Beginning in 1978 with twenty-one performances on the tennis courts of Ewing Manor, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has grown to become an internationally recognized company; now putting on thirty-six performances each season in a state-of-the-art, Elizabethan-style theater.
On July 6, 1978 "Shakespeare in the Cornfields" (as we were sometimes referred to) debuted on a wooden temporary stage situated on Hazle Buck Ewing's tennis court at what everyone then referred to as Ewing Castle. Excruciatingly uncomfortable folding chairs held the nearly 250 hardy patrons who attended what guest director Dennis Zacek described as a "futuristic space age"Twelfth Night performed by college students. From these rather rustic conditions (patrons had to use porta-potties, actors lacked dressing rooms, the ticket office was a half-door to a porch), the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has evolved into a professional nationally-recognized theatre.
The opening of the Festival on that July evening in 1978 was the culmination of years of planning and dreaming by then Department of Theatre Chairperson, Cal Pritner. Cal is not certain when the idea for a Shakespeare Festival actually occurred to him but by the early 1970s he showed Ewing to various guests and promoted the idea of a Shakespeare Festival with singing, puppetry, music, and a Shakespeare play. When Don LaCasse arrived as a faculty member in 1973, Cal shared his ideas with Don and, as General Manager, Don started planning the logistics and management of the Festival. By the mid-1970s, Cal convinced Charles Bolen, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, to support the idea as a College cooperative project. Dean Bolen and Cal then developed a plan and presented the proposal to Tom Jacob, the President of the Illinois State University Foundation. Tom's immediate enthusiasm was the final key to obtaining the financial support necessary to make the dream a reality.
In May 1978, construction started on a stage designed by Edward A. Andreasen, senior scene designer at Illinois State, and an auditorium designed by scene and lighting designer Earl Stringer. Cal auditioned over 500 actors from around the country and the cast arrived around Memorial Day and began three days of auditioning for specific roles. A Green Show was developed for presentation on the North lawn and featured Madrigal Singers, a Punch and Judy Show, and a short talk about the evening's play by the Festival's resident Shakespearean scholar, English Professor Bill Woodson. On Monday nights, the stage was dark and a series of concerts was presented in the Ewing Courtyard by the School of Music. Finally, the Department of Art developed a sculpture exhibit on the Ewing grounds.
The acting company of nineteen included four members who have enjoyed very successful acting careers. School of Theatre alums Gary Cole and Tom Irwin went on to become members of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre and also have appeared in numerous feature films, television movies and series. Tim Russ was seen on the "Star Trek: Voyager" series and William Peterson had a successful Chicago career before starring in the original "CSI".
The primary goal of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in the early years was to bring quality and accessible productions of Shakespeare to our Central Illinois audience. Dennis Zacek's opening production proved to be the first "significant" Festival production. By setting the production in the future, not in the past, Twelfth Night demonstrated the Festival's intent to look to the future and to show that Shakespeare is our contemporary. Since those early years, the goal of the Festival has expanded to develop a vigorous education program primarily for young audiences. Shakespeare Alive! our theatre for young audiences program was launch in 2008 offering free short plays intended for children and the young at heart every Wednesday and Saturday at 10 a.m. during the summer season. Other educational partnerships include the Boys and Girls Club, and the Regional Alternative School.
Your long-term support has proven that "Shakespeare in the Cornfields" was not only possible but could make an indelible mark on our community. We look forward to serving you for another thirty-eight years!