Dust off your Medieval costumes, Olde English dictionary and touch up on Hamlet quotes — the annual Island Shakespeare Festival is back.
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 started July 14 and runs through Sept. 3 at the festival grounds on 5476 Maxwelton Road.
Performances are at 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Matinees are 1 p.m. 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.
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.”
“Seagull” was the opening performance.
The 2017 Shakespeare Festival is the first without the event founder, Susannah Rose Woods. Stepping into her role as interim artistic director is Olena Hodges, who made an effort to select plays with 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 was with the festival from the beginning as a costume designer. She’s seen the festival grow from a two-week, all-local affair where “we were hoping it’d work,” said Neff, to a regional festival drawing 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.”
This year, the festival drew directors and actors with experience in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and from as far as New England. Organizers said they wanted to expand the meaning of “regional” beyond Whidbey Island to include the Puget Sound area.
However, the organizers say they haven’t forgotten their local acting scene.
Roles are always available for Whidbey’s recognizable stage regulars, and Durr says many continue to return to their roles in the festival. The only issue is rehearsals that can run up to 12 hours a day, difficult for those with jobs outside of the theater industry. Those long hours are something the organizers want to change 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. The goal is to provide an arts experience for people of any age or financial background free of cost.
Durr said people who are either homeless or disadvantaged youth benefit from the theater experience, stopping by to enjoy productions.
It’s an experience that, 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 schools as student populations drop. In the absence of high school drama classes, the Shakespeare Festival aims to share the timeless stories 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.”