If the last time you encountered Shakespeare was in college, it's time to broaden your cultural horizons. And the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is an entertaining way to do just that. The annual festival takes place over the summer months at the picturesque Ewing Manor in Bloomington-Normal and is still going strong 25-plus years after its establishment.
A Bridge to the Past
The Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF) was founded in 1978 as a community outreach effort between the Department of Theatre and the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University. From its inception, the primary mission of the festival has been to provide audiences in central Illinois and the surrounding region with a professional-caliber summer Shakespearean theatre. A secondary mission is to provide a unique opportunity in the Midwest for young Illinois actors to perform Shakespeare and obtain classical training under the tutelage and direction of experienced professionals.
The festival's long-held dream of a new, permanent theatre was realized after 22 years, and the 2000 season began a new era. Its 435-seat house, still an open-air theatre, now has comfortable seating, dressing rooms for actors, and state-of-the-art equipment.
In 1978, the festival presented 21 performances to a season audience of about 6,500. Since then, it's grown to 38 performances in the 2004 season and annual attendance of more than 17,000.
Along for most of that ride has been Calvin MacLean, now the festival's artistic director. "My first experience with the festival was as an actor, fresh out of graduate school, in the summer of 1980. Then-Artistic Director Cal Pritner hired me out of an audition in New York. Cal hired me again, a decade later, in 1990, to direct The Rivals in that summer's festival. Cal Pritner had always been supportive of my early career, and I had very warm feelings about him and the festival all through the 1980s when I was working and living in Chicago. After The Rivals, I was invited to join the faculty at Illinois State as the head of the directing area, which I did in 1991. I directed regularly for the festival in the early 1990s before becoming artistic director in 1995."
This season, however, MacLean is back where he started-on the stage-acting in Twelfth Night. "I've always enjoyed performing, particularly Shakespearean comedy. Malvolio is a character I feel I can manage pretty well. It seemed like the right time."
He said the ISF has enjoyed such a successful run in central Illinois because of the love and support the community has for Shakespeare. "I remember my first drive from Michigan to Normal to act in 1980. I kept wondering why on earth there was a Shakespeare festival in the midst of all this corn. I remember first seeing Ewing Manor and that little wooden stage. It was hard to believe that we could fill up the 300 seats for one night, let alone for 25 performances. Then, after the first show, I understood. The theatre was full. People loved the show; it was a beautiful night."
MacLean said ISU is another reason for the festival's success. "I believe the festival adds luster and distinction to Illinois State, and I've always felt every corner of ISU believes the same. We're one of a handful of communities-and certainly the smallest-that's built a facility for a Shakespeare festival. That's an astounding achievement and a testament to the support for this festival from the university and the community."
Using Ewing Manor as the festival's home adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the shows, he said. "The backdrop is ideal and unique. I think first-time visitors are as surprised and pleased as I was to see the setting. The Tudor-like architecture of Ewing is so appropriate, and the grounds and inner courtyard help set up the festive nature of the evening. And then there's the theatre itself: comfortable, dynamic, and open. The whole evening is unique."
But, of course, none of it would be possible without the exceptional artistic quality presented each summer. "Supremely talented artists are regular contributors to our festival, and others from around the country are eager to come and play here. Professionals from Chicago and New York know of our festival and love its atmosphere. That translates into some pretty exciting theatre, particularly when you're producing some of the greatest plays ever written."
The Play's the Thing
The ISF includes three productions each season, and MacLean said the schedule is finalized through a number of vehicles. "Of course, there are a finite number of plays to choose from. We always do one of the nine comedies, so every nine years or so, the same comedy is on the bill. In the 1990s, we did nearly all of the histories; more recently, we've cycled through the great tragedies. Our third slot is what I call our 'wild card.' It's usually a rarely seen Shakespeare, like this season's Henry VIII, or a play written by someone other than Shakespeare, but compatible with his plays."
MacLean consults with a number of people, including ISF Managing Director Don LaCasse, the management staff, the Shakespeare Society board, and even prospective artists. "I remember asking Joshua Sobol, the wonderful Israeli writer and director, if he'd ever wanted to direct a play by Shakespeare. He was overwhelmed and immediately started telling me his ideas about The Merchant of Venice, a play he'd wanted to direct all his life. That became the basis of our 2002 production-a production I expect will be long remembered as one of the most unique of our festival."
Occasionally, a non-Shakespearean play makes it onto the Shakespeare Festival's schedule. "It was started by Cal Pritner in the late 1980s. In fact, my own production of The Rivals was the second non-Shakespeare play ever done by the festival. Cal had started to run out of comedies, which have always been the most popular and best selling, so he started to do comedies from other writers. When I became artistic director six years later, I wanted to range a little further and produce plays inspired by Shakespeare. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard was programmed with Hamlet. Cyrano and The Three Musketeers were also very popular non-Shakespeare plays. I don't follow a rigid formula, and there are years we produce three Shakespeare plays-like this season-but the idea is to keep the festival 'festive,' interesting, and dynamic. I want people to come to the festival not just for one of the shows, but to see all three productions-and to see something different as well as familiar."
The productions employ professional actors and technicians, he said, most often from Chicago. "These actors have a double function; not only do they play leading roles in the season, but they also serve as professional mentors for the student actors in the company. Part of the mission of the festival is educational-to provide a professional experience for student actors who wish one day to become professionals themselves. In this way, the festival is a kind of 'teaching hospital,' where young actors, designers, and technicians can intern, work, and learn from those working as professionals in their field."
One of the best aspects of theatre is that it's both educational and entertaining every time you go, he said. "Theatre connects ideas and cultural currents to people from many diverse backgrounds. Shakespearean theatre is often thought of as rather old and dusty, a particular kind of thing: Shakespeare. But his plays are so far ranging, with great love for our language, stories that inspire, and with full-blooded characters with passion and wisdom. The continued popularity of Shakespeare is not because his plays are old and dusty, like some kind of medicine you need to take or a vegetable you should eat. A good production of a play by Shakespeare is absorbing, moving, and truly delightful-in ways other writers over the past 400 years have always envied. That's why people keep going to see them and why there are so many theatres around the world devoted to his work-and why we have one in central Illinois and at Illinois State University."
MacLean said the best part of his work with the festival is the "bringing together" part. "I love to put artists together with each other and with particular plays. I like the first day of rehearsals, when the company-most of whom I've already met-meet each other for the first time. I like hearing the individual voices read the play together for the first time. I like setting the tone, helping to establish the ensemble, and encouraging the whole thing to gel. I like to meet people and to invite them to share in the festival's unique excitement. I like seeing an audience laugh or become absorbed by these stories. I like watching older actors inspire younger actors and vice versa. I really like watching things take shape, emerge out of nothing to become something rather amazing. I also like rain to end by early afternoon or begin after midnight; I spend a lot of summer days looking at the sky."
He said future ISF plans include trying to finish the Shakespearean canon. "We've done nearly all of the plays at least once. There are five we haven't touched; one of which, Henry VIII, we're doing this summer. We need to produce Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, and Troilus and Cressida-maybe even The Two Noble Kinsmen. Needless to say, these plays aren't barn-burners in terms of potential box office, but they're cool plays and worth doing well."
Other plans may include different expansions. "We have often talked of a Shakespeare Performance Camp," he said. "This program would be for school-aged children who want to learn to perform Shakespeare-a couple of weeks with our company that would end in a short production performed by the participants. I think, too, the festival could expand into the early part of the fall someday. If our growth continues and we can solve certain financial problems, it would be a wonderful way to begin each school year."
And if, indeed, a stuffy class was your last exposure to Shakespeare, MacLean offered this promise: "There's nothing like an evening at Ewing seeing one of these plays. If you've never joined us before, give it a try. You won't regret the time or effort."
The season's offerings include Twelfth Night (June 29 to August 13), Macbeth (July 1 to August 12), and Henry VIII (July 15 to August 11).
One of Shakespeare's finest comedies, Twelfth Night was written at about the same time as Hamlet and shares with it the greatness and vibrancy of a playwright at the top of his powers. A love-sick count, a beautiful countess, and a woman posing as a man are the familiar backbone of this complex and inventive comedy. Full of song and featuring Shakespeare's most enduring comic characters, Twelfth Night never fails to please. Staged by Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Joel Fink, Christmas will come in July as this Twelfth Night is true to its title.
Last produced in 1992, this season's Macbeth marks the return of regular festival director Karen Kessler, whose productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew are well remembered. Often hailed as Shakespeare's most produced work, Macbeth explores the danger of unbridled ambition and dark destiny. As a weak man tortured by the evil choices he makes, Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's most tragic character.
Shakespeare's treatment of the familiar history of Henry VIII focuses on the loss of favor for Henry's first queen, Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey, Henry the Eighth's trusted friend and advisor. As Katherine and Wolsey suffer their tragic falls, new figures rise to fill their places, and a young princess is christened. Directed by ISF Managing Director Don LaCasse, this colorful, rarely produced history play comes from the very end of Shakespeare's dramatic career.
Tickets for individual shows cost $14 to $40; season subscriptions cost $48 to $108. For more information, call 438-8110 or visit www.thefestival.org. AA!