Arts and Entertainment

The director — A theater artist brings her passion for children’s theater and free Shakespeare to Whidbey Island

Susannah Rose Woods takes time out from her busy schedule of directing and writing for two companies to talk about her plans for making theater on the island. - Patricia Duff / The Record
Susannah Rose Woods takes time out from her busy schedule of directing and writing for two companies to talk about her plans for making theater on the island.
— image credit: Patricia Duff / The Record

The kids keep her honest.

So says the new artistic director of Whidbey Children’s Theater, Susannah Rose Woods.

The open-faced honesty of a child onstage is just one of the qualities that make Woods — better known as “Rosie” — passionate about theater.

Woods took over the job in December, although she has been directing shows for the theater for more than a year. She directed the highly successful “Into the Woods” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and co-directed the December sold-out British pantomime, “Puss In Boots.”

“I’m over the moon about it,” Woods said of her new position.

“It’s a great fit. I walk in there and I feel like I’m home.”

Langley has also become the residential home for the longtime theater artist, who moved to the island about two years ago, though she has been connected to Whidbey through family ties since childhood.

New ideas

It’s been 30 years since Langley theater artist Martha Murphy opened the little theater, which is housed in the Porter Building on Anthes Avenue. The theater, which calls itself the one-room schoolhouse for the imagination, continues its tradition of turning out generations of young thespians on the stage named after its founder.

Managing Director Shelley Marsanyi said the company feels lucky to have Woods.

“The addition of Rosie Woods to the staff of WCT is an important milestone for the theater,” Marsanyi said.

“She is a gifted director, writer and educator whose hands-on approach is so suited to carry out Martha Murphy’s legacy. Rosie’s energy and fresh ideas will enhance the work done here by so many previous directors and volunteers.”

Woods, whose background includes a long list of directing both adult and children’s theater, is happy to set her roots down with a company supported so well by the community.

Although the company is mainly a children’s theater that bustles year-round with plays, musical productions, classes and workshops, its audience is decidedly mixed.

“A huge percentage of our adult audiences are not parents,” Woods said. “We’re doing good work that our community wants to see.”

That work includes a well-rounded season of both musical and non-musical fare which continues its regular season through June with the teen drama “The Other Side of the Closet”; “The Spitfire Grill,” a musical play; “Inside Frampton and the Outside World,” a children’s play co-written by Woods; and the musical “Quilters.”

Thinking ahead

But as any artistic director worth her salt will tell you, Woods is already thinking about the next two seasons to follow, as well as all the other plans she has in store.

“I want to introduce conservatory-level training while doing productions,” she said. “WCT will provide a well-rounded program that offers young actors training that is not available to them at school.”

Her ideas include introducing more literary classics and to continue the highly successful Shakespeare summer program. She also envisions a new-works festival where youths learn playwrighting and produce their own plays, which may be traditional, or spoken-word or mixed-media, and to offer classes in set design, costume design and lighting.

“By the time a teen graduates from WCT and high school,

I want them to have a toolbox full of theater skills that they can carry with them wherever they go,” Woods said.

But this director’s plans extend even beyond the little black-box theater.

Free Shakespeare

This past summer, with the blessing of WCT, Woods founded the Island Shakespeare Festival at the Storyhouse Stage in the woods at Chinook. The debut of “As You Like It” took audiences by storm (even literally) as one such dedicated group stayed to watch the performance in the rain.

It proved a big success. Woods predicted that Whidbey audiences would appreciate Shakespeare, and she was right.

The Island Shakespeare Festival is modeled on other free festivals such as San Francisco’s and New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park.

“My mission is that it has to be free to the public. I’m pretty passionate about that,” Woods said.

“I really want theater to be accessible to everyone. Especially Shakespeare. Live theater is alive, and I don’t want it to become a dying art form. It needs to keep growing by making it available to everyone. That’s what it’s about for me,” she said.

Dream team

The dream for the festival is to create a company that presents free Shakespeare in the summer, and also presents a Winter Classics series to be performed at WCT. (She has a funny play by George Bernard Shaw in mind for next winter.)

The company, she said, will consist of a group of adult actors who have committed to the collaboration. An actor may play Hamlet in one production, and be the spear-carrier or the stage manager in the next.

“Theater is a collaborative art form,” Woods said.

“It’s that company modality where you have a core group of people who work and grow together, a kind of scrappy Shakespeare company, where everybody is a theater artist.”

This includes training for the company by bringing in professionals from around the country — colleagues of Woods with whom she has worked — who will teach stage combat, voice, movement and other workshops.

She also wants the festival to find more than one location, and she is currently scouting south and central Whidbey for additional performance venues.

Sustainability

Island Shakespeare Festival is presently under the umbrella of the Whidbey Island Arts Council and is supported by grants, donations and the passing of the hat. Woods thinks it’s important to provide a stipend to the actors and intends to do so. Peggy Juve is the festival’s director of development.

“The plan is to solicit donations from foundation, corporate and business partners who will in return be acknowledged in a variety of ways during the course of the year,” Juve said. This initial group of partners, she said, will have the distinction of being named “Founding Partner.” A program called “Friends of ISF” will also give people a chance to invest at a modest level.

Up to the challenge

But, although she said she presently has two theaters “living in her head” at all times, Woods is ready for the challenge. After all, she’s done it all before.

Previously, she was the artistic director of three theater companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, director of performing arts at the San Domenico School in San Anselmo, Calif. and has also directed, acted and choreographed across the country with both professional and youth companies. She was awarded a commendation from Sen. Barbara Boxer for her work with youth, and is the recipient of a number of awards for both her plays and directing, including the Humanitarian Teacher of the Year Award and the Bay Area Critics Award.

Woods is also a writer and poet. A children’s book is currently in the works, along with her second original musical and a screenplay.

This week she learned that Whidbey Children’s Theater was awarded a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to commission her to write a new play. After hearing the news, she was overwhelmed with gratitude.

“I read the letter and then I actually started crying,” she said.

Such a validation feels good to an artist, and Woods said she is eternally grateful to be living in such a community as hers where she gets to play in the large-hearted sandboxes of WCT and the Storyhouse Stage.

“You know, doing theater is one of the great acts of faith. You never really know if anybody is going to show up,” she said.

She’s taken that leap and, in good faith, has changed her life. She turns down offers to direct shows in other parts of the country to stay here and create theater.

“I’m meant to live here. I’ve even planted bulbs. This is my home.”

To find out more, click here for WCT and the Island Shakespeare Fest Facebook page for festival updates; the ISF website will be launched this month; click here.

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