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Whidbey Playhouse tackles work from Shakespeare for first time with guidance from new director
A little over a year ago, Allenda Jenkins said a few prayers.
Shortly afterward, she met a fellow with a long name and an even longer list of eye-opening theater credentials.
And, it seemed, her prayers were answered.
Jenkins, president of the Whidbey Playhouse, views the arrival of Stephen James Anderson on Whidbey Island as if it were fate.
Anderson came to the island 19 months ago to serve at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. But his service also has reached Oak Harbor’s community theater, and the impact could be far reaching.
Anderson, a longtime director and actor in professional theater, is directing his first play on the island this week while breaking new ground at the venerable Whidbey Playhouse.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opens Friday night, will be the first William Shakespeare play performed in the playhouse’s 46-year history.
Jenkins said it took someone like Anderson to make that possible.
“Shakespeare is a challenge,” Jenkins said. “You have to have a certain expertise to do it well. As a playhouse, we take pride in what we do, and I don’t think we felt we really had the skills or the talent or the leadership to do it well. It was just a matter of waiting until that right person showed up -- Stephen -- with a vision to do it, then preparing all of the other people to participate at a level where they could.”
Jenkins, a spiritual person, said she prayed about receiving such inspiration for the theater not long before she was introduced to Anderson at a playhouse function.
Anderson, 34, showed up with a powerful resume that included a bachelor’s degree in acting, master’s degree in directing and 10 years in professional theater, including a lengthy stint with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.
“I had said a prayer, ‘Lord bring the people that we need from the north, east, south and west to fulfill the mission that we have for this theater,’” Jenkins said.
When Jenkins met Anderson and learned about his background and passion for Shakespeare, her eyes it up.
“I always wanted to do Shakespeare here,” she said.
Anderson made a formal proposal to a playhouse committee just over a year ago. It was accepted, and the process of bringing Shakespeare to Oak Harbor was underway.
It wasn’t a typical process. A Shakespeare production to an unfamiliar cast required training. Anderson went to work teaching classes to actors at the playhouse.
“I started teaching some classes about a year ago to start to engrain people into the nature of Shakespeare’s language and hopefully try to demystify it a little bit,” Anderson said after a rehearsal for “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” last week. “We called the class, ‘Demystifying Shakespeare.”
No one questioned Anderson’s teaching credentials. He figures he’s been involved in “probably over 400” Shakespeare plays in varying capacities.
He’s well versed in Shakespeare-speak.
“People often when they think of Shakespeare, even when English teachers teach it, it’s like they’re pulling down this old dusty book off the shelf and they blow the dust off,” Anderson said. “They open it up and they see what we call old English. What we fail to understand is that this English is the language that created ours. They were inventing new words. There wasn’t any dictionary then. They didn’t have spelling and grammar rules, so the words at that time were fresh and new and innovative and sexy. And they were alive with meaning.”
Anderson’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a whirlwind of comedic activity involving 21 actors. The chaotic pace with activity in many places at the same time is designed to keep the audience’s attention.
Actors run wildly off stage and even into the audience.
The stage was transformed into a thrust stage, extending into the audience on three sides, so there could be such intimacy and interaction with guests.
“It’s a little like kids in front of a TV set,” said Sam Daniel, an Oak Harbor actor who plays the role of Demetrius during the play. “We want to hook them in there so you can’t take your eyes away. We wanted chaos in multiple places because you’ll be looking one way and find out, ‘Oh, I’m about to miss something over here.’ It keeps you on your toes.”
There’s a lot going on in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a play written in the 16th century, which portrays the events surrounding the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta.
That’s why Anderson likes the use of the thrust stage, which involves audience intimacy.
“It’s something I use in all of the shows that I direct 100 percent of the time,” said Anderson, whose wife, Aurora Lea Anderson, is the play’s assistant director. “It keeps the audience electrified and engaged. They can’t fall asleep because they never know when it’s going to come back to them. So it makes them a part of the experience.”
Jenkins, who is producing the show, said the stage setup, elaborate sets, props and costumes in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is unlike any other performance before at the playhouse.
“This one we’ve taken to another level,” Jenkins said. “We pulled out all the stops. We’ve done thrust before, but we haven’t done it like this. We’ve done lighting and effects before but we haven’t done it like this.”
Julia Locke, who’s on the playhouse board of directors, acts in the play and took on the role of costume designer.
Locke said Anderson provided her with drawings from a “big-time” fashion designer to get an idea of what the costumes should look like in the play. She went with those concepts and went to work, altering costumes in storage while starting others, such as those worn by fairies, virtually from scratch.
“Obviously, we’re not a big professional company,” said Locke, who plays the role of Lady Egeus. “We don’t have the sort of resources that they do so we were trying as much as possible to use things we already had in our costume department.”
Anderson, who lives in Coupeville, said he has been inspired by the dedicated cast and crew that has worked for more than a year to bring the Shakespeare production to the Whidbey Playhouse.
Shakespeare’s in the building
A “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the first William Shakespeare play to be performed at the Whidbey Playhouse. The show, directed by Stephen James Anderson and produced by Allenda Jenkins, opens Friday night and will run April 26-May 19. Performances will be Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. There will be no show on Mother’s Day. Tickets are $16 at the box office, 730 S.E. Midway Blvd., Oak Harbor. For more information, call 360-679-2237, or go online at www.whidbeyplayhouse.com