The Bard’s the Thing
Chicago-area troupe brings Shakespeare to life in Benzie County for 15th year
By Ross Boissoneau | June 30, 2018
Of course people will show up for a free outdoor performance of plays by Shakespeare. Yes, in rural Benzie County. Who would doubt that?
Turns out the very people who put the play on. “We had no idea,” said founding member Jeff Christian. No idea what people would think, how many people would attend — indeed, whether people would turn out at all.
They did, and 14 years on continue to do so. Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre brings together a host of Chicago-area theater veterans and vacationers and residents of the area, some coming from as far away as Charlevoix.
The theatre company sprang from a vision by longtime vacationer Elizabeth Laidlaw, a veteran of the Chicago theatre scene. She mentioned it to Christian, a fellow actor and director, and when he attended her wedding in the area, he, too, was smitten by the idea and the surroundings.
“She’d been going to the area her entire life, her family for three generations. She said, ‘What about doing a Shakespeare festival there?’ I said, ‘Will it work?’ I was there for her wedding, and it’s beautiful. I said, Yeah, let’s try it.”
He adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a cast of seven and directed the play for three performances over a single weekend in the Elberta bandshell. Prior to curtain, they noticed people bringing in picnic baskets and lawn chairs.
He recalled thinking, “Oh my God, people are coming!” Some people, he said, came all three nights.
Lakeside Shakespeare was off and running. The next year the group did two productions with larger casts, and the festival ran for two weeks. It’s been hosting families, vacationers, Shakespeare enthusiasts, and play novices ever since.
“Some have never seen a play before. Some have season tickets at Stratford,” said Christian of their audiences. “Everyone is in this together.”
He said the work begins long before they arrive in Frankfort, with the selection of the plays and then the casts. “We rehearse in Chicago, then we all drive up.” The productions moved from the bandshell in Elberta to Tank Hill, outside Frankfort, in 2010. “There’s not much there. We come in, build the stage, we’re there for two weeks, then we go away. It is not a normal theatrical paradigm.”
Of course, being outdoors brings challenges. “We were doing Macbeth and near the end the skies opened up. You could hardly hear with the rain pounding on a wood stage. Yet 60 intrepid souls gutted it out.”
In another play, he recalled a fight scene, complete with broadswords, where the audience cheered on the combatants. “It’s unlike anything else I’m involved with. It’s a very singular experience.”
The troupe no longer relies on the good graces of locals to provide accommodations as they did the first years. Both the company and the number of performances have expanded, leading to increasing costs. “The budget is relatively high for a bunch of people standing out in the woods,” said Christian with a laugh.
And yet, there is no admission charge. Christian said he is loathe to go to a ticketing system, both due to the logistics involved and how it could keep people away. “We have a suggested donation, but we don’t want it to get the way. It’s cool to see people give it a try. They’ll stand at the back.”
Over the course of the 14 years, Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre has performed before more than 10,000 people and reached over 1,000 students through its education workshops. LST actors have graced stages on Broadway, regional theatres, and all of the major houses across the Chicago theatre scene.
Its education program was established in its third season. Christian said the program continues to thrive, with over 100 children engaging in LST actor-led workshops each summer. “People here just came out and supported us,” he said, somewhat wonderingly.
Which brings us to Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre 2018. This year’s offerings are Henry VII, running July 24–28, and 50 Minute Hamlet, which Christian has adapted for two actors, July 30–Aug. 3. All shows are at 7pm, rain or shine.
Christian said the unique setting provides for different interaction with the audiences, some of whom return year after year. “You see everybody’s face. If they’re dozing off, you see that. There’s not a green room — I’ll change in the truck. I walk around and talk to people before the show, at intermission — I’d never do that in Chicago. It just feels more intimate, more connected.
“I get to do these great plays for people with whom I have a relationship. A lot of them I don’t know by name, but we’ve had conversations: ‘Oh, kale guy is here.’”
And so is Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre.
Where the Heck is Tank Hill?
The city-owned park, about 15 acres of diverse hardwoods, is located at 178 Park Ave., near Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort.