SHERIDAN — To be or not to be?
Like troubled Hamlet in Shakespeare’s classic, organizers behind the Wyoming Theater Festival have wrestled with that question for nearly half a decade. But next month, the long-awaited dream will come to life as organizers plan to host some of the biggest up-and-coming talent in live theater next month.
The week-long festival, set for July 13-25, will feature high-quality live plays in the beginning stages of development. The artistic director of the theater festival and a faculty member at Sheridan College’s theater department DannyLee Hodnett said the festival will operate much like the famous Sundance Film Festival, except audiences will be able to see the productions with live-performance theater instead of on the big screen.
“We want to have a place where if you have a new play, you can take it and get it perfected,” Hodnett said. “You can get it shown to artistic directors and producers so then it can get distribution.”
While breaking into any entertainment industry is difficult, those pursuing success in live theater may have the toughest go. Allowing a venue and plays to get their start in Sheridan would fill a needed gap in the performing arts world while creating entertainment for locals and potentially tourists.
Though, Hodnett said, just because these plays are in the beginning stages of development doesn’t mean they are low-caliber productions. Those involved with the festival have spent the past several years scanning over more than 200 scripts, narrowing down the list to four plays to be performed in Sheridan. While the scripts come from writers located out of state, a large majority of the actors and performers are from Wyoming.
This festival has been a dream of Hodnett’s for many years. With the goal of putting on a theater festival of larger scale, Hodnett and others have brought in one show per summer for the past three years. The success of these performances, and the ability to sustain large-scale productions, prompted the next step in establishing a theater festival.
“There is a long-lasting and embedded theater culture (in Sheridan), and so it’s time to take these facilities … and that talent and that interest into a vibrant economic pillar,” Hodnett said.
The festival is operating on a five-year plan. Hoping to turn it into an annual event, Hodnett said his ideal is that in five years, the festival will become a destination for regional and national theater enthusiasts.
Already for this year, the Wyoming Theater Festival will include more than just plays. All day, every day of the festival, events such as discussions led by theater professionals, backstage tours and workshops will surround the two daily performances.
But the writers hoping to get work produced will not be the only ones to benefit from the festival. Sheridan’s businesses will feel the impacts as well, just like any other major event in town. The July 13 start date is intended to coincide with the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, which ends on July 12.
“They serve to bolster one another,” said Megan Ahren, Sheridan Travel and Tourism head of media. “Rodeo fans may look into Wyoming Theater Festival events they otherwise may have never experienced, and vice versa.”
Theater festivals in similarly sized locations have been widely successful. The Wyoming Theater Festival is modeled after the Utah Shakespeare Festival, held in Ceder City, Utah. The Utah festival draws in nearly $35 million in revenue for area businesses, getting $6 for every dollar the city put into the festival.
“(Cedar City) is a small town like Sheridan,” Hodnett said. “The nearest big city is three-and-a-half hours away. It’s a conservative community, heavily based in ranching and mining. …What we are doing is trying to create that same model, trying to draw people in from Denver, Rapid City, Billings, Cheyenne, spend a night or two, have a great night, spend some cash, then go back home.”