On April 8, 2016, after two years of suffering from strangling budget cuts, Idaho Repertory Theatre quietly exited stage left departing this life.IRT held the distinction of being one of the oldest repertory theater programs in the Northwest, second only to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland, Ore. It produced hundreds of plays and was host and teacher to thousands of students in its 63 years.
The cause of death was euthanasia by the University of Idaho. According to UI dean of College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences Andrew Kersten, who was present at the time of death, “There wasn’t a structure there to provide a clear financial budgetary structure to maintain this program.”
IRT was born around 1953 to UI Dramatics Department Chairwoman Jean Collette and professor Ed Chavez, who started working with area high school students on a summer production. The first season of shows opened in 1954 in the Field House, a long-gone building with a 16-foot-square stage, no bathrooms and a dirt floor carpeted with wood chips borrowed from the steam plant fire pile. Attendance averaged more than 3,500 people a year for the next six years during Moscow’s quiet summers.
At first IRT supported itself with ticket sales and money UI paid for professors’ salaries. Eventually IRT was able to pay for a few scholarships and began bringing students in from elsewhere. At some point the repertory format, where four to five plays rotated
simultaneously, was introduced. In 1974, IRT moved to the Hartung Theater using its indoor and outdoor stages where Shakespeare under the stars became a tradition for many families.
As time passed, the university lent more support so that each summer dozens of students, faculty and staff from the UI and around the country worked June to August, sometimes six nights a week. At one point auditions were held in Spokane and Seattle to select talent. IRT’s most famous alum is Bill Fagerbakke, the voice of Patrick Starfish on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” who also starred as Dauber Dybinski on TV’s “Coach.”
With a broad range of talent and opportunities, IRT distinguished itself from other theaters but it was not self-sustaining, making it a target when budgets were tight. In 1992, UI President Elisabeth Zinser announced IRT would not receive the $40,000 in support it needed because it was not central to the academic mission of the university. The community rallied in its defense, presenting a petition with 600 signatures and pledges of $6,500 for an endowment and support was restored.
The 2,749 patrons who attended IRT’s 2013 season didn’t know that it was its last. The next year UI declined to fund the program. In the last two years IRT’s staff staged readings, fundraisers and children’s programs in hopes the university would return its support, but it did not.
Now in the sweet beyond, IRT is reunited with other publicly funded theater programs done in by budget cuts. It was preceded in death in 2002 by Washington State University Summer Palace, in 2003 by the Lewis-Clark State College Theater Arts Program and in 2011 by the Washington State University Department of Theatre and Dance. It is survived by a Summer Drama Camp and the University of Idaho Theatre Arts Department.
No final curtain call or encore is planned at this time.