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LOHUD: Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival sets bold path at new home, with help from its friends

Originally published on July 5, 2023 in LOHUD by Peter Kramer.

In the pre-battle gloom of a French overnight, before England’s fateful day at Agincourt, King Henry V disguises himself and walks among the fires of his camp, gauging his army’s appetite for the battle to come.

The king gets an earful in this exercise in mettle-testing, while giving his troops what Shakespeare calls “a little touch of Harry in the night.” Some men are fully behind him; others voice their fears and doubts.

Next morning, Henry — no longer shrouded by dark and costume — hails the dawning of Saint Crispin’s Day and the fight ahead. Yes, we’re outnumbered, he tells his “band of brothers,” but that means each will have a larger share of glory when they whip the French.

“All things are ready,” the king tells his troops, “if our minds be so.”

A gift of land

It’s the kind of magical thinking that isn’t foreign to Davis McCallum, who directs “Henry V” this summer at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and has been the festival’s artistic director for nearly a decade. McCallum, 48, is accustomed to seeing things that aren’t there and willing them into being with the help of his friends.

Now, with help of friends of a philanthropic bent, McCallum has set the festival on a course to a permanent home.

The festival moved last summer from its long-time location at the Boscobel House & Gardens to gifted land on Snake Hill Road in Garrison. It’s still under a temporary tent this summer as it raises funds to build a permanent open-air pavilion. If all goes as planned, the new pavilion, with sweeping, north-facing views of Storm King Mountain and the Hudson, will open in June 2026.

McCallum’s festival has considerable friends.

Philanthropist Chris Davis bought Garrison Golf Course and gifted the festival 98 of its 200 acres, with another 100 acres going to the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. Plans call for developing less than four of the festival’s acres, creating a sprawling, environmentally conscious permanent campus where the actors, crew and creative team can live, rehearse and perform during the season.

(This is the festival’s second season on-site, through Sept. 17, presenting “Henry V,” “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “Penelope.” Details at hvshakespeare.org.)

The scale and impact of Davis’s gift is monumental.

“It’s 50 miles from Grand Central Station and it’s being gifted to a nonprofit theater company,” McCallum says. “That will never happen again. It’s a really singular once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

The gift eventually will let the festival extend its summer season well into the fall, ballooning its projected annual regional economic impact from $4.6 million to $7.6 million when fully realized, McCallum says.

A stage saved

Other friends emerged during the pandemic, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Sen. Schumer came to Boscobel during the pandemic when he was rolling out the Save Our Stages Act,” McCallum says. “The entire American nonprofit theater has Sen. Schumer and Sen. (Amy) Klobuchar and others to thank for getting us through the darkest days of the pandemic.

“It was cool that he came to the Mid-Hudson Valley to say this isn’t just about New York City,” McCallum says. “This affects organizations all over the state.”

Hudson Valley Shakespeare was granted $1.1 million in shuttered venues grants under the Save Our Stages Act, which was designed to support live-event venues through the pandemic.

The state steps up in a big way

Last month, another friend emerged, when Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $90.5 million in capital grants to 19 arts programs across the state. The grants, through New York State Council on the Arts, earmarked $10 million to Hudson Valley Shakespeare, which Hochul visited when she was lieutenant governor.

“We’re going to continue bringing Shakespeare to the Hudson Valley,” Hochul said in making the announcement. “There are so many different ways that you can touch the soul. It’s with your eyes. It’s with your ears, listening to the music. It’s also just becoming engaged in a story — a story that’s over, I don’t know, 500 years old, hundreds of years old, that it continues to this day to tell stories that have incredible relevance.”

Hochul spoke on June 6, but McCallum laughs when he recalls hearing the news days earlier.

“I was in the car with my kids and I got a call from Mara Manus, who is the executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts,” he says. “When she told me that we had been funded at the highest level, I started just screaming in the car. And both of my children were like ‘Is everything OK? Stop the car. Stop the car.’ It was just an incredible sense of joy and and also the fact that they saw in this project what we see in it, too.”

