Backstage at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Nicole Milstead

The lights dim, and the stage manager appears front and center on stage to introduce the play. Suddenly, through a wall of plywood followed by a thick cloud of smoke, crashes a rusted-out RV better suited to a junk heap than a refined outdoor theater.

Emerging from the cloud are two men who might best be described by a series of Jeff Foxworthy jokes. Dressed in flannel and cutoff shorts, one in a Budweiser tank, the twosome is far from what the audience expects. As the tune of “Hillbillies Love It in the Hay” plays, they hoist NASCAR flags and begin to explain the works of William Shakespeare.

Backstage, the crew of the 31st Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington wipes sweat from its collective brow and gets to work cleaning up debris from pushing the RV through the set wall.

The actors may say “git-r-done,” but it’s the stage crew that puts that phrase into action, prepping props, running sets, holding costumes ready for quick changes and even making the occasional appearance on stage.

Performing a capsulized interpretation of all of Shakespeare’s plays in less than two hours requires hundreds of props, including two plastic yard flamingos for a sword fight and a giant set of pink fuzzy dice that is best understood by seeing the performance.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” is one of three productions going on during this year’s festival. “Titus Andronicus” and “The Taming of the Shrew” round out the repertoire.

“Titus” and “Shrew” are performed as Shakespeare intended, but “Complete Works” is a contemporary look at the Bard’s plays — one that managing director John Poole of Bloomington, an Illinois State University professor, considers more fun for a younger audience.

He explains that “Complete Works” pokes fun at Shakespeare, and is “great” because it doesn’t need its own set, so it can be performed anywhere.

“In less than two hours, you get all of Shakespeare’s plays,” Poole said.

Written 20 years ago, “Works” is the only show for which the festival must pay royalties. It also is the first show at the festival to incorporate audience participation.

The directors have adapted the play to reflect current events and culture — such as wisecracks about the presidential election, the Cubs’ 100-year drought and even a few shameless plugs for their own festival.

Artistic director Deb Alley of Bloomington, also an ISU professor, says that each year the festival offers two formal Shakespeare plays and one non-traditional show.

“Works” fills the latter category and is performed on the same set used for “Shrew,” so the wall must be repaired after each performance. If “Titus” is next on the schedule, the “Works/Shrew” set must be disassembled and stored and the “Titus” set installed. Regardless of which is used for the next performance, the sets must be turned around in less than 20 hours.

Assembly and disassembly get easier with time, and it helps that the same crew built the original sets. Each is built in the theater building at Illinois State University in Normal and moved in pieces by box truck to the Theatre at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington, where the festival is held.

Production manager Chad Lowell of Bloomington said construction started May 14 and has continued 10 hours a day, six days a week since.

“It is easier built in parts because it has to be taken apart daily,” Howell said.

During the day, the sounds of sawing, hammering, grinding and sanding come together in harmony as if orchestrated. The crew of 30 constructs the sets, making adjustments and preparing for complicated parts of the production, such as the trap door for “Titus.”

The hours may be long, but it doesn’t come without its perks, said assistant props master Ian Miller of Joliet as he licks “blood” from his hand.

“It only has to look real,” he said. “It tastes great.”

The “blood” — a combination of chocolate and strawberry syrups — is only a biohazard to those with allergies. For Miller, it serves as a snack.

The festival may finally be under way, but work to produce the shows continues 365 days a year.

On stage, actors Mark Hines of Los Angeles, David Kortemeier of Chicago and Thomas Quinn of Lincoln, who teaches acting at Illinois Wesleyan in Normal, reenact several centuries of history by way of a Monday-night football game.

“And the crown is snapped to Richard the Second … he’s fading back to pass …,” the announcer declares as a Burger King crown makes its way through the generations.

The three were handpicked for their roles six months in advance and have been rehearsing since May 1.

“The first week of May is our starting pistol,” Poole said of the festival. “It is seven to eight weeks of intense work from there.”

Alley started searching for actors the day she was hired: Aug. 15, 2007.

“It is a yearlong process,” Alley said, adding, “I have already started on 2009.”

Casting starts in October and requires plenty of traveling to find professional actors. Alley goes to castings and auditions and reviews actors’ tapes from all over the United States.

“The festival is committed to finding the bulk of the actors from the Midwest,” Alley said. This year, there are 18 actors, one-third of which are equity. Equity actors are members of the national union Actors Equity Association, which requires the festival to follow rules governing working conditions, hours, breaks — the union even must give permission for any actor to be photographed.

However, the festival also is one of the few productions in the region through which aspiring actors can earn points needed to become a member of the union.

From May to mid-August, each member of the crew earns a salary based on experience, is given housing and provided transportation to and from the theater — all made possible by donations to the festival.

The operating budget, which this year is $600,000, is covered roughly 60 percent by ticket sales, said business manager Nancy Eller. The remaining 40 percent is made up by donations.

“We are never working on today alone,” Eller said. “We are always clearing up last year and starting on next year at the same time. There is a lot of overlap.”

As the lights shift on stage at the end of the first act of “Complete Works,” a character “accidentally” happens upon a room, offstage and in the back of theater, filled with costumes.

And while the costumes for “Works” should look thrown together, a lot of effort goes into turning a Dale Earnhardt Jr. beach towel into a cloak for Julius Caesar.

Several professional designers make the costumes with the help of ISU students. The crew of 25 also works 10-hour days in preparation for the festival.

“There is a lot of detail work that goes into making the costumes. It is very labor-intensive,” Poole said. “It is old-world work; there is no technology that can help. It all has to be sewn.”

Not everything is made from scratch, though. Thirty years of festival costumes are stored on the ISU campus waiting for a second chance in the spotlight; with slight alterations, several pieces are reused each year.

Such attention to detail is expected.

When actors suddenly disappear in “Titus,” it is seamless from the audience’s perspective, but the trapdoor took weeks to hand-weld and install.

The golden balcony that transports the audience to a magical place in the 1500s was painstakingly hand-painted.

And each costume, whether an elaborate red velvet gown, an ornate cloak or a wig made of yellow yarn and a Cubs hat, was hand-sewn one piece at a time.

While applause is given each night to the performers, it is the crew that keeps the production humming.

Nicole Milstead can be reached at