A Midsummer Night’s Majesty

by Sienna Beard and Karina Swank
Photography by Pete Guither

The works of William Shakespeare were meant to be performed, which is why, for many, the words do not jump off the page when reading them from a book. Live performance is the experience that Shakespeare had in mind, and one that the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF) hopes you take advantage of this summer as they present three plays at Ewing Manor in Bloomington—Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III, and Scapin, an adaptation of the play by French playwright Jean Baptiste Moliere.


Introducing The Bard
The Shakespeare Festival began in 1978 on the tennis courts at the Ewing Cultural Center Manor as a partnership between the Illinois State University School of Theatre and the College of Fine Arts. It now takes place in the 438-seat, open-air, Elizabethan-style theatre, built on the grounds of Ewing Manor.

Artistic Director Deb Alley explained that the Theatre at Ewing was loosely modeled after the famous Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. Its shape is similar to the Globe’s “wooden ‘O’” design, and it has no ceiling. But unlike the Globe, where the poor had to stand while the wealthy were able to sit, everyone gets to sit and relax during performances.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival was recently named one of the 10 best theater festivals anywhere in the National Geographic book, The Ten Best of Everything Families: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers.

Even with its modern twists, Alley said they wanted to keep intact the atmosphere in which Shakespeare was originally performed. “We wanted to honor the way the plays were written and the ways they were performed,” she said. “And it is just wonderful to go out on a summer’s evening, sit underneath the stars and look over the back wall of a theatre and see the trees, and to see this performance of Shakespeare…in the way it would have been seen when [he] was alive.”

Each year, Alley, Managing Director John Poole and ISF staff select the plays to be performed based on the number of cast members, royalty fees, and patron likes and dislikes, trying to ensure that the Shakespeare canon is well covered—including his lesser known works. ISF always offers at least two plays by Shakespeare, but will often include classical works by other playwrights as well, such as this year’s Scapin.

The family of Hazle Buck Ewing, a local philanthropist, donated Ewing Manor to the Illinois State University Foundation in 1969 for historical and cultural purposes. From 1978 to 1999, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival was produced in a “temporary” wooden structure on its grounds. Improvements to the theatre were constantly ongoing to accommodate the growing audiences and improve sight lines and acoustic conditions.

In 1999, groundbreaking for the permanent, open-air theatre began, and the next year, the Festival opened in the comfortable, 438-seat house, architecturally compatible with Ewing Manor. Its design features descending concrete tiers in the Roman theatre tradition, underground passageways and a host of backstage amenities.

“Putting the Illinois Shakespeare Festival together is a wonderful experience,” said Alley. “Artists and technicians come from all over the country, lending their imaginations, talents and enthusiasm to the work. The planning starts more than a year in advance, with everyone on staff involved in the decision-making.”

One person involved with the advance planning is Lauren Lowell, associate professor at ISU and head of costume design. Her work began in December with preliminary meetings and sketches, and culminated in mid-May when construction and reworking of costumes began. Together with Alley and Scenic Designer John Stark, the team looked “for evocative inspiration to tell the story that [they] are trying to tell, trying to make it new, exciting and relevant to the current audience.” With this in mind, the group chose to set A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1930s New Orleans. “It kind of came out of discussions about our feelings about the play and what it was trying to say, and what might be reflective of the current world we’re living in,” explained Lowell.

A Shakesperience
The Festival enhances its Shakespeare offerings with a variety of other activities geared toward making the experience even more enticing. It’s a Shakesperience, if you will.

Madrigal singers from ISU’s music department can be found roaming the premises, singing in full Shakespearian period garb, or performing on the Festival Courtyard Stage or back lawn. On Friday and Saturday evenings, world-renowned saxophonist and Normal resident Glenn Wilson produces a jazz series prior to the stage performances. On Wednesday nights, a diverse lineup of musical entertainment from around the world takes the stage. You may come one night and see a Brazilian duo; on others, you might hear classical Indian music or a gypsy string band.

With the picturesque grounds surrounding you, pre-show picnics are a favorite of many festival-goers. “A lot of people come out, and always have, for the 32 years we’ve been in existence. They come out before the show, set up picnics on the ground, and chat with friends,” noted Alley. Guests can bring their own picnic baskets or preorder them from Destihl Restaurant & Brew Works, which has them waiting at the festival when guests arrive. There are also a number of promotional nights, such as WJBC Date Night Tuesdays, College Station Student Tuition Nights and Family Festival Nights.

After select Tuesday night performances, Alley and the cast stick around for Post-Show Talk-Backs, where the audience can ask questions about the performance or the actors. Following the Q&A session, an old-fashioned ice cream social is provided free of charge. According to Alley, “It kind of happened as an accident last year. We have a local guy who has traditionally treated the company to an ice cream social every summer, and last year we had so much ice cream, we invited the audience after one of the shows to join us!”

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, free entertainment for children of all ages takes place on the Festival Courtyard Stage. These Green Shows (named because they were originally performed on the lawn surrounding the theatre) consist of 12-minute skits and facts about Shakespeare’s life. According to Chris Garcia Peak, marketing director for ISF, “It’s tradition to have Green Shows in Shakespeare festivals.” They were originally mini-versions of the night’s main performance, simplified so the audience could better understand the language and plot. Today, they provide families the opportunity to begin to immerse their children in Shakespeare—but are timed so that parents can take the kids home before the main event begins.

In addition to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, and Richard III, with its dark, serious tone and political intrigue, this season’s lineup features the non-Shakespearian play Scapin, Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s fast-paced, lazzi adaptation of the comedy first staged in Paris in 1667. Lazzi means “physical comic bits,” and, according to Artistic Director Deb Alley, the play is full of them. While not everyone feels confident that they will fully appreciate the sometimes-archaic language of Shakespeare, Alley assures us that Scapin is a play that anyone can appreciate.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, sponsored in part by Illinois State University and The Snyder Companies, opens the season with A Midsummer Night’s Dream on June 25th. It will run through August 9th, with Scapin opening on June 26th and Richard III on July 16th. For more information or to purchase tickets or season passes, visit thefestival.org.

Shakespeare Alive!
If the Green Shows spark an interest in theater, children can participate in the activities of ISF’s educational outreach program, Shakespeare Alive! Kids in grades six to 12 can fan that spark by attending the Shakespeare Summer Camps. This year, the summer camp program has been expanded to three week-long camps, during which camp-goers will explore one of three Shakespeare plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest or Hamlet. The young, aspiring actors are trained by teaching artists to develop skills in acting, voice, movement, character development and technical theatre. Students in grades nine through 12 will also learn beginning stage combat.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Festival, as part of the Shakespeare Alive! program, will host a free performance of The Tempest. The 45-minute showing is geared toward children ages nine to 14, but the entire family is welcome to attend.

The Festival is also bringing back a program called Shakespeare in Schools. As part of Shakespeare Alive!, it brought Shakespeare back to life, according to Alley, when he “came to visit [Bloomington High School] despite the fact that he is 445 years old!” There, the students were able to interview The Bard in a press-like setting. Undergraduate students at ISU have also put together a half-hour version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called The Rustics of Arden, complete with workshops, to take to the schools.

With so many offerings outside of the main performance, Peak explained that “the idea is to give back to the community, and to be a necessary cultural activity in the community.” Now in its 32nd season, the Festival seems to have become just that.

“We want the Festival to be a place where families and friends can come together for a great night of fun,” added Alley. “Picnic on the beautiful Ewing grounds, listen to some music and see a terrific show.” a&s