In a bright orange, 2,400-square-foot canvas tent propped in the field behind Langley Middle School, a handful of young thespians are learning the importance of being earnest.
“Henry,” the Island Shakespeare Festival’s affectionately named performance venue, is being employed as both a classroom and a rehearsal space for the Festival’s first Classic Conservatory for Young Adults, a four-week intensive summer training program for experienced actors ages 15-20.
The conservatory will culminate with three free performances of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest, a Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” directed by Nick Altishin.
Susannah Rose Woods, who created the Island Shakespeare Festival five years ago, said she was inspired to begin the festival out of a love of classical theatre.
“I believe the future of live theater, and specifically classical theater, is in education and training youth to become theatre artists and informed audience members,” said Woods. “I’m really excited about the potential for this to expand. I honestly think my proudest, or happiest moment was when Eric Mulholland said yes to becoming the education director for the company. I knew if he was involved, it would be astounding.”
Island Shakespeare Festival’s mission is to put people first, offering free outdoor showings of live classical theater, and has in turn become a staple of the South Whidbey arts community. For the young adult conservatory, actors and instructors alike came from Whidbey and beyond to make up the tight-knit theatrical unit.
Ahna Dunn-Wilder, who grew up participating in theatre and is currently a Shakespeare festival company member, is one of the acting and improv instructors.
“Theater is so important for young people because it can teach so many important skills and lessons. Young people are constantly struggling with identity and fitting in,” said Dunn-Wilder. “In theater, they get to play around with identity and explore who they are in a safe environment.”
And because of the basic needs of theater they must cooperate with their teammates, support each other and work toward a common goal.
“I found many other weirdos, like myself, in theater, and so it was relaxing to know that I had people that I could be goofy and dorky with who would love me for it,” Dunn-Wilder said.
She added that the theater became a second home for her as a child, and that her career as both actor and mentor began on its stage.
“I found an outlet where I was allowed to be myself and have a voice. I learned to work well as a team member, go with the flow and trust the process, and be weird,” she explained. “I also had the opportunity to mentor many younger actors while at Whibdey Children’s Theatre, which absolutely inspired me to teach theater and recognize its importance, especially in young people.”
Valerie Huntington, also a Shakespeare festival cast member, teaches voice and circus while Pamela Turpen instructs the students in movement for stage. During the session, which begins in mid-June, students devote their mornings to the study of voice, stage combat, text and scene work. In the afternoons, they rehearse for the main-stage production.
Education Director Eric Mulholland said the most rewarding part of his time with the young adults is seeing the “work in action.”
“I just love seeing the young people in class experiencing high-level actor training, the teachers sharing their skills, the smiles on people’s faces,” said Mulholland in an email to The Record. “That’s what really makes me feel good about what I do. And I think it’s having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
Like Dunn-Wilder, Mulholland said he found theater to be a haven in a tumultuous time, namely adolescence.
“Theatre was a transformational experience for me as a young person,” he said in an email. “In it, I found community at a time when I felt awkward and alone. It was a safe place for me to express my creativity and to get affirmation for being a little outside the box.”
Mulholland said there is a particular intimacy associated with performing for South Whidbey audiences.
“South Whidbey is a pretty special place. I think on some level, those of us who live here were drawn to Whidbey because of the deep appreciation this community has for the arts. And when the arts are valued in a locality, it’s a sure sign, in my opinion, of a healthy community,” he said. “I think what I enjoy most about performing for a smaller community is the relationship that is built between actors and audiences. We all kind of know each other so it sometimes feels like we are gathering around the campfire and telling stories,”he added. “Here on Whidbey, we make opportunities to talk about plays and art.”
Auditions and interviews, required for admission to the conservatory, are held in late April. The cost of the program is $500 and space is limited to 15 students.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” will be presented in the Shakespeare festival’s vintage circus tent behind Langley Middle School at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 16, through Friday, July 18. A donation hat will be passed around after the show for those who wish to contribute. For details, visit www.islandshakespearefest.org.
“This will be a fantastic show. These young actors are so professional and talented,” said Dunn-Wilder. “They have worked extremely hard on ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and I hope everyone will come support them and enjoy the show!”