LENOX, MASS.: “I won’t lie—it’s been a cold winter,” said Rick Dildine with a hearty laugh. But the wind chill factor isn’t the reason Dildine and his husband are packing their bags for St. Louis, Mo., after Dildine spent little more than six months as executive director of one of the Berkshires’ most venerable classical theatres, Shakespeare & Company. Dildine is returning immediately to his previous job at the helm of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, which he led from 2009 and 2014.
“The work at Shakespeare & Company was much more operational and administrative, and my passion has always been on the artistic side—I get most excited about making theatre,” said Dildine of the real reason for his short tenure in Massachusetts. “I’m very happy to be getting back to that, and I’m humbled that the board at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis are having me back.”
The board at Shakespeare & Company, meanwhile, has experienced some upheaval since Dildine’s apparently unexpected announcement, which came just weeks after he’d presented a budget and announced the theatre’s upcoming summer season. Three board members resigned from their leadership posts, with one of them leaving the board altogether. In a prepared statement, Shakespeare & Company wrote that “changes like these happen from time to time in any organization and it would be a mistake to interpret these departures as a sign that the Company is in turmoil or in trouble.” On the contrary, the statement said, the company’s “financial status has greatly improved over the past years.” The board has named Steve Ball to be interim managing director, and Ariel Bock and Jonathan Croy interim co-artistic directors.
This isn’t the first scene of drama around Dildine’s time in Lenox. Soon after he arrived last September, artistic director Tony Simotes was let go after five years in the job. Though Simotes had succeeded the company’s founding artistic director, Tina Packer, the understanding last fall was that he would not be replaced—that Dildine would take over both artistic and managerial duties going forward.
“It was the first time the organization had consolidated all of the responsibility into one position,” said Dildine. And though he wouldn’t go so far as to call that decision a mistake, it seems clear that the job of running every aspect of a large, established company like Shakespeare & Company—whose budget is more than $5 million, compared to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s $1.3 million—would be a big ask for anyone.
It’s understandable that Dildine and his new bosses thought he was up for the task: In St. Louis, his once and future title is executive/artistic director. Clearly he’s not uncomfortable in boardrooms or shaking hands at a gala fundraiser.
“The skill set for an artistic director is very different than it was 30 years ago, and boards are looking at a lot of different structures and models—rightly so,” said Dildine. “It’s a responsibility of artistic leaders that we’re taking our organizations down responsible paths, not just in the theatre but in the entire not-for-profit industry.”
But he’s clearly energized by the work he’s now set to continue in St. Louis, where the festival stages not only a four-week free Shakespeare production in Forest Park each summer but runs a year-round education program and stages an annual Shakespeare in the Streets program, which each year tailors an adaptation of one of the Bard’s plays to a different St. Louis neighborhood. Last year’s offering, Good in Everything, based on As You Like It, was staged in the affluent but somewhat integrated city of Clayton—and had the dubious fortune of being performed in mid-September, right in the midst of protests over Michael Brown’s killing in nearby Ferguson the previous month.
Next fall’s Shakespeare in the Streets neighborhood will be Old North St. Louis, a majority African-American community with a rich history stretching back to the early 19th century. Dildine said that the adaptations, which are performed free on a temporary stage in the neighorhood, are designed to “tell the story of St. Louis through every neighborhood,” and that no subject of import to the city’s residents is off-limits. “Will we ‘go there’?” he asked rhetorically of the thornier subjects of race and police brutality raised so starkly by recent events. “The goal of the project from the beginning was to respond to physical and metaphorical barriers in St. Louis. So wherever ‘there’ is, we’re going.”
For now, the place Dildine is going is back to his artistic home, where his seat has clearly been kept warm. Dildine has said he plans to be back at the job when the festival’s outdoor production of Antony and Cleopatra begins May 22. Though returning so soon was definitely not his original plan (“I don’t think you make a big move like this and think it’s temporary,” he said of the short-lived job at Shakespeare & Co.), he does seem relieved.
While Bruce Longworth kept his seat warm as interim artistic director, did Shakespeare Festival St. Louis make any real effort to replace him?
“They did do a national search,” Dildine said, “and they found me.”