Putting On Summer Theater Is Intense, Fast-Paced

Jun 25, 2015

Starlight Theatre
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

It’s summer theater time.  Places that are relatively quiet the rest of the year are churning out productions at a dizzying pace.  That raises a question:  is summer theater somehow different from theater the rest of the year?  

Dexter Brigham founded Festival 56 in Princeton, Illinois, more than a decade ago. He says summer theater is almost a separate genre, with roots that go back to the 19th century, when both actors and audiences were looking for something to do when the Broadway season ended.  

“You had a bunch of actors who were heading out into the hinterlands looking for gainful employment during the summer months.  So the idea is, well, if we have an audience who’s looking to see a bunch of shows in a very short amount of time, and we have a bunch of actors that have a short amount of time available to them, but want to do pieces that maybe they don’t get a chance to do the rest of the year, that those things can work out so that we can have a very intensive experience for both the audience and the artist.”

The intensity starts before the season begins.  Mike Webb has led Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre for thirty years.  Starlight is different from many other companies in that it relies almost entirely on volunteers.  Webb says that hasn’t been a problem.  It’s getting everything ready.  Starlight does what Webb calls a modified repertory season, with four different shows put on in consecutive weeks, and then repeating the process.

“We start rehearsals in April, and all four shows are in rehearsal at the same time. They’re on a rotating basis, so that every day, seven days a week, I see two different productions in the evening.  So we do one 5 to 7:30, and one 8 to 11, and they rotate Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday , Friday and Saturday.”  

Dan Danielowski is the executive director at Timber Lake Playhouse, in the country near Mt. Carroll.  The company does auditions in New York and Chicago as well as at several colleges across the country.  Most of the company stay at cabins on site for the duration of the season.  Danielowski, says matching a company to a season in that setting can be difficult.

“For example, last year we did ‘Le Miz.’  In that show, everyone has to sing.  It’s not about the dance.  So now if you’re going to use that company the rest of the season, you’re not going to do a big dance show like ‘A Chorus Line,’ because you’ve already used up all your spots and your budget.  So it’s finding a way to make sure you’ve got the right people to track from the first show to the sixth.”    

Danielowski says the work -- preparing, marketing, and the other things that go with putting on a season -- never really stops in any theater company.  What makes summer theater different, he says, is the intensity that Brigham talked about.

“We have office staff all year, because it takes all year to shut down one season, but to prepare for the next season.  And then, you cram a year’s work into a 12-week summer season, and its running a hundred miles an hour with your hair on fire from the first of June to the end of August.”

Brigham and Webb agree that summer theater is like a vastly accelerated version of theater the rest of the year.  But, Webb says, no matter how hectic the pace, everyone is willing to put up with it, because of the payoff.

“If you can just get out of your own way and make it what it’s supposed to be, and everybody’s geared to doing their job of telling the story of the play in the best possible way, it can just be a magical experience.”

Brigham, Danielowski and Webb say that’s worth the effort, no matter what the season.