Although it’s far from the bright lights of Broadway, the Midwest theater scene shines in its own right. Whether you’re looking for nationally acclaimed Shakespeare performances, groundbreaking interpretations of classic works in an unconventional space, community-based productions of family favorites or a night at the opera, theaters in the Midwest have just the show for your group.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Illinois Shakespeare Festival walks an interesting line between urban and country. As a nationally recognized Shakespeare festival, it draws not only top-level talent to Bloomington-Normal but also a high proportion of patrons from Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis, all about two hours away.
“We’re unique in that we’re on the way to a lot of places,” said Dick Folse, the festival’s managing director. “There’s a great Lincoln museum in Springfield, and a lot of guests come to a matinee after going there. And while we use an outdoor theater in the evenings, we want patrons to leave wherever they’re coming from and be confident they aren’t going to have shows canceled, so we have a 500-seat theater that we use as our rain space. If it looks like rain, we decide by 2 p.m. to move inside.”
For groups looking to maximize an overnight visit, the festival offers packages to attend for a day or two and see three different shows. Through its partnerships with local hotels, the festival can assist with arranging hotel stays and meals before a show. Groups can also arrange private backstage, manor or costume shop tours before a performance.
The 2014 summer season features two Shakespeare favorites, the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” and the historic drama “Antony and Cleopatra” along with “Elizabeth Rex,” uniting the two Shakespeare plays through its story of Queen Elizabeth spending time with Shakespeare as he is writing the two plays.
Few American theaters are as well known for both their productions and their architecture as the Guthrie, founded in 1963 to provide a new type of resident regional theater that could run a deeper, more exploratory counterpoint to the shows premiering on Broadway at the time. The Guthrie is now housed in a space with a cantilevered lobby reaching out over the Mississippi River.
The 2014-2015 season will be the last for artistic director Joe Dowling, who will direct three shows, including Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” for his farewell season. Group ticket sales for the 2014-2015 season have just opened, and student matinees are filling quickly, according to Lana Aylesworth, group sales coordinator and lead tour guide.
For groups, the dining and private meeting spaces at the Guthrie are worth using, even if you can’t take in a show. The lobby on the upper floor, with panoramic views, is available when there are no shows in the studio theater, and the seating area in the lobby outside the main stage can also be rented for lounge-style dining before the show. On the ground floor, the Sea Change restaurant, started by a James Beard Award-winning chef, has several private dining spaces.
Preshow 45-minute backstage tours show how the Guthrie brings a show to life from script to stage, and they include visits to the scene shop, the costume shop and the rehearsal spaces.