Breaking news: Phil Sneed leaving Colorado Shakes for Arvada Center

Karen Slack and Philip Sneed in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 2008 "Macbeth."

Karen Slack and Philip Sneed in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 2008 “Macbeth.”

By John Moore
Jan. 14, 2013

Colorado Shakespeare Festival producing artistic director Philip Sneed announced today he is leaving the nation’s second-oldest Shakespeare festival after seven years to succeed Gene Sobczak as executive director of the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities. That’s the money job. Rod Lansberry remains the Arvada Center’s artistic director. But now he works for Sneed.

Sneed joined the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 2006 after serving for 12 years as artistic director of the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, Calif. He also played the title role in Colorado Shakes’ 2008 production of “Macbeth.”

For Sneed, a graduate of Golden High School, coming to the Arvada Center is a homecoming.  He received his first paycheck as a working artist  in 1976, performing in the second play ever produced at the Arvada Center.

“I am deeply honored to come back to Arvada and to be entrusted with the leadership of a cultural organization that supports artists and offers a creative place for the community to experience the arts,” he said.

Sneed succeeded Richard Devin at Colorado Shakes with the doubled charge of running both the festival’s financial and artistic engines. One of his artistic accomplishments was initiating a cultural-exchange program with the Maxim Gorky Theatre of Vladivostok, Russia. That resulted in seven projects, including a bilingual “Hamlet” in Russia (in which Sneed played the title role), and a Colorado Shakes co-production of “The Inspector General” in Boulder in 2011.

Sneed also introduced modern classics into the Colorado Shakes canon. Ironically, perhaps the most fully realized production of his tenure was not Shakespeare at all but rather the Harper Lee Southern courtroom classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 2009. He was known for competent if not mind-blowing Shakespeare, hitting his stride in 2011 with the best-received title of his tenure, “Romeo and Juliet.”  This past summer, Sneed hosted Tina Packer and Nigel Gore for her rolling, five-part weekly look at the females in Shakespeare’s canon, “Women of Will.” It was performed in its entirety in Boulder for the first time outside of Massachusetts.

The affable Sneed was known for always mixing things up in an ongoing effort to find just the right way of producing a Shakespeare festival in a shattered economy. He cut rehearsal time, slashed payroll and staff sizes, restructured performance schedules and drastically reduced the number of outdoor performances, all in an effort to maximize available personnel and ever-dwindling resources. He  even introduced a resident theater company, a concept that began with eight actors but is now down to five: Geoffrey Kent, Karen Slack, Jamie Ann Romero, Sam Sandoe and Stephen Weitz (recently named CultureWest.Org’s 2012 Theater Person of the Year).

Kent already has been enlisted to replace Sneed in directing the 2013 summer staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the outdoor Mary Rippon Amphitheatre. “I’m excited and a little intimidated to step into a directing role at CSF,” Kent said, “but I also think ‘Midsummer’ was practically written for the Rippon.”

The general consensus of all of Sneed’s necessary experimentation: That he is one of the classiest and most caring leaders of any arts organization in Colorado. But his tenure was a time of great financial instability, and as a result, many of his productions came off as under-rehearsed.

The festival lost nearly $1 million between 2007 and 2009, a time when the entire economic world was collapsing. At that point, the University of Colorado’s College of Arts and Sciences stepped in with both emergency funds and  increased financial  oversight. By 2010, the fest was breaking even again, in part thanks to increased patron donations.

“Philip was dedicated to building a stronger and more versatile acting company, and truly succeeded on that account,” Kent said. “Some of my favorite performances and productions have happened under his leadership.”

Sobczak made his greatest impact on the Arvada Center by retooling the schedule to highlight popular musicals, a strategy  that paid off in box-office blockbusters like “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” He left last year to attempt a rescue of the financially troubled Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

Sneed will be replaced on an interim basis by associate producing director Timothy Orr, who has been with Colorado Shakes as a performer since 2007 and joined the staff in 2011. As an actor, he has appeared at numerous theaters across California and was a resident artist with Sneed at the Foothill Theatre Company. He holds degrees in music and arts management from Cal State Sacramento, an MFA in theater from the University of California at Davis, and was Fellow with the League of American Orchestras.

In addition to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Colorado Shakes’ 2013 season will include “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged),” the return of “Women of Will” and a new-play reading of “Making America: No Little Rebellion.”

Here is the full text of Sneed’s email to friends:

I am writing to inform you that I have tendered my resignation as Producing Artistic Director of CSF to accept the position of Executive Director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. This is an extraordinary opportunity: the Arvada Center is a major regional arts center with an annual operating budget of $10.8 million (of which amount the theatre division alone is a $5-6 million operation), a year-round staff of about 40, and an outstanding facility. It is also one of the largest multi-disciplinary arts centers in the country.The College of Arts and Sciences has offered Timothy Orr the position of Interim Producing Artistic Director, effective February 1, and he has accepted.

This is a move I strongly recommended and which I wholeheartedly support.  I have recommended that the College conduct a national search for a new PAD, with the goal of having someone in place by the end of the 2013 summer season.My last day will be January 31st, and while I plan to take one or two vacation days between now and then, I will remain on the job, fully engaged, and fully supportive of Tim and the rest of the staff. In addition, I have told the College and Tim that I will be available after the end of the month to answer questions or otherwise consult, for as long as I might be needed. I am highly motivated to do everything I can to support the company during this transition and to help ensure that 2013 will be a successful season in every way.

Arvada made me the offer late Thursday afternoon, at the end of the second day of the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in Pennsylvania, and I have been working on transition plans ever since. I had to keep this news confidential for a few days, in order to respect the desire of both the City of Arvada and CU to be able to issue an appropriate public announcement.  I believe that this announcement will be released to the press on Tuesday or Wednesday. In the meantime, the City of Arvada staff plans to inform the Arvada City Council tonight.

I have enjoyed working with all of you, and despite the tremendous opportunity I have been given, this is a painful transition for me.  I love CSF, and as many of you know I earned some of my first paychecks as an actor with the Festival almost 35 years ago.  I will miss all of you, but I promise to continue to be a supporter and a fan of CSF, and I hope that the collaboration between CSF and the Arvada Center can continue.  Lastly, I want to thank all of you for your support of me – and I know that you will give Tim the same support as he leads the festival through this transitional season.

With great respect,
Philip C. Sneed