Much ado about circus tents and Shakespeare

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff, Theater and Dance

Duff ’n Stuff, April 15, 2013

Recently, I had heard the news that Island Shakespeare Festival was leaving behind the enchanted forest and would clear a path to a semi-permanent home in downtown Langley.

Rose Woods with the cast of "Romeo and Juliet" on the StoryHouse Stage in August 2010. (Photo courtesy of ISF)

Rose Woods with the cast of “Romeo and Juliet” on the StoryHouse Stage in August 2010. (Photo courtesy of ISF)

The StoryHouse stage-in-the-woods on the grounds near the Whidbey Institute in Clinton is a special place where ISF began presenting free Shakespeare in the summers three years ago. As a member of the company that presented “Romeo and Juliet” in the summer of 2010, I had succumbed easily to its spell, along with other actors, volunteers and spectators. This was sad news, indeed.

The news first broke on Facebook when fans got wind that artistic director Rose Woods decided that the obstacles of working at StoryHouse, loaned so generously by the Hull Family, were too many.  Here’s what Woods posted on the ISF page:

After careful consideration and conversation, Island Shakespeare Festival has concluded that our plan to split the performances between StoryHouse Theatre and a Langley location would result in complicated logistics and would stretch our people, production, and budget and have therefore decided to consolidate performances to one venue in Langley.

Having a long history of working in the theater, myself, I understood the dilemma. The collaborative process of theater is not a simple one and, sometimes, folks don’t really understand that what might seem simple, (rehearse, produce and perform) is most definitely not. Woods and company were effusive with gratitude to the Hulls, as the Facebook note made clear:

We wish to thank the Hull’s with love and appreciation, Fritz, Vivienne, and Timothy, for a wonderful and solid launch. We could not have done it without their support, hard work and love. We are ever grateful for the magic StoryHouse provided as a foundation for our first three years and we will miss the magic there. Both StoryHouse and ISF will continue to look for collaborative ways to work and grow together in new and meaningful ways.

“Much Ado About Nothing” will open Aug. 2 and run through Sept. 8 in its new venue behind the former Langley Middle School next to the fairgrounds.

Here's what the ISF tent will look like in terms of size. It won't be striped. (Photo courtesy of ISF)

Here’s what the ISF tent will look like in terms of size. The colors will be different.  (Photo courtesy of ISF)

But wait a minute!  There is no stage there; no venue in which to perform. Hold on to your hats, ladies and gents, and step right up to hear the most exciting news since the hippies took over Langley. Island Shakespeare Festival will be the proud owner of a brand new, custom-designed circus tent! That’s right, folks, you’ll be able to step right up and get your free Shakespeare right in the middle of Langley. Well, knock me over with a feather.

As serendipity would have it, Woods’ concept for “Much Ado About Nothing” just so happens to take its influence from late 19th century circus traditions.

“The 1890s circus-theme works very well with the romance, comedy and pseudo-mystery of ‘Much Ado,’ which sometimes can feel like a hall of mirrors or the fun house at a carnival,” Woods said.

“The theme actually came before the idea for the tent, so the tent is really just a glorious house for it. It goes beyond ‘set design’ into a kind of magical realism,” she added.

ISF Development Director Peggy Juve got the big-top ball rolling with a donation and bridge loan from a generous local supporter, which will cover two-thirds of the approximately $32,000 price tag for the tent.  A Kickstarter campaign will be launched in May with the goal of funding the final third of the costs. The company has about 12 weeks to get it done so that the director and actors can begin the rehearsal process.

The tent is already in the works. It’s being  made by Armbruster Manufacturing Company, the oldest tentmaker in the United States.  It’s a pretty cool craft; check it out here.

“The tent will be located on the lower field at the Langley Middle School and we have an in-kind arrangement with South Whidbey School District,” Juve said.

Gabe Harshman, Valerie Huntington, Miles Harrison and K. Olena Hodges in the ISF production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on StoryHouse Stage in August 2012. (Photo courtesy of ISF)

Gabe Harshman, Valerie Huntington, Miles Harrison and K. Olena Hodges in the ISF production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on StoryHouse Stage in August 2012. (Photo courtesy of ISF)

Juve said the tent will serve as a permanent home for the company, as well as providing it with a venue with which to travel. “Much Ado About Nothing” plans on traveling to Mt. Vernon sometime during this summer’s season.

ISF board member and local gallery owner Rene Neff is so excited you’d think she was running away to join the circus!

“As a merchant I am very excited about Island Shakespeare Festival buying a tent and moving into Langley,” Neff said.

“When that big circus tent goes up, the town will be buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. There is so much potential in having a permanent home for ISF right here in Langley, bringing many more people into to town for five weeks during August and into September. I believe it will give a big boost to our economy for years to come,” she said.

“The 40 foot by 60 foot tent moves easily for set-up elsewhere,” Juve said.

The tent will take four people about two hours to construct and carries with it a life span of 30 or more years, if properly cared for. A dry storage facility still needs to be located in order to house the tent through the off-season. It will also be available to other companies and to private parties for rental, as well as for a training school arena in order to extend the festival’s reach into education.

So now, Woods has her sites set on the center ring.

“I am so awed and humbled and grateful for this entire thing; the support, the excitement,” she said. In many ways it doesn’t seem real to me.”

This is not a dream, Rose! (That was last year.)

Step right up, folks, and get your free Shakespeare in downtown Langley!

From the heart,
Patricia Duff


Coming soon:

Island Shakespeare Festival has a new website in the works. Check for Kickstarter campaign updates and other news at

Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist, a freelance writer and the editor of this magazine.



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