KILGORE — Raymond Caldwell, founder and artistic director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival for more than three decades, will retire next year on what will be his 78th birthday.

“I’ve been thinking about it for some time,” he said recently from his Kilgore College office.

Caldwell started the festival in the Texas sesquicentennial year of 1986. Next summer will mark the festival’s 35th year with him welcoming crowds and introducing performances.

It will also be his last, he said.

“After teaching for 54 years … you wonder what you’re going to do with yourself because, like many people, I’ve defined myself by what I do,” Caldwell said.

Rumors of his pending retirement have circulated in the Kilgore community since he surprised the festival foundation board at a recent quarterly meeting, Caldwell said.

“News spread very fast,” he said, “so the reality has set in.”

Caldwell said he had no intention of speaking up at the quarterly meeting, but as foundation board members voiced concerns about rising festival costs compared with yearly fundraising of between $100,000 and $200,000, he interrupted the discussion with his announcement.

The board “sounded pretty concerned about being able to continue doing that year after year, and of course the festival doesn’t get any cheaper,” he said, adding that his retirement “would save the foundation that much more money … Something just told me I should speak up and give them that little bit of hope.”

Caldwell said he hopes the college replaces him with Matthew Simpson, who is the festival’s 10th-year associate artistic director and development director, and his wife Meaghan Simpson, who is associate casting director and associate artistic director in her 11th year.

The couple is paid by the foundation through Kilgore College, a maneuver that allows them to qualify for college employee benefits.

“If the college will agree to use the money they’ve been paying me and direct that to Meaghan and Matthew’s salaries, it will make funding the festival that much easier,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell hasn’t determined his post-retirement plans — “I’m sure that will work itself out in time,” he said — but he is steadfast in preparing for the festival’s 35th season.

“It’s been the joy of my life and literally the most fulfilling, exciting endeavor that I’ve ever been involved with,” Caldwell said, “and I’m very proud.”

Jimmy Daniell Isaac covers the city of Longview and Gregg County. Follow him on Twitter: @jimmyisaaclives.

Jimmy Daniell Isaac covers the city of Longview and Gregg County. Follow him on Twitter: @jimmyisaaclives.  

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