As Cliff likes it

Cliff Redd is coming up on the first anniversary of his self-proclaimed "life sentence." The John Lithgow look-alike fairly squirms in his seat as he talks about his return to the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, where he took up last April 15 where he left off in 1997 as executive director. His perch is no electric chair, certainly, and not exactly a hot seat; although, considering the sheer magnitude of the changes he's made in less than a year, you'd think something was burning his butt. "This is our experimental year," he says. "After a 30-year, successful history in Dallas, we're looking to plan the next 30 years. My focus is on the festival of the future."

Redd ran the Shakespeare Festival from 1989 to 1997, then spent 18 months heading up Dallas' art charity, The 500 Inc. With a theater-practiced, passionate delivery, he explains how he wasn't miserable, exactly, during his short stint at The 500 Inc.; he just couldn't shake being identified with Shakespeare. "They tried to rebrand this face with the new organization," Redd says, "but it didn't work. People would walk up to me in the grocery story and start talking Shakespeare." Board members and other supporters and colleagues at the festival kept after him, even as he struggled to do his best for The 500 Inc. So he agreed to come back. And now that he's back, he's in it for the long haul. "I love what's happening here, and I love what's happening with the festival," he says. "That's why I say now it's a life sentence."

Redd's renewed energy for his old job is palpable as he talks about new programming ideas for the 2000 season, planned celebrations for the Shakespeare festival's 30th in 2001, the revamped Web site (, and the re-establishment of the festival's active guild of volunteers and benefactors. But first, he's busy digging the nonprofit arts organization out of a hole. In his absence, Redd says, the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas fell on hard times, accruing $250,000 in debt. "We've done a great job of getting it back on track in less than a year," he says. "We're in the midst of a matching grant of $125,000 from the Eugene McDermott Foundation."

Another big project and risky undertaking for the Redd-led festival is the recently announced one-year, $850,000 capital campaign for major, permanent facilities improvements at the festival's home in East Dallas' Samuell Grand Park. "We've talked about this for 10 years at least," Redd says. "We have made some progress over the years, but it's never as fast as you want it. This year, we made a shift. We were looking to make some profound demonstration to the Dallas Parks Department and to the city council that we would undertake some fund-raising ourselves for some of these buildings that were for us."

He believes they're off to a flying start. The Dallas Foundation has given $75,000, and the Karl Hoblitzelle Foundation recently kicked in $93,000 toward the project.

The improvements include a new entry plaza, an expanded sound and lighting booth with reserved VIP seating, and a pre- and post-performance pavilion for wooing and rewarding corporate donors. Redd believes fund-raising and construction of the multi-facility mission can be accomplished in two or three years. "The city has made it very easy for us to do this," he says, citing support from Councilwoman Veletta Lill, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, and parks and recreation's Larry Smith. "It's my belief that if we build one or two of these buildings, then I think the city will become very involved to help us finish the rest of what we want done."

Lill can't say that the city's perennially tight budget would have any room -- now or in the future -- to build some Tudor-style park buildings used less than two months of the year for Shakespeare. But she's been industrious about supporting the project. "There is some money that was part of the 1998 bond that was for Samuell Grand Park, and some of that will be used specifically to do ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance and to leverage the dollars that the Shakespeare Festival is raising," she says. Lill says $150,000 is available, and since it is a re-allocation of money already earmarked for the park, she expects council and parks department support for using it for the improvement project.

Redd's proposed improvements will solve another problem for the city park, Lill says. "Our concern has been over time that Samuell Grand has been underutilized." Lill says the city needs more venues to offer to the hundreds of requests for special-event sites and believes that existing arts organizations might be interested in the new and improved amphitheater. "Other theater performances can be staged there, the symphony can play," she says, "and it could serve small arts groups and school arts groups throughout the year. There is nothing better than sitting under the stars."

Redd wouldn't argue with that, and he's supportive of sharing his potentially stellar digs with other arts organizations. "The gift of the Shakespeare Festival is, we can make alliances and partnerships and we're not in competition for the ticket dollar of everybody else in town. I believe the future of the arts in this country is all about partnerships." To build bigger audiences for Dallas' only "free cultural-literacy program," he's pounced headlong on a new programming strategy -- presenting productions of Shakespeare rather than producing them -- and using partnerships with other Shakespeare companies to do it. "There is essentially no cost difference in our putting on five productions as a presenter this year compared to mounting two plays as a producing organization," he says.

Redd says this season the organization is following an industry trend by bringing Canadian and Mexican Shakespeare companies to Dallas, as well as co-presenting a play with Undermain Theatre and sponsoring a production by the Texas Shakespeare Festival of Kilgore. "We researched how to best align the festival with what's important to Dallas right now," he says. "Dallas sees itself and wants to be an international city. So we are bringing Canadian and Mexican companies here. It's very important to us to see the cultural, textural differences these international companies bring to familiar work." This summer, the festival is bringing Shakespearean actors based in Mexico City to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream in Spanish.

"The truth is, we're doing several plays we probably wouldn't produce," Redd says. "Texas Shakespeare Festival is doing A Winter's Tale, which is almost non-produceable out in the park. We're very interested in bringing it because it's one of Shakespeare's problem plays. It's interesting to do." And it's relatively non-commercial, Redd says, as is Pericles, a joint production with Dallas' Undermain Theater funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. "Undermain brings a different perspective to this town," Redd says. "They're edgy, twitchy. They can take risks we're not able to because of the number of families we have come to our production."

Still, families in the audience haven't kept the festival from flirting with controversy in the past. Redd remembers rumblings of concern when his performances featured biracial kisses and colorblind casting. "When I was trying that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that was still a really new idea in Dallas," he says. "It was controversial the first year we totally abandoned the idea of segregation in our casting." Now that Dallas audiences have accepted multi-ethnic performers, Redd's hoping the new programming will encourage a broader and more diverse audience. "I have kind of a social-worker side to me, and this season satisfies that," he says.