It never ceases to amaze me, but I still encounter people in this community who have not yet attended a performance of Oak Park Festival Theatre. After 40 years, there’s apparently still confusion. Some folks think it’s community theater rather than professional equity. Others don’t even seem to know where Festival’s outdoor shows are playing. “Austin Gardens?” someone once asked me. “Isn’t that somewhere over in the Austin neighborhood?” 

Oak Park Festival Theatre (OPFT) has launched scores of thrilling, popular productions in lovely, pastoral Austin Gardens, located just north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue in west central Oak Park (essentially out the back door of the Lake Theatre). 

The public park was originally the woodsy property of 19th-century politician, realtor, and temperance advocate Henry Austin (1828-1889). Austin’s front yard was sold for commercial development (The Lake and other Lake Street stores) in the 1930s. The home was razed in the ’60s. But a small rickety barn is still used for the Festival actors as a dressing room and storage area. I understand the park district may rebuild it in the near future.

“Oak Park Festival Theatre’s 40th anniversary is a very significant accomplishment,” explains board member Leonard Grossman. “It’s always such an exciting experience going to that beautiful park for the show. But besides all the other challenges, like weather and funding, some people have still not realized that this is the only equity theater in our community and that they do incredible work.”

OPFT celebrates its 40th season this summer with an exciting benefit and two productions: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which opens June 12, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, opening July 24. 

The company was founded in 1975 by Oak Park resident Marion Karczmar. The 90-something arts patron will be presented with a special award at the June 8 benefit. Festivities will take place on Westgate, just west of Marion Street, which happens to be the location of the very first show mounted by the fledgling troupe in 1974. 

The first Festival production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast that included playwright David Mamet (b. 1947) and film and stage actor William H. Macy (b. 1950). Macy is sending an item to be raffled at the benefit. Some other members of that original Festival troupe will be present for the celebration on June 8.

Joyce Porter, who was president of the board for eight years, says al fresco is the Bard’s natural (so to speak) setting. 

“Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed outdoors, so it’s especially exciting to be able to present them under the stars in that lush, wooded park. In the early decades, of course, Festival Theatre was the only game in town — the only Chicago-area company consistently producing Shakespeare. Others might do an occasional production, but once Festival proved how successful and popular this could be, many others jumped into it, too — like Chicago Shakespeare Theater and First Folio. So with increasing competition, decreasing public subsidy and cuts in arts funding, there definitely were years of significant struggle. After 9/11 in 2001, a lot of theaters reached a crisis point and failed. We actually voted about whether we should shut down for 2002. But I pushed to not only not close but produce a fuller schedule of shows.” 

“We’ve been around 40 years,” says powerhouse board chair Brad Bartels, who is driving the anniversary celebration. “It’s a constant struggle. I don’t think many people realize how rare it is for a theater company to survive this long. We operate with a small, not-for-profit board. Yet we’re able to successfully mount two popular productions every summer. We are very excited; our audiences keep growing.”

“It’s an amazing achievement to mount so many shows,” agrees Festival actor, director, and artistic director Jack Hickey. “We’re very proud of this. On occasion we do indoor shows as well as our summer productions in Austin Gardens. We’ve done 30 shows in the last decade. During the first 30 years, they had done 30 plays, so we really stepped up our production schedule. We have far exceeded our original offerings, and audiences are increasingly aware of our product. I’m very proud that this is my 12th year to continue the tradition.”

In 2004, OPFT broadened its scope to classics beyond the Renaissance, such as Amadeus, Blithe Spirit, Inherit the Wind, All My Sons, Picnic, and Talley’s Folly. Some non-summer productions have been mounted indoors at locations like Pleasant Home (the 1897 Farson-Mills Prairie-School mansion, and at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St.

“It’s so exciting — not only honoring the 40th anniversary of Oak Park Festival Theatre this summer, but also this is a celebration of the ‘Let’s do it!’ spirit of 1970s Oak Park, too,” says actress and director Belinda Bremner. The former board president will portray Lady Bracknell in this summer’s production of the late Victorian comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest

“How many theaters get to be 40 years old, let alone one that is equity and that performs outdoors? On June 8 we’ll be celebrating right where the first performance began,” she said. “We’re tenting Westgate. There’ll be lots of food and drink, scenes from shows, and many exciting activities. The company has mounted an incredible number of great shows over the years.”

“Weather, of course, is one of the biggest challenges with outdoor productions,” Porter points out. “Once we were doing the Scottish play [theater people think it’s bad luck to say Macbeth] and it rained right up to performance time, then stopped. We wiped off the stage, but all the trees were still dripping water. The first actor charged into battle and slipped right off the stage. He had to be raced to Emergency. That was our shortest performance in Festival history. I think it lasted 10 seconds.” 

Despite the on-going annual challenge of heat and bugs and rain, OPFT has always strived to give back to the community.

“We truly work at enriching the quality of living here — and many groups, from the Animal Care League to Prevail, receive support,” said Bremner. “We also do everything we can to make our productions more inclusive. We do talk-backs. We work with the schools and provide child-centered activities. We encourage families to come and picnic together. Children under 12 pay no admission. We’re still here because Oak Park is one special place and people support us and appreciate what we do.”

OPFT is also known for providing fascinating new spins on 500-year-old dramas. This summer’s production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be set in the late 1920s Prohibition era — a Jazz Age, Boardwalk Empire hoodlum world. 

“The actors are very energized,” said Hickey, who plays Claudius. “The family is linked to the mob and someone has murdered their brother. It will be exciting for the audience.”

“Our terrific director, Lavina Jadhwani, is returning,” noted Bartels. “She’s taking the traditional play and turning it — expanding it — with the gangland period twist.”

“I hope everyone can appreciate the cultural treasure in our midst that is Oak Park Festival Theatre,” observed Porter. “This theater company is a real plus for Oak Park.” 

After surviving a precarious and insecure transition period, Oak Park in the 1970s solidified much of its cultural and social identity, thanks to the foundation of local institutions and institutions like the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, Farmers Market, and Oak Park Festival Theatre.

Perhaps you’ve seen the posters for OPFT’s benefit this Sunday, June 8, from 3 to 7 p.m., at 1118 Westgate. The image shows a cool-looking Bard wearing shades, plus the bold tagline “XL-ent!” If you’re not up-to-date on your Roman numerals, XL does not mean Extra Large. 

It stands for 40. And, as you know, the 40th anniversary of a theater company is a rare accomplishment.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...