The Park District of Forest Park is famous for its 16-inch softball tournaments and popular for its aquatic center.
But this summer, professional theater will be added to the park’s offerings in a project between the park district and the Forest Park Theater Company, a newly formed ensemble of trained actors, led by resident and professional director Rick Corley.
Four full-length performances of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ will be performed free of charge outdoors at the Roos Pavilion on July 31, Aug. 1, Aug. 7 and Aug. 8.
The play, which will be about two hours in duration, including an intermission, will begin around 5 p.m. Corley said it will be held during daylight, because that’s the way plays were performed during Shakespeare’s time. Without the need for stage lighting, Corley said, the emphasis will be on the actors and storytelling.
Corley and his wife Tanera Marshall moved to Forest Park about four years ago. They are both long-time teachers in the theater department at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Corley as a Shakespeare, acting and theater history professor and Marshall in voice and speech.
Corley has over 35 years’ experience as a director and producer of theater, including theater and art director roles in theater companies in Wisconsin and New York. Marshall is a professional and renowned dialect coach, with an extensive history of working with actors on shows and movies you’ve probably heard of, like “Fargo” and “Army of the Dead.”
At UIC, Corley said he’s oft engaged in conversations within the School of Theater and Music about the need to create a bridge for students from school to the professional world.
“We give the students four years of intense training, and then send them out and tell them to go make a living,” Corley said. What’s missing, though, are more concrete avenues for students to get experience after they leave school.
This project, said Corley, marries his desire to create that bridge for students and his vision of bringing theater to Forest Park.
“When I moved to Forest Park, I’d walk by the park and think, ‘There should be theater here,’” Corley said.
When he approached the park district about partnering with him, Executive Director Jackie Iovinelli and Recreation Supervisor Rachell Entler were extremely interested and excited about the project.
Entler and Corley’s initial conversations focused on how to make the theater experience unique to Forest Park, and they both realized that accessibility – having the performances free – was the goal. Oak Park Festival Theater, for example, a long-running and highly respected theater company, puts on outdoor Shakespeare performances, but the general admission price is typically $35. Corley said he didn’t want any barriers to people seeing the plays in Forest Park.
“All art should be responsive to the community,” Corley said. “And Rachell and I wanted theater here to be responsive to Forest Park.”
The actors who will be performing in the play share this sentiment.
“The point of theater is to welcome people into different worlds,” Yourtana Sulaiman, who will play the part of Rosalind, said. “How can you do that if your ticket prices make it impossible for some people to come?”
The fact that the performances will be free doesn’t mean the play won’t be professional. Actors have begun rehearsing and will spend in total more than 20 hours a week for at least a month practicing.
The quality of the performance, Corley said, will be the same as any professional production. The actors are almost all recent graduates or current students of the theater department at UIC.
“They’re capable and skilled and need an opportunity to work,” Corley said.
But not charging for the performances comes with a price for the actors, who aren’t getting paid. Some travel from the city, taking public transportation to get to Forest Park for rehearsals. They say it’s worth it, though. Being a part of the ensemble will be invaluable in terms of experience and, as Corley said, a bridge between school and moving into the professional world.
Elijah Newman, one of the actors in the play, graduated in 2019 from the theater department at UIC. He took classes from both Corley and Marshall and calls the two his “college mom and dad.”
“This will be more artistically fulfilling than any role I could be paid for,” Newman said. Coming out of COVID, where there was little opportunity to perform in person, being back on stage with other actors is something he said he’s “desperate” for. But he added that he believes in the goal Corley and Entler have, to ensure anyone who wants to see the play can do so.
“We want the show to be free so people have access to it,” Newman said. “We want to build relationship and become a family in Forest Park. That prospect is what brings me out here every day to rehearse. I’m excited to see myself in Forest Park for a long time.”
Newman and fellow actor Andrea Muriel are talking with Entler about setting up a theater workshop for kids with the park district and are already developing a lesson plan. He said tentatively the program, which is still in the works, would be open to kids aged 8 to 14 and would have a “sprinkling” of Shakespeare.
Corley said he chose ‘As You Like It’ because it’s one of his favorite Shakespeare plays, which he’s directed before. But the theme, he said, is particularly relevant now.
“It’s a comedy that is about our relationship to nature and the way we relate to each other as men and women and how we’re all both men and women in our bodies,” Corley said. “In our time right now of gender questioning and fluidity, it’s a wonderful play to perform.”
He added that it’s a story of redemption, of our struggle with coming to terms with what it means to have a home and to be exiled.
“The play has songs and dancing,” Corley said. “Everything is there. It has everything.”
Sulaiman said, “It’s a really beautiful play about people and the love they have for each other, and the lengths they’ll go to for each other. Shakespeare shows everything about human nature, not just the nice bits.”
Corley said this is only the beginning. He hopes to expand the offerings next year, including several plays, possibly incorporating new work in addition to classics.