BY DIANNA MACLEOD
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
July 23, 2014
Although Shakespeare considered all the world to be a stage, one wonders how he would have felt sitting on a bale of hay inside a circus tent watching his play, “The Taming of the Shrew,” performed in a Wild West setting.
Island Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director Rose Woods believes he would have appreciated the performance. She believes it so completely that she has spent much of the last five years producing classical theatre on Whidbey Island: scouting locations; assembling actors, directors, and musicians; working with set designers, graphic artists and stagehands. Her mission has been to bring Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and histories to the public. Free.
The “free” part of Island Shakespeare Festival (ISF) wasn’t entirely her own idea; Woods borrowed the concept from the Bard himself. In the 1600’s, the writing and production of Shakespeare’s plays were funded by patrons and performed free to members of the public, known as “groundlings.” Groundlings, moved by the poetry and humor of the entertainment, made small contributions—the Elizabethan version of “pass the hat.” No one was denied entrance to the theatre, just as no one is denied entrance to the orange-and-white striped Big Top ISF now calls home.
After four previous years of producing Shakespeare—first in a woodsy glade on property owned by the Hull family and now in an open field in Langley—Rose Woods is seeing her original vision expanding by leaps and bounds. The acquisition of a tent last year marked the first time ISF had four walls and a roof, albeit canvas. This year the company has added guest directors and guest artists, as well as expanding its training component. According to Education Director Eric Mulholland, “We invest a lot in developing the skills—voice, movement, acting technique—of our company members. Skilled actors benefit the whole community. And there’s a real interest in theatre among our island youth.”
Accordingly, ISF offers a “classic conservatory for young adults” that consists of three weeks of training followed by a production. Mulholland is gratified by the way young people “lean into Shakespeare, into classical language, in a fresh way.”
A seasoned actor himself, Mulholland seeks to pass along certain values: solid technique, rigorous work ethic, an open mind, generosity of spirit, a willingness to connect with others and receptivity to feedback. “I want to help these young actors develop an internal sense of knowing for themselves when they’ve done their best work,” he said.
Mulholland had a chance to see those values in action during ISF’s production of “The Importance of Being Ernest,” which starred conservatory students. “That particular play provided the right amount of challenge,” he said. “It’s a comedy of manners that young people can enjoy; they can relate to the characters.”
“Madcap creatives” is how local business owner Debra Campbell describes the recently-formed ISF board. “They are the most joyous, passionate, creative people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.” Campbell, who studied drama as an undergraduate, lost touch with the theatre world during the years she oversaw mergers in the telecommunications industry. “I yearned to reconnect with a creative community; the ‘can do’ attitude of this board, their creative genius, is just what I’d been wanting.”
Rene Neff, owner of Langley’s Brackenwood Gallery, joined the board because of her feeling of connection to ISF productions. “The first time I saw these actors perform Shakespeare, I understood the play in a new way. And I was delighted at seeing our local young people performing. As a director, Rose Woods knows how to make Shakespeare come alive.”
According to Neff, the festival brings an added benefit—tourism revenue. “Research shows that Shakespearian theatre improves the economic base of a community,” she said. Board member Peggy Juve estimates that the 22 repertory performances over six weekends, along with three performances by the young adult conservatory, will draw an audience of 4,000 people.
Actor and founding ISF member Morgan Bondelid has fond memories of the company’s origins performing Shakespeare in the forest. “We hung sheets to make dressing rooms. We cleared paths for audiences to reach the amphitheatre. We built the stage. The light was otherworldly.” But she recognizes that ISF’s growth has meant her growth as an actor; over the years, she’s received voice coaching and training in stage combat. Although the slapdash nature of the early years has been tempered by increased advance planning, Bondelid sees the change as beneficial. “This season’s shows have been cast for months and that extra time has allowed me to research my character. Since I’ve never played a character who was a real person, I have the time to compare Shakespeare’s interpretation to historical accounts.” But Bondelid, who doubles as the company’s graphics designer, insists that some things haven’t changed. A spirit of hands-on, all-for-one-and-one-for-all, still prevails.
Rose Woods agrees. “Despite various feelings, moods, styles and visions, everyone has to work together and take care of one another. In some ways a theatre ensemble is similar to a small community, similar to our island. Respect, and all working mindfully toward the same goal, helps immeasurably.”
Woods has reserved plenty of hay bales for all the groundlings she will be welcoming into the Big Top over the next few weeks. And she hopes that, when the hat is passed, they will give what they can afford—no more and no less—to keep the dream of island Shakespeare alive and thriving into Season Six and beyond.
The ISF season officially opens with “The Taming of the Shrew” at 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 26 and Sunday, July 27 in the carousel striped tent at 723 Camano Ave. in Langley. Beginning August 8 and every Friday, Saturday and Sunday thru September 7, audiences can attend “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Richard III” on alternating evenings. For information, please call 360-331-1939 or check http://www.islandshakespearefest.org/Season/Season-Calendar.html for performance schedules. Remember, admission is free.
Image at top: ISF Artistic Director Rose Woods, photographed at the Bard’s Ball by Michael Stadler
Dianna MacLeod studied playwriting with the former dramaturg at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Her plays have been produced by The Women’s Theatre, included in the New City Playwrights Festival, and performed by students of the Yale School of Drama. An alum of Hedgebrook, Dianna moved to the island in 2011.
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Proud to be one of the Madcap Creatives AKA ISF Board Member. Thank you for the lovely article! Just a heads up that for those not wishing to sit on a hay bale, there are plenty of chairs in the tent to sit on. Also a note of encouragement to those of you who may not be avid Shakespeare fans– the ISF shows are incredibly entertaining and I have found the plays to be very accessible and understandable for everyone. You won’t be disappointed!
Thanks, Dayle. Yes, there are chairs AND hay bales. Even more importantly, there’s fantastic acting on the stage and poetry in the air. Thanks to everyone for taking time to be interviewed for this article during what is a very busy time.