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Datebook: Enter, Pursued By Pandemic — The Illinois Shakespeare Festival Returns For 2021

john stark
Laura Kennedy
ISF Artistic Director John Stark says the 2021 season will be pared down, but will still be appealing.

Last year, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival was obliged to pull the plug on its season due to the pandemic.

The hope was the already-planned 2020 season could be simply transferred to 2021, once the virus subsided. But with restrictions still in place, that plan was not to be. But the festival is forging ahead with a new plan for a season like no other. 

“The season will look different,” explained Festival Artistic Director John Stark. “We’ve had to streamline and rethink things. Given all the restraints and restrictions that COVID-19 has brought upon all of us in the world, we’re moving ahead with the season and plan to be within the restrictions that are within Phase 4 of the Illinois plan.” 

The 2020 season was to have featured Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and “Macbeth,” along with the contemporary comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Of the three plays, only “Measure for Measure” will make it to the 2021 season where it will be paired with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” ("The Winter's Tale" gives us the classic stage direction, Exit, pursued by a bear.)

Stark revealed the festival staff considered going with one-performer shows for the season, but dismissed the idea when they realized they could hire a slimmed-down acting company and keep everyone safe. 

“Our plan is to do a two-show repertory season, which is different. Our customary season would have three shows in rep. The performance season will be approximately the same as other years,” he said.

Both “Measure for Measure” and “The Winter’s Tale” have been described as problem plays. (As if with a pandemic looming over every decision, the ISF didn’t already have enough problems.)  Shakespeare’s problem plays are actually complex works that weave together elements of comedy and tragedy. Having a foot in both camps makes them hard to classify, but, for Stark, at least that problem is a creative one and not pandemic related. The 2021 ISF season faces logistical problems. 

“In planning this season, one of the main things we’re facing is that even in an outdoor venue we’re restricted to seating only 20 percent of our house at Ewing Theater. Which, of course, affected our budget a great deal. This is the main reason why we had to adopt a different approach for 2021.” 

Twenty percent capacity at Ewing Theater brings the total to 87 seats. Ewing Theater seats 434. 

“You can probably do the math on that in terms of budgeting,” Stark said with a grimace. 

Balancing that budget required reducing the scale of everything the ISF does, from hiring actors (only nine will trod the boards this season), to offering concessions (not happening, but you can bring your own), to whether or not to hold the traditional green show (it’s usual location in the courtyard is too confining. But perhaps out on the lawn....) Hurdles aside, Stark said the ISF crew are determinded to make the 2021 season a reality.

“The important thing is that we’re doing it,” Stark declared. 

Ticket sales are impacted, as well. Season tickets are a no-go. 

“Since it’s a two-show season, it doesn’t match with our usual three-show season and it makes season tickets not work very well.” 

Those still holding season tickets from the previous postponed season can get a refund, said Stark. Or, if patrons prefer, they can donate those tickets back to the festival. 

“We’re going to single ticket sales," Stark said. "We’ll still offer groups sales. We’ll have to be very careful with that in terms of social distancing and spacing. But we’ll offer small groups sales and single ticket sales. That will be starting in the next few months.” 

Stark said that the Theater for Young Audiences will go ahead this coming season. It takes place on the lawn of Ewing Cultural Center. 

“There are restrictions that we have to pay attention to, and we may have to approach that a little differently than we have. But it’s really important because this is a community outreach event that we love to provide for Bloomington-Normal. It’s been one of the more popular things that we do. It will be presented, we anticipate, on Thursday and Saturday mornings.” 

While the audience will be wearing masks, the actors on the Ewing stage will not be required to do so, Stark revealed. 

“Actors are allowed to not wear masks to do their job. Without masks on, as it stands right now, they need to be socially distanced from one another on stage.” 

There will be no seating in the front row. And once the actors leave the stage, they’ll have to mask up again, ASAP. 

“So that’s offering another bit of a challenge in terms of costuming and makeup and things of that nature,”  he said.

“We’re moving quickly to put this together. But we wanted to get it out to the public that we are going to be in business for ‘21 and that Ewing will be a spot to check out in the summer of 2021.” 

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival begins July 3 and runs through Aug. 6.


The ISF not only has to handle the pandemic, they have to deal with a bear in one of the plays. Hear more about that....


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.