Dust off your Medieval costumes, Olde English dictionary and touch up on famed Hamlet quotes, the eighth annual Island Shakespeare Festival returns on Saturday.
According to organizers, the festival continues to grow in prestige and production size, and this year promises to be the most professionally done yet.
“We feel like we’re being discovered, in a way,” said Rene Neff, president of the Island Shakespeare Festival board. “We have directors calling us, asking to work next year. That means we have high-quality people coming here to direct and act, which is what we’ve been moving towards.”
This year’s Island Shakespeare Festival runs from July 14 to Sept. 3 and is located at the festival grounds on 5476 Maxwelton Road, at the old elementary school. Performances take place at 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, and matinee performances are 1 p.m. on Saturdays in August. Seats for the plays are filled on a first-come-first-serve basis, and a pay-what-you-will entry fee is collected at the door.
Three plays will be performed on stage during this year’s rotation, with a variety of genres covered. The festival company is taking on the iconic Shakespearian tragedy, Hamlet, as well as one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors. This year also features Anton Chekhov’s tragic comedy, Seagull, which will be performed alongside the Shakespeare classics. Seagull will be the opening performance Friday.
For more information on the schedule, visit http://www.islandshakespearefest.org/.
The 2017 Island Shakespeare Festival will be the first without the festival’s founder, Susannah Rose Woods. Stepping into her role as interim artistic director is Olena Hodges, who has made an effort to select plays that have intertwining themes.
“That’s what’s great about Olena, she’s come in and is finding ways to connect the plays so it seems like a complete program,” Managing Director Michelle Durr said. “I would say, generally, the plays this year all examine human relationships and family dynamics.”
Hodges has been with Island Shakespeare Festival from the beginning as a costume designer. She’s seen the festival become what it is today, growing from a two-week, all-local affair where “we were hoping it’d work,” according to Neff, to a regional festival that pulls theater professionals and audiences from far and wide.
“For me personally, I’m looking forward to looking in from the director’s side,” Hodges said. “It’s an exciting time to be in the position. From the very beginning, we’ve wanted to create a regional destination of Shakespeare here on the South End, and that’s really starting to happen.”
To direct this year’s plays, the festival has enrolled the talents of directors and actors with backgrounds from Oregon Shakespeare Festival to as far away as New England. The organizers say they’ve wanted to expand the meaning of “regional” beyond Whidbey Island to include the entire Puget Sound area.
However, the organizers say they haven’t forgotten their local acting scene. Roles are always available to the Whidbey’s recognizable stage regulars, and Durr says many continue to return to their roles in the festival. The only issue is the long rehearsal days that can reach up to 12 hours, which can be difficult for those with jobs outside of the theater industry. Those long hours are something the organizers are aiming to change in order to make the festival more friendly to local actors, set designers and directors.
“Now that she has stepped up, Olena is looking to change that to help the local actors come back to our stage,” Durr said. “I know patrons miss seeing local actors.”
Durr, Hodges and other organizers see Island Shakespeare Festival as a resource for Whidbey Islanders. To them, the goal is to provide an arts experience for people of any age or financial background free of cost. Durr says a number of people who are either homeless or disadvantaged youth have benefitted from the theater experience in past years, having stopped by to witness the productions since entry is donation-based. It’s an experience she says is crucial for youth and providing that experience is “why we do it.”
Hodges says the goal is to fill the void left behind by gradual cuts to the arts in area schools as student populations decrease. In the absence of high school drama classes, Island Shakespeare Festival aims to share the timeless stories that have been revered for centuries.
“We feel very strongly that art should be for everybody, especially right now,” Hodges said. “So much of it feels like it’s for the elite, and kids don’t have as much access to it. We’re hoping to offer the experience to everyone.”