Festival Theatre returns to single summer play

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Oak Park Festival Theatre will only put on one outdoor production this summer after rainy weather, the last two summers, hurt attendance. 

Since 1976, the theater has been performing on an outdoor stage, primarily in Austin Gardens. In recent years, they've put on two productions per summer. This year, they are returning to a single production — Shakespeare's The Tempest. 

And to ensure that only local residents will be able to get tickets during the free community nights at the beginning of the run, the Park District of Oak Park will be taking over distribution, using a recently introduced new program registration system that can automatically filter out non-Oak Park addresses.

According to its website, Festival Theatre was founded in 1975. It started humbly, with its inaugural production performed on a "flatbed truck parked on the Westgate cul-de-sac." The following year, the park district invited them to perform at Austin Gardens, and the relationship continued ever since.

This year, Festival Theatre and the park district will need to approve a new contract, which was discussed during the Park Board of Commissioners' Feb. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting. As park district Executive Director Jan Arnold explained, the length of the contract has varied over the decades, between one and three years. The theater named a new director earlier this month, so the park district decided to go with a one-year contract this time around to give them an opportunity to settle in and make adjustments next year. 

The park district has been providing a $6,000 annual grant to the theater — something that, Arnold said, will still be the case this year. She also explained that, with the weather interfering with performances last summer, the theater "actually lost money," so they will only be doing a single production.

Bryan Wakefield, who recently became Festival's director, said the weather issue goes back several years.

"The rainy season in Oak Park has impacted our summer season dramatically," he explained, "forcing us to cancel roughly a third of our performances of You Can't Take It With You in 2018 and another third of the performances of the Jeff-nominated production of Elizabeth Rex in 2019." 

As noted on Festival's site, the company staged one production a season until 2005, then expanded to two. Over the next few years, the number of productions grew to three, then four, before returning to two productions in 2013.

According to the proposed agreement between the theater and the park district, they will do several preview performances on July 11, 12, 15, 16 and 17, leading up to the first official performance on July 18. From that point on, performances will be held every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and every Sunday at 7 p.m., until Aug. 23. The contract would allow the theater to mount additional performances, Aug. 27-Sept. 6.

Wakefield explained they set up the schedule specifically to reduce the odds of rain interfering with their performances.

"[This way], we are able to start a little later in the summer to avoid the rainiest days of the early summer," he said. "However, by eliminating the technical changeover to a new show in the middle of the season, we will be able to offer the same total number of performances as both shows in years past, even with the later start."

Since 2016, Festival Theatre has been offering one free Community Night as a way to give back to Oak Park and provide some equity for residents who may not be able to afford regular tickets. Arnold explained that, in the past, the link to the tickets was available to everyone on the theater's mailing list on a first-come, first-served basis — which meant people from outside Oak Park were able to buy tickets meant for Oak Parkers. 

This year, the park district is taking over the ticket distribution. Park district spokesperson Diane Stanke explained that its new Amilia program registration system can look at information residents put in and automatically recognize non-Oak Park addresses. It will also cap the number of tickets a person can claim based on the number of people in their household.

The park board is expected to vote on the agreement during its Feb. 20 meeting.Showtime: Niko Kourtis, Tyshon Boone, Daniella Pereira, Sam Theis, Belinda Bremner, Elliot Baker, Wendy Robi (Queen Elizabeth I), Christopher Walsh and August Forman in Oak Park Festival Theatre's 2019 production of  "Elizabeth Rex" directed by Barbara Zahora. (Photo by Jhenai Mootz)

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