has been discontinued, the chairwoman of the festival’s board of trustees confirmed Thursday afternoon.
“(The board) recently made the difficult decision to discontinue the company’s current operations,” board chairwoman Ashley Hedgecock said in a statement provided to The High Point Enterprise in response to an inquiry about the theater company’s status. “This decision was based upon the company’s continuing challenge to secure adequate funding to sustain its programming.”
In a brief follow-up phone conversation, Hedgecock said the decision was made in an emotionally charged meeting, “and it was an extremely difficult decision for us to make.”
The decision, which was made in late May, came less than a year after the board’s July 2013 decision to suspend operations, citing the extreme financial challenges of maintaining a professional theater company in a tough economy.
At the time, officials expressed cautious optimism that the festival might be able to regroup, and the festival did continue to offer limited programming such as special concert performances of “A Christmas Carol,” a 17-week statewide “Shakespeare To Go” school tour program and youth summer camps.
Officials also mounted an ambitious fundraising campaign to try and salvage the festival, but its bleak funding picture never improved.
“Our goal during this time was to maintain excellent programming, on a limited basis, in order to serve the schools and students within our state and community, while exploring any and all opportunities that would establish a sustainable model for our organization going forward,” Hedgecock said in her statement.
“Our staff and board worked diligently to achieve this goal, but unfortunately the prospects of funding programming for the upcoming 2014-2015 season, and for future long-term sustainability as a stand-alone organization, did not materialize sufficiently to commit to continued operations.”
News of the festival’s demise remained largely under the radar. It did not, however, get past the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, which in mid-June quietly amended its proposed 2014-2015 budget to reflect its withdrawal of a $30,000 allocation that had been earmarked for the festival.
“It was our understanding that they had closed the doors, and it was upon that bit of information that we acted to not fund the festival,” said board chairman Bill Bencini. “And I believe there was a conversation that if they did reassemble, we would certainly reconsider funding them.”
That doesn’t appear likely at this point, considering the festival’s history of financial struggles leading up to its dissolution. Even on the heels of a 2011 donation of $1.5 million from Jim Millis Jr. and his wife, Debbie, the festival was unable to sustain momentum.
The loss of the Shakespeare Festival, which was founded in High Point in 1977, leaves a gaping hole in the arts community.
“It’s not only a loss for the city, but it’s also a loss for North Carolina, because they were the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival,” said Debbie Lumpkins, executive director of the High Point Arts Council.
As a vocal advocate for the arts, Lumpkins said the Shakespeare Festival’s demise was painful to witness.
“I think the downturn of the economy may have had more of an impact on them than for smaller arts organizations, simply because of the infrastructure required to maintain a professional theater company,” she said, explaining that community arts organizations may have fared better because they rely so heavily on volunteers.
Pedro Silva, the festival’s longtime artistic and managing director — who also performed in numerous festival productions — confirmed Thursday he is no longer affiliated with the organization of which he was considered the public face for decades.
“I am heartbroken by the festival’s difficulties in our community,” Silva said in a statement. “My desire now is to express deep thanks to the many people and institutions that have valued the festival’s service. I wish I could embrace and express gratitude to each and every one who purchased tickets and donated funds that supported our service in High Point for more than a generation.”
Hedgecock declined to say what will become of Spirit Center, the festival’s 53,000-square-foot headquarters and performing arts campus on W. Ward Avenue. The wrought-iron gate in front of the facility remained closed Thursday morning, a tangible symbol of the festival’s dissolution.
Hedgecock did say in her statement, however, that the board of trustees “will continue to explore options for partnering with other arts and educational organizations to preserve the artistic resources and educational programming NCSF has provided to students and citizens of North Carolina for over 36 years, and to preserve the legacy of what the organization has built. We are extremely proud to have had the opportunity to entertain, educate and enrich the lives of these students and citizens with productions of some of the world’s greatest plays.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579