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Sweet sorrow: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival shuts down

We come not to bury the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, but to praise the outstanding job it did keeping the Bard's work alive for Baltimore audiences for 17 seasons. Parting is such sweet sorrow when the departed one has so entertained, educated and delighted local theatergoers for so long.

The company announced last week it was closing due to financial troubles it had been experiencing for nearly a decade and that were exacerbated by the recent recession. Though there has always been an enthusiastic audience here for Shakespeare's enduring masterpieces, they have never been cheap to produce. The cost of sets, costumes, language coaches — and yes, sword-fighting instructors — can make bringing Shakespeare's unforgettable characters to the stage almost as expensive as putting on an operatic production.

The company repeatedly tried to cut costs to balance its annual budget of about $150,000. But its board declined the option that might have produced the biggest savings, which was to drop the company's contract with Actors Equity, the union for stage performers. That contract gave the company access to the region's top professional actors, directors and set designers, who are barred from performing in non-union productions.

But using professional rather than amateur actors also raised the cost of performances and rehearsals to levels that turned out to be unsustainable, despite an anonymous $1 million gift the company received in 2007. In its final year, the company could only afford to mount two shows during the season, and the runs were just three weekends long. For fans of the great tragedies and comedies that have thrilled theatergoers the world over, that may have been the unkindest cut of all.

The Shakespeare troupe's demise follows the closure of other venerable Baltimore institutions that have fallen victim to financial hard times. The most illustrious was the Baltimore Opera Company, which closed its doors in 2009 after more than 60 seasons. The company was forced to file for bankruptcy after years of struggling financially despite important artistic successes. But even major institutions that have managed to weather the recession, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, have all had to cut back programs and staff to survive.

Now that the curtain has fallen on the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, the city is left with just two professional theatrical ensembles, Center Stage and the Everyman Theater. Of course, we hope another group will come along to take fill the gap left by the festival's thespians, and in the meantime the Baltimore metro area is still blessed with an abundance of theatrical choices, both professional and amateur. When the house lights go down, they continue to remind us that theaters, like people, are "such stuff as dreams are made on," and like us, "their little life is rounded by a sleep."

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