Central Illinois' performing arts gem hits 40 seasons

By Mary Ann Ford

Nestled among the trees and gardens of a 6.5-acre estate in the middle of Bloomington is an outdoor theater where professional actors bring the works of William Shakespeare to life each summer.

“I’ve been around the country and seen a lot of Shakespeare festivals,” said William Prenevost, who was a consultant for venues including Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Dallas Theatre, Adelphi University Performing Arts Center in Long Island, N.Y., and Alabama Shakespeare Festival before being appointed managing director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in February 2017.

This is the most beautiful setting for Shakespeare anywhere,” he said.

Ewing Theatre, home to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, “blends in (the grounds) perfectly,” Prenevost added. “A lot of thought was put into it to make sure it fits there.”

The 430-seat Ewing Theatre is just steps away from the distinctive Channel-Norman style Ewing Manor, built in 1927-29. It is surrounded by Genevieve Green Gardens, a series of themed gardens throughout the property.

The theater has been home to the annual festival less than a quarter of a century but the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has been calling the Ewing estate its home for 41 years.

In its humble beginnings in 1978, festival actors performed on tennis courts on the sprawling acreage. Later, a temporary wooden stage was built. Ewing Theatre was dedicated in 2000.

“To say the Festival has come a long way is an understatement,” said Sue Silvey, president of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Society Board of Directors. “The quality of this Festival and the experience of live theatre is second to none.

About half of the 25 to 30 actors who perform in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival plays are from the Actors Equity Association, said Prenevost.

The festival “has built a fine reputation of attracting high quality professionals,” he said.

Organizers also hold auditions for the intern program, attracting graduates of other theater programs in the country.

We scour the country for the best talent of recent graduates,” Prenevost said.

The annual festival includes three plays each season, June through August. Besides bringing works by Shakespeare to Central Illinois, a few years ago, the festival expanded its goal to “include other plays within the spirit of the Bard’s writings.”

The three plays in the 2018 lineup include “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry V,” and “Shakespeare in Love.”  

In previous seasons, the festival rotated the three plays within its first three days. This year Prenevost said that will change. One show will open at a time and play consistently for a half a week for the first three weeks before starting the rotation.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry V” will be performed at the outdoor Ewing Theatre while “Shakespeare in Love” will be performed at the Center for the Performing Arts theater at Illinois State University.

“We know 20 percent of the patrons love outdoors, but there are a lot who don’t come because of the weather or because it’s outside,” he said.

The indoor setting allows for “perfect weather,” he said, and opens up the opportunity to attract school and camp groups.

Patrons who chose the outdoor venue can experience somewhat of a midsummer night‘s dream – even if the popular Shakespeare play isn’t one on the plays being performed. Visitors are encouraged to bring picnic baskets to enjoy a meal on the grounds before the production begins. The festival also has a concession stand and occasionally has food trucks available.

Attendees can stroll through the gardens and experience a “green show,” a half-hour, simple, small show or musical on the grounds before the main performance.

Season tickets range from $40 to $109; single tickets for individual shows go on sale in March. Group sales are available by calling the ticket office at the Center for the Performing Arts at 309-438-2535.  The 2018 season will run from July 5 to Aug. 10. For a complete listing of days for each performance, visit the festival website.