Where Angels Fear to Tread

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wThe Texas Shakespeare Festival began as Kilgore's contribution to Texas's sesquicentennial celebration in 1986 but has since grown to stand on its own. Now attracting patrons throughout north Texas, the summer festival features two works by Shakespeare, as well as a classical drama, and occasionally a musical. It has become an annual institution in the theater-starved area. "The festival has been compared to professional theaters in New York or California," Holda said.

Last summer, before the opening curtain, Caldwell told audiences about the festival's financial problems. He made a plea for support, explaining that his budget continues to shrink along with Kilgore College's oil-dependent tax base. Gregg County appraisal statistics show that while taxes on personal property have increased since 1996, revenues from the East Texas oil fields have consistently shrunk. In 1999 the festival's $332,359 budget was $52,000 less than the previous year. Caldwell learned the 2000 season would have to cut an additional $32,000 from the already lean 1999 budget.

During a matinee performance, Norman Shtofman, a clothier and former Tyler mayor, asked Caldwell if the college could continue to afford to sponsor the festival. Caldwell told him, "It's getting harder." Shtofman said he knew businessmen in Tyler who would jump at the chance to take it over. The next morning Shtofman phoned Caldwell to chat about visiting with his friend Bill Crowe, president of Tyler Junior College. Although Crowe was interested in saving the festival, he refused to make an offer, out of respect for Kilgore College. He didn't want people to think Tyler, a longtime civic rival, would steal the festival away from Kilgore.

That didn't stop the rumors. The public perception was that Tyler wanted to gobble up the festival. As a result of the potential takeover, Gregg County commissioners in September voted 3-2 to offer the college a $50,000 matching grant that required the school to raise an additional $50,000 from other sources. The city of Longview followed suit, directing $30,000 of its hotel/motel tax revenue to the festival. The city of Kilgore threw in another $15,000, or one-seventh if its anticipated hotel/motel income. All told, the $95,000 in gifts would make up the budget shortfall the festival had experienced since 1998.

"It wasn't out of a noble love of the arts that prompted these entities to come forward," Holda said. The college soon learned how fickle the commissioners were in their professed love for Shakespeare when, a mere four weeks later, they unanimously rescinded their gift. Although he was in Austin when the grant was voted down, Judge Smith explained that the September vote, a tight 3-2 majority, indicated that the commissioners were divided over the issue in the first place. The Angels scandal clinched the decision of the five-man committee to take back the money, Smith said. "It was the icing on the cake."

Two commissioners didn't like using county money to fund the arts, Smith said. Danny Craig, Kilgore's representative on the commission, felt it wasn't fair to give money to the Shakespeare Festival without also giving it to other cultural activities such as the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Craig admitted he'd never seen a Shakespeare production in his life. "What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears."

Although the cities of Kilgore and Longview expressed reservations after county commissioners took back their pledge, neither has plans to withdraw its grants. Kilgore's money will be parceled out in quarterly installments throughout 2000 if the festival remains in the city, said mayor Joe Parker. Holda is finishing up a proposal to the Longview city commission that will determine how the city dispenses funds to the festival in February.

After losing the county money, Caldwell sent a chain letter to every friend and colleague he had in the arts, a missive that soon found its way to the media. Reporters from all over the country called. The commissioners' decision was publicized and criticized in The Nation, Backstage and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among many others. Individuals sent checks to help make up the $50,000 loss. One check from a New York City woman was for $1,000. The Dramatists Guild of America, the nation's largest organization for playwrights, told Caldwell last week it plans to send the festival a check for $10,000.

Caldwell said he has received scads of letters from such major institutions as Yale, Harvard, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also heard from prominent university drama heads and Shakespeare festival directors in Oregon, Dallas, Alabama, Utah and Canada. Texas Christian University sent Caldwell proceeds from its December student play. Alley Theatre artistic director Gregory Boyd sent a letter of protest to Gregg County commissioners, saying, "The [Texas Shakespeare Festival] represents the very best of what the arts seek to achieve." And Texas Monthly awarded the commissioners a Bum Steer Award in January.

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Cynthia Greenwood