Island Shakespeare Festival returns to its roots
— Created August 4, 2021 by Kathy Reed
By Shannon Bly
The Island Shakespeare Festival is transforming the Whidbey Institute woods in Langley into the Forest of Arden for its performance of “As You Like It,” opening Friday at 6 p.m., with continuing performances Thursday through Sunday through Sept. 12.
“This play is really light and fun, and ultimately relatable; people flee the oppressive city into the woods, where they discover new freedom and are changed by compassionate people who show them kindness,” said returning local actor Melanie Lowry. The play is adapted by Scott Kaiser and directed by Erin Murray.
“As You Like It” was the first play put on by the Island Shakespeare Festival (ISF), way back in 2010. “ISF began with this story,” said ISF Artistic Director, Olena Hodges. “A band of ‘merry madcaps’ got together in the literal Whidbey Institute Forest of Arden, and ISF was born.”
Since then, ISF has put on ensemble productions of many Shakespeare plays, bringing in actors and crew from across the country, and growing to offer three plays a year. This winter, when they decided to postpone its three 2020 plays for another year, Hodges said a performance of “As You Like It” was the obvious alternative.
“What could be more apt [after the year we’ve had] than joining a group of urban outcasts in their forest home where they’ve found community, freedom, and bliss?” said Hodges. “And it’s the reckoning with oppression that strikes me most deeply this summer and with this production. Our beloved characters find their voices in the Forest of Arden. They discover a celebration of identity, and the courage to live in their skin authentically. It’s real hard to do that, actually, and I hope we can breathe in a little of that courage and walk out of this experience a little more ourselves.”
Miles Harrison was inspired by the first performance of “As You Like It,” and went on to pursue acting by training at the Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts. He returned to Whidbey just before the quarantine, and is looking forward to this year’s play, not as an audience member but as an actor.
“To be onstage for this return to ‘As You Like It,’ after returning to Whidbey, and slowly returning to our new state of play (in the world and onstage), has a poetic edge to it, a sense of delicious circuity,” he said.
Performances will follow CDC and State Department of Health safety guidelines, including social distancing and masks for audiences, but social distancing practices also changed the rehearsal process and the interaction of the actors on stage.
“It’s been interesting to discover stage intimacy without that go-to option (of onstage smooching),” said Hodges. “Our intimacy and movement coordinator, Helen Roundhill, brought a fantastic vocabulary to the team. We also built into the storytelling a lot of acknowledgement for the time we’re in. You’ll see in the opening moments as we establish the world of the play that [the audience} is very familiar with the circumstances of the characters.”
During the pandemic, ISF initially furloughed staff and cancelled its productions, turning its efforts to making masks for the community. When it became clear the pandemic would go on for a while, the company knew it needed to continue its work within the context of the times. The artistic teams from its cancelled plays worked together to create a series of digital programs called “Shakespeare Playground,” available for view on ISF’s website. (islandshakespearefest.org)
As so many have learned over the course of the last year, digital is a poor substitute for in-person, and ISF is ready to give that face-to-face experience to Whidbey audiences again.
“Especially in light of essential workers last spring, we knew the essential work of keeping people alive and safe was at the forefront. We also knew that catharsis would be essential as the pandemic eventually ebbed, and that live theatre would be an essential piece of that. I think Shakespeare in particular offers such deep human feelings that can be so hard to articulate until we see them acted in front of us. There’s validation in that experience,” said Hodges.
The actors and crew of ISF have all missed performing live and are excited to be back, said Lowry. They’ve been working hard, both on and off stage, to put on a safe show that will bring audiences “a big smile and an engaging discussion on the ride home,” agreed Harrison.
“We also owe an incredible debt of gratitude,” said Hodges “to a community who have supported and buoyed us and reminded us of our value along the way. We know we have something special here, and we are honored to be here today to share it with you.
ISF’s “As You Like It” will play from August 6-September 12, Thursday – Sunday at 6 p.m. at 5476 Maxwelton Road in Langley. Admission is pay-what-you-will. Information is available at islandshakespearefest.org.