Smile Politely’s Mathew Green (MG) interviewed Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF) Artistic Director Kevin Rich (KR). This story has been reprinted with permission.
MG: First, I’ll need a little background on you. How long have you been artistic director, and what is your personal history with the stage?
KR: I became ISF’s artistic director in 2013, but began working at ISF in 2009 as an actor, and this has felt like an artistic home ever since. Some of my favorite roles here have been Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard in Richard III, and both Dromios in Comedy of Errors. Last year I wrote and directed our Theatre for Young Audiences production, The Magical Mind of Billy Shakespeare, and this year I’m directing Antony and Cleopatra.
MG: I’m very interested in how the non-Shakespearean productions are chosen. Is there a specific set of criteria that makes them appropriate for the festival?
KR: Each summer we produce two Shakespearean plays and one new play in the spirit of Shakespeare. When people ask me, “Why is a Shakespeare festival producing new plays?” my response is, “Shakespeare wrote new plays.” Considering that Shakespeare adapted the classics of his time for a contemporary audience, it seems to me to be in his spirit to nurture playwrights of our time who are doing the same thing. So I look for plays that have a direct connection to Shakespeare or his plays, or, like last year’s beautiful Failure: A Love Story by Jeff Award-winning playwright Philip Dawkins, simply have characteristics of Shakespeare’s plays: poetic language, heightened theatricality, and universal, timeless themes. I believe strongly in Shakespeare as a populist, not an elitist, and to that end, look for plays that are fundamentally human and accessible to everyone. Having said that, this season’s Elizabeth Rex by Timothy Findley has some adult language in it and is edgier than last summer’s offering, but given its connection to Shakespeare and inclusion of both Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra (the two Shakespeare plays we’re doing as well), I couldn’t resist.
MG: Given the festival’s open air presentation, I have to ask: What considerations go into planning and staging outdoor theater versus a traditional indoor show? I’m also curious just how adverse weather has to become before a production is affected? What countermands “The show must go on?”
KR: We play in light rain, and sometimes even less-than-light rain (our audience are real troopers: if showers are forecasted, they often bring raingear and love toughing it out). At the first sign of lightning, however, we cancel immediately. Further, if the play we are performing features a lot of dancing or sword-fighting (as they often do), we have to be very careful when the stage floor is wet. We have a term, “rain pace”—when rain is falling, we try to move through the show as quickly as possible while remaining safe. Performing out in the elements is an amazing experience. I once saw an outdoor production of King Lear in which rain actually began to fall during the famous storm scene. Truly magical. I’ll never forget it.
Another huge benefit of performing outside: The audience is in plain view. One of the principal reasons Shakespeare’s plays were so popular when he originally produced them was that the actors actually interacted with the “groundlings” who were pressed against (and sitting on) the stage. Without audience interaction, it’s my opinion that Shakespearean productions can feel a bit like museum pieces; but when actors engage audience directly, as Shakespeare intended, they feel as fresh and alive (and funny!) as I imagine they did when Shakespeare wrote them. Since we can see our audience in our outdoor theater, we speak to them directly. We even offer onstage seating (we call them the Bardhead seats) for only $20; there are only 10 available for each performance, and they were really popular last summer. Actors engaging audience directly is essentially theatrical: One thing film and television can never do.
As much as we love performing outdoors, it is sometimes just too hot or too wet; in the event of severely inclement weather, we have an indoor rain/heat stage—the air-conditioned Center for the Performing Arts on the Illinois State University campus—so the show will always go on. We also offer indoor matinees on the weekends, making it possible to see our whole season in a two-day weekend getaway, with performances rain or shine.
MG: What, in your opinion, sets the Illinois Shakespeare Festival apart from other summer destinations/offerings? For the first-time attendee, let’s say… What’s in it for them?
KR: The festival is in its 37th year, and we have grown to the point that we are nationally recognized as one of the top Shakespeare festivals in the country. I now audition between 500-750 actors for each season. One of the most frequent postshow comments I hear from community members is, “I’m so proud that this festival is here in our town!” I love hearing that. Our theater is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever worked in, and the grounds of Ewing Manor are incredible. Families come and picnic on the lawn before the show, and we offer free preshow entertainment (and live jazz on the weekends) in the courtyard. In addition to our main stage productions, we have a free Theatre for Young Audiences production on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and on Saturday evenings at 6 p.m., we bring in Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare Company, which is seriously one of the funniest shows I have ever seen. And we have lectures, panel discussions, postshow talk-backs and ice cream socials for the community. Something for everyone. With all that’s going on, it really does feel like a festival.
MG: What, to you, is the best part of putting on this festival, season after season? What do you most look forward to?
KR: Surprising people’s expectations. My first summer here, we were doing Richard III, and I met an audience member at one of our post-performance ice cream socials. He was a guy in a plaid shirt and a John Deere hat who had never seen a play before. He came up to me and asked, “Did you guys rewrite the play?” I said, “No, why?” “Because I understood it.” That was the best thing ever. Opening people up to something they thought they wouldn’t like is my favorite thing about doing Shakespeare.
For more information on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, visit TheFestival.org.
The 2014 Illinois Shakespeare Festival:
Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare (opens July 11)
Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Findley (opens July 12—parental advisory: adult language and situations)
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare (opens July 13)
Improvised Shakespeare Company—Saturdays at 6 p.m., July 19 and 26, and August 2 and 9
Shake, Shake, Shake Your Shakespeare—Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. (opened June 11)
- Free preshow entertainment at 6 p.m. every night but Monday beginning July 11
- Fridays and Saturdays: Jazz in the Courtyard—Glenn Wilson and Co.
- Weekdays before Much Ado About Nothing: Much Ado About Shakespeare—a lively introduction to Shakespeare, his plays, and our season
- Weekdays before Antony and Cleopatra: They Fight!—A dazzling demonstration of some of Shakespeare’s best fight scenes
- Weekdays before Elizabeth Rex: 45-minute abridgments of Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It performed by the Festival Touring Company
- Half-price previews—July 8, 9, and 10
- Indoor matinees—Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in the air-conditioned Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State University
- Free panel discussion on “Shakespeare’s Original Staging Practices”—Saturday, July 26, at 4 p.m.
- Meet and greet with Adam Kempenaar, Chicago film critic and host of WBEZ’s Filmspotting—Sunday, July 27, at 4 p.m.
- Free post-performance talk-back and ice cream social—Wednesday nights July 16, 23, and 30 at 10 p.m.
- $10 Tuesdays—limited seating
- $20 onstage “Bardhead” seating—only eight per performance
- Rush tickets (10 minutes prior to curtain)—$15/weekday and $20/weekend
- $60 Summer Sampler Pass: six productions at theaters all over town—only $10 each!
For more information, visit TheFestival.org or call 866-IL-SHAKE. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Review us on Yelp and TripAdvisor.