Oak Park Festival Theatre is the Midwest’s oldest professional (Actors’ Equity Association) classical outdoor theater. Our summer productions of Shakespeare and other theatre masters are staged in idyllic Austin Gardens in the heart of downtown Oak Park.
Breathing fresh air into timeless texts for Oak Park and beyond…
THE HISTORY OF OAK PARK FESTIVAL THEATRE
Oak Park Festival Theatre was founded in 1975 by Oak Park resident Marion Karczmar, and launched Its first production William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That first inspired production was performed on a flatbed truck parked on the Westgate cul-de-sac in downtown Oak Park, with a cast that included then unknowns David Mamet and William H. Macy.
In 1976 the Park District of Oak Park graciously invited the festival to perform under a canopy of stars in the idyllic Austin Gardens located at 167 Forest Avenue. Every year since that time, we return home the gardens to build our summer stage.
In succeeding years prominent regional directors brought their talents to Austin Gardens, including James O’Reilly, David Darlow, Patrick O’Gara, Tom Mula and Dale Calandra. In 2003 Jack Hickey assumed artistic leadership in 2003 and is currently serving in that role.
Careful expansion of the theatre began in 2005 when a second summer production was added to the schedule, generating a two-play outdoor season. The next year expansion continued as an indoor venue, National Historic Landmark Pleasant Home, was added, converting to a three-play season. This format (one indoor spring play and two outdoor summer productions) continued for four years, through 2009. Further growth occurred in 2010-2011, when a season with four full productions was established. In 2013 we returned to our two-play summer season to evaluate and strengthen the financial and organizational foundation of our company Our 2015 season shattered over four decades of attendance records with over 6,700 delighted patrons, and sent critics running to the thesaurus for superlatives for our productions. Careful planning and the outstanding successes of our productions restored the fiscal health of the company, and in 2016 our first full time employee, Jhenai Mootz, was hired to be the Managing Director for the company.
Since those humble beginnings where a few inspired actors gave breath to Shakespeare’s words on a flatbed truck, Oak Park Festival Theatre has grown into one of Chicagoland’s iconic theatres. Spending an evening under the stars in Austin Gardens enjoying history’s finest plays has become a treasured summer tradition for thousands of theatergoers.
SERVING OUR COMMUNITY
Deeply committed to offering theatre for all ages, Festival Theatre offers productions are created as multi-generational experiences. Encouraging the love of language at an early age, Festival Theatre offers free tickets to children 12 and under.
Our dedication to share our passion of exploring timeless text with the next generation led us to partner with an extraordinary organization, The Viola Project beginning in 2015. The Viola Project uses the works of William Shakespeare to unite and empower girls so they may grow up to be whoever they want to be. The Viola Project provides a space for girls aged 10-16 to come together and explore classic texts while engaging in a vibrant discussion of contemporary issues facing girls and women. The collaboration of our two organizations created week long summer camps focusing on the texts from the Festival Theatre summer season. As our professional actors are delving into the scripts at rehearsals, during the day our campers study and explore those same words while working on the Festival Theatre stage. With Shakespeare’s text is the common thread The Viola Project uses an interdisciplinary approach to learning by combining self defense, visual arts, music, stage craft, and interviews with professionals from the Festival Theatre productions. The camp ends their week in a performance of their study of the play for their families and friends on the set on Festival Theatre’s production, where both they are then invited to stay for Festival Theatre’s performance.
Festival Theatre contributes to our vibrant community by creating projects with such local organizations as Prevail, Oak Park Regional Housing Authority, Animal Care League, Oak Park Art League and the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association.
Beginning in 2014, Festival Theatre and the Park District of Oak Park created our Community Appreciation Night program. The program specifies that the final preview performance of each summer show is dedicated to our community by providing free tickets to anyone who would like to attend that evenings performance. The gift of free professional theatre to the community allows people without the financial ability to attend normally, experience a high quality of art they otherwise might not get to experience. The response to this program has show staggering attendance numbers from our community. In 2016 we saw an astounding 400+ people come through the gates of Austin Gardens to enjoy event.
Since its inception, the Festival Theatre has been an integral component of the community. Our summer season in Austin Gardens beats at the heart of downtown Oak Park. With a draw of nearly 7,000 attendees a year Oak Park Festival Theatre provides a vital draw of potential income for the downtown area. With an abundance of nearby restaurants, shops and tourist attractions for pre and post show activities, performance nights see hundreds of our theatre patrons flocking to our charming downtown to enjoy its offerings.
PARK DISTRICT OF OAK PARK
The mission of the Park District of Oak Park states “In partnership with the community, we enrich lives by providing meaningful experiences through programs, parks and facilities.”
For over 40 years, Festival Theatre has been one of those meaningful experiences brought to the community. Each summer we return home to build our stage in Austin Gardens through the generosity of the Park District of Oak Park. Festival Theatre makes a concerted effort to work closely with the dedicated and diligent Park District staff to preserve the beauty of Austin Gardens. We promote and educate our audiences in the Park District’s “Carry in, Carry out” program, a recycling program vital to the continued health of all of our community parks. We work closely with the Park District to minimize any impact on Austin Gardens, a priceless treasure. Festival Theatre is privileged to be a steward of the park and to work with the Park District of Oak Park to bring arts and cultural programing to the Oak Park community.