“I crave death more willingly than mercy. ’Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.” – Angelo, “Measure for Measure”
Boulder native Sam Sandoe is a man of many words … just not his own. A whole lot of them have been placed upon his tongue by no less than the greatest writer in the history of the English language.
Sandoe, an actor who has been performing in Shakespearean plays for 52 years, has just completed a feat so rare no one really knows just how few people have ever done it.
Sandoe is currently playing the Head of the Roman Senate in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Coriolanus,” which means he has now performed in all 37 of the plays that are generally considered to make up Shakespeare’s canon – with a few of the disputed ones thrown in for good measure (for measure).
And he’s performed in 35 of those 37 plays for Colorado Shakes, which, in its 65th season, is the second-oldest Shakespeare Festival in the country. And one started by his dad, James Sandoe, who first put his son on stage when he was just 15 years old.
“Sam is a true gentleman of the theater, and this is such a monumental achievement,” said Colorado Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr. “I’m so happy for him, and thrilled for us that he got to complete the canon here at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, where the Sandoe family is theater royalty.”
Sam’s a genial but hardly overly effusive guy. His reaction to completing what might be considered akin to an athlete winning the grand slams of tennis or golf?
“I just do the shows,” he says simply.
“It’s mostly a relief just because I have been chipping away at this for 52 years now. I really hadn’t given it much thought. But over the past decade, I did start to think that maybe it was possible.”
No one keeps an official list of everyone who has achieved the feat, but Orr and Sandoe know of only two American actors who ever have – and both intersected with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Barry Kraft, who has performed in more than 85 Shakespearean productions across the country, and Julian López-Morillas, who starred as Tartuffe in 1992 and returned to Boulder in 2008 to complete the canon playing Cardinal Wolsey in “Henry VIII.”
At least one other long-ago Colorado actor turned the trick, and he had a built-in advantage. As in, he had a theater built into his basement on Hooker Street in northwest Denver. In 1911, George Swartz opened the residential Victorian Playhouse, which became the first theater west of the Mississippi to stage all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays – and he is believed to have appeared in all of them before his death in 1937.
James Sandoe was a University of Colorado professor, librarian, bibliographer and Shakespearean scholar who was first asked to stage a play on campus in the summer of 1944. But because the Navy had taken over the university’s indoor theater for the war effort, Sandoe decided to try staging “Romeo and Juliet” in the newly built Mary Rippon Amphitheater. That began an annual tradition that became formalized when his friend, English professor Jack Crouch, officially founded the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in 1958.
James Sandoe became a legendary figure both in Boulder and at the older Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland – and he took his wife and four children along for the whole theatrical ride. In all, James Sandoe directed nine seasons in Boulder between 1961-73 – and whenever he needed children, he turned to his own. He cast Anne in her first play when she was 6. In 1970, he cast Sam as what one might call “living furniture” in “Richard III” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.” This summer, Sam is again appearing in “All’s Well” – as the Duke of Florence.
Sam has stayed pretty consistent with the company over the years – 2022 is officially his 32nd season, mostly playing supporting roles. That dovetailed nicely with a two-decade job in the university’s Office of Strategic Media Relations.
He hasn’t repeated many roles, but his favorite was playing smarmy Angelo in “Measure for Measure.” He’s the hypocrite who sentences a man to death for the crime of fornication and then turns around and propositions a young nun. He also loved playing a composite chorus character in “Queen Margaret,” an original adapted mashup of “Henry VI” (all three parts) and “Richard III” for its 2000 world premiere in Boulder. “To my knowledge, I am the only person who has ever played that role,” he said.
Sandoe hasn’t disliked any of his roles but, as a character actor, he admits he has spent “an awful lot of time onstage standing around endlessly while people talk and talk and talk.” But that’s OK. He was never in it to be a star – he was in it for a fun way to spend his summers. And some of that standing around has been next to big-time celebrities like Val Kilmer and Jimmy Smits.
Sandoe has appeared in “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” the most at Colorado Shakes, at five times each, and he’s appeared in 12 non-Shakespearean titles. But a big factor in his completing the canon was Orr’s arrival in 2015. Intent on the company completing the overall canon for a second time, Orr instituted an annual “Original Practices” offering – that’s a limited theatrical experiment where casts are gathered to present the less viable titles sort of how they might have been staged in Shakespeare’s time – with very little rehearsal, partial scripts in hand and with no designated director. But that has allowed the festival – and Sandoe – to check off some otherwise uncheckable boxes … like any title that starts with “Henry VI.”
“I have to thank the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for being one of the few places that is committed to doing the obscure Shakespeare plays, and not just the 10 most popular titles,” Sandoes said.
Sandoe also had some outside help to fill out his dance card: He’s performed with the Shakespeare Oratorio Society since the 1970s, and he checked a big box when Boulder’s Upstart Crow troupe staged “Two Noble Kinsmen” in 2009.
At a time when Shakespeare’s place in a modern, woke world is coming under new and unflattering examination, Sandoe remains a firm believer in the eternity of his words.
“Shakespeare will always be relevant because his plays address so many issues that are completely re-energized by whatever is happening in the world at any given time – like right now,” Sandoe said. “He touched the human soul in so many ways, and that’s why his plays have endured.”
The Sandoes clearly have the Bard in their Boulder blood. Sister Anne Sandoe believes their father, who directed more than 70 plays in the Mary Rippon Amphitheatre before his death in 1980, would be pleased to know that Sam has completed the canon. “But I think he’d be a bit stunned by the very idea that anybody could accomplish it,” Sam added. “For all the records my father set, he was nowhere close to completing the canon.”
Most of all, Sam wishes he could share the joy of his achievement with his wife, Sally Sandoe, who died in January 2021. When Sally met Sammy, they were performing in the musical “Noel & Gertie” together, and they married in 2001. Sally called Sam her “third-act leading man.”
But because Sally was able to attend the company’s 2019 announcement party, she knew that plans were in the works for both “Pericles” and “Coriolanus,” the last two missing titles on Sam’s list. “Pericles” was checked off last summer.
“So Sally knew what was coming, and she was so pleased – because she knew that meant I was going to complete the canon,” Sandoe said.
And now he’s going to do it a second time.
“There are 17 titles that I have to repeat,” Sandoe said. “So if I do more than one a year, I will be 84 years old. And then again – I might get two done in some years!”
Play it again, Sam.