The Tempest at Oak Park Festival Theatre

After what seemed like an eternity of actors phoning in their performances (literally) and dramatic narratives assembled by wired-in videographers, it was probably inevitable for the news of the playhouses reopening to spur a few theatergoers to wonder at the delay necessary for companies to—well, get their acts together.

What? Have we forgotten that quickly? Maybe the theaters weren't idle for over a decade like those of Shakespeare's London, but did we really think that after being forced to slam their doors on audiences already assembled in the lobby, all that a show had to do to erase the evidence of a year-long hiatus was to dust off the furniture, switch on the lights and roll up the shades on the box office window?

It helps to have your own theater, of course. When the Goodman's production of Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play was abruptly canceled in the midst of previews (though a videotape of the performance was later streamed online), its scenery, lights and costumes could be packed away in close proximity to the auditorium to facilitate a swift load-in for the repeat performance.

Steppenwolf was rumored to have taken this sheltering-in-place principle even further when the Shutdown curtailed their production of Bug during the final weeks of its extension, keeping the entire onstage landscape intact and ready for reanimation at a moment's notice.

Oak Park Festival Theatre's production of Shakespeare's tech-heavy fantasy The Tempest , originally scheduled for 2020, enjoys no such luxury, Artistic Director Barbara Zahora reminds us. "We operate in Austin Gardens as a guest of the Park District. We store our own equipment in the on-site fieldhouse when we aren't performing, and sometimes we borrow properties from other places and return them at the end of the run, but we begin every summer with the bare lawn. We have to build our scenery, hang our lights and hook up our audio cables from scratch, just like a touring company."

The 2020 production was barely into the planning stages when the playhouses were ordered into quarantine, recalls Zahora. The show had been cast, and designers convened for pre-production talks, but rehearsals had not yet commenced. A year later, "We reached out to the entire original team—cast and crew—to offer them the jobs that Covid had stolen from them! Most of them came back, but some had taken on other projects and weren't able to accommodate our new schedule. We were able to find some excellent replacements, however."

The show is well on its way to getting back in the swing of things, she reports. "We re-started rehearsals in mid-June and are adjusting to congregating together, as well as getting reacquainted with aspects of our artistry that we haven't used for a while, but it is a JOY to be doing what we love once again."

The Tempest opens on July 17 and runs at Austin Gardens in Oak Park through August 21. Details:

School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play opens at the Goodman Theatre on July 30 and runs through August 29. Details:

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer