A Midsummer Night in Peoria

by Jonathan Wright
Photo by Chuck Osgood

Shakespeare speaks to everyone—that is the profound belief of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This summer, CST takes that message on the road, including a pair of shows at Glen Oak Park in Peoria. “Shakespeare was the great humanist,” notes Criss Henderson, executive director. “Too often he's been relegated to being an ‘elitist’ playwright, and we don't believe that is the case at all.”

Under Henderson’s leadership, CST has become one of the nation’s leading regional theaters. In addition to its three dynamic theater spaces on Navy Pier, the organization brings free, professional Shakespeare productions to parks across Chicago. “We have a stage that comes… in a giant truck which unfolds itself as a performance platform,” he explains. The mobile unit includes generators, a sound system and other state-of-the-art equipment, offering up “as fully produced a production as one can.”

CST’s Shakespeare in the Park began seven years ago as a pilot program focused on neighborhoods where access to arts and cultural activities is limited. “We try to partner in these communities—not just put on a show,” Henderson adds, noting CST’s relationships with schools, churches and social service organizations. “To bring opportunities for cultural engagement… is really important and can change lives. We're hoping to do a little bit of that when we're down there this summer.”

For Henderson, the trip to central Illinois will be a homecoming of sorts: his parents grew up in the area, his grandfather was once mayor of Chillicothe, and he spent a lot of time here as a kid. With a new school year underway, CST will make educational resources available to area teachers, he adds, hoping to excite kids about Shakespeare’s work, which can be challenging in the classroom. “It really wasn't meant to be read—it was meant to be experienced live, performed by great actors on the stage. Anytime we can bring those words to life… it is one of our most important mandates.”

Henderson promises a fun experience for all, as well as a sense of welcome and inclusiveness—“no matter what part of Peoria or the surrounding areas you're from, no matter how old you are, no matter your race or sociological background,” he adds. “I think people are just going to have a blast. And it's a free performance—that's the most important message. Everybody should be there.” a&s

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in partnership with the City of Peoria and Peoria Park District, brings A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Glen Oak Park on Saturday and Sunday, August 18-19, 2018. For more information, call the Peoria Park District at (309) 682-1200. Learn more about CST at chicagoshakes.com.