LEED by example

The NYSCA funds will go to build a state-of-the-art, open-air theater that will meet stringent environment-friendly LEED Platinum benchmarks from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The pavilion-style theater will melt into the site, with a sloping roof that echoes nearby hills but actually takes its inspiration from a Hudson River mussel, McCallum says. It is designed by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang, whose latest creation is the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Everything in the plan, McCallum says, is designed to leave as small a footprint as possible:

  • The pavilion will use natural materials to frame the view.
  • The theater’s roof will have solar panels and vents for air flow.
  • Rainwater will be collected for use in the restrooms.
  • The pesticides and herbicides that kept the golf course green will no longer be applied.
  • Water use for irrigation will be cut back dramatically.
  • Parking areas will use environmentally friendly materials.

A ‘legacy project’ to name the theater

The $10 million state grant comes in what McCallum calls “the quiet phase” of a fund-raising campaign, before he announces how much will be needed to turn all his plans into reality. But McCallum says the grant is a ringing validation of the festival’s blueprint for the future.

The grant “is a huge wind in our sails,” McCallum says, but “it would be a mistake to think ‘Oh, we’re done.’ We have more work to do to be able to realize this vision.”

He said he hopes the grant will create interest from others, including someone interested in making the lead gift to name the theater.

“This is a legacy project for the right person,” he says. “There’s not anything else like it in the country.”

The Hudson is baked into the festival’s DNA

McCallum crosses what used to be a fairway, already seeing it as it will be: a meadow restored to native grasses and wildflowers.

When he crests the hill, he arrives at a scenic overlook with commanding views of Storm King Mountain and the Hudson to the north and the United States Military Academy at West Point, due west. Smoke from Canadian wildfires shrouds the view on this day, but McCallum knows what’s there, a vista that is worth the wait, one that is baked into Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s DNA.

“The idea was that people would drive in and have this kind of sense of coming into another world — ‘Where is the river, exactly?’ — and walk through a garden, pick up their tickets, and then go up the hillside to the moment where the big view is revealed and then gather underneath the tent,” McCallum says. “And each one of these things with its own kind of separate piece of choreography on the site.”

About 35,000 theatergoers per year attended the festival, pre-pandemic, and McCallum says the audience this year is back for its first full season since. The festival was dark in 2020, socially distanced in its last summer at Boscobel in 2021, and opened at its new home in Garrison last summer, but started in July, not June.

At the new location, theatergoers settle in under the familiar tent but with a view of a towering copper beech tree, not the river that gives the festival its name.

“It’s the thing that our audience is missing with the tent where it is now,” he says. “I think the shows are great and we’re trying to encourage them to come up here and picnic. But without that sense of the vista and the relationship between the language and the landscape, it’s an important part of our brand.”

For more than a generation, festivalgoers flocked to Boscobel and its south-facing view of the Hudson Highlands and West Point. This new view faces north, but is no less spectacular.

“The Hudson River has been inspiring artists for centuries. And it’s not just the backdrop. It’s the inspiration for the kind of work that we do,” McCallum says. “It’s amazing that there’s another place that’s not even three miles from our home of 35 years that also has the kind of jaw-dropping relationship to the Hudson River.”

A trick of topography

The new location on the hilltop also echoes a trick of topography that festival founder Terrence O’Brien employed at Boscobel. There, a far-off “belvedere” patio at the edge of the lawn and 15 feet below the lawn level created the effect of actors springing from the earth to create the evening’s entertainment.

The new site has a similar drop-off, McCallum says, adding: “There’s no way you could solve for that if it didn’t already exist.”

One thing that the festival is looking forward to solving is the issue of housing for its company. Currently, the actors and staff are housed at a Fishkill hotel, more than 20 minutes from Garrison, just far enough away to make it difficult to pop back and forth between rehearsal and performance.

The campus plan calls for artists to live on-site, in a cluster of buildings down the hill from the new theater and tucked near barns that have been repurposed into rehearsal space. McCallum says the housing options will vary.

“We have artists of different phases of their life,” he says. “Some of them are happy to share a house and others want their own private tiny studio. We’re designing it so there are units of different types for actors who might want to bring a partner and a small child.”

When those living quarters will be built depends on the success of fund-raising, he says.

The work of creating the new space will take time, McCallum says, laying out a schedule that would have the theater opening in June 2026.

“We’re going to start construction — all things going as we hope — in the early part of 2024. It’s going to take 18 months for the construction to be complete. So that wouldn’t wrap up until September or October of 2025, too late for that season.”

McCallum can see the plans taking shape. He knows where the vision takes his festival, to a permanent, sustainable, environmentally friendly future.

All he needs now is a bit more help from his friends.