Theater is a stage on which to experience laughter and tears, anger and fear, debates and dialogues, hope and redemption.
The Festival 56 professional theater group in Princeton has provided audience-goers with those experiences and more since 2004. At the end of this season, Festival 56 will have completed its 87th main stage production.
Dexter Brigham, founder and executive director of Festival 56, says the past eight years have been an amazing journey, a journey which is now attracting thousands of people each year. From the very first steps of the journey, the vision for Festival 56 has remained the same.
“Our goal from the start has always been to bring professional, New York-quality, theater to Princeton,” Brigham said. “That’s what we did in that first year, and that’s what we continue to do. That was, and is, our passion.”
In comparing Festival 56 to more urban venues, Brigham said the same theater for which a person would pay $80 to $120 a ticket in New York is now available, with the same professional performers, in Princeton, where $26 is the top ticket price. Festival 56 also provides free theater through its weekly Shakespeare in the Park productions each summer at the Soldiers and Sailors Park on the Courthouse Square lawn.
From the beginning, it was important to the Festival 56 group to make the arts accessible to the community. The free Shakespeare in the Park productions have been a way to say thank you to the community and region, Brigham said.
Though the vision has remained the same, Festival 56 has clearly grown from being predominately attended by Princeton residents to where now about 40 percent of its audience comes from outside the Princeton area, Brigham said. Attendance this year is expected to be in the 8,000 to 9,000 range, about four times the size of that first-year audience. Also, those attendance numbers do not reflect the 1,100 people who attend the Shakespeare in the Park performances or the numerous special school performances given each year.
When selecting the productions for each season, Brigham said he tries to create a balance which will appeal to the different aspects of the theater-goer. A theater-goer doesn’t just go for musicals or comedies, contemporary or high brow theater. Variety is the key, he said.
In the past, the bread and butter of theater has been the classic shows, like those by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Irving Berlin, but there seems to be a shift in that trend. The most popular show ever done by Festival 56 was not one of the early classics, but rather “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a rock opera from the 1970s by Adam Lloyd Webber.
Looking ahead to next year, Brigham said Festival 56 will celebrate its 10th season with the production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
As another special feature of next year’s season, Festival 56 will create a totally new work, not yet written, in honor of the Princeton community itself. “Hometown Anonymous” will tell the stories of Princeton area families, their trials and their love stories, their look at the community’s political or religious history, and more. The finished product may be a play or a series of readings, or even something different still, Brigham said.
Area residents will be asked to contribute their stories for “Hometown Anonymous”, which will be presented several times next summer. One role of theater is to be a mirror, to reflect back into a community, a culture, a society, and that’s what “Hometown Anonymous” will do, he said.
Even after nearly 10 active years in Princeton, there are still a couple misconceptions about Festival 56, Brigham said.
Some people may still not realize Festival 56 is professional theater, which is very different from community theater in which people may go to see family members or friends perform. With a professional production, you go for the sake of the show itself, not for the actors whom you may or may not know personally. There is a great place in a community for both types of theater, he said.
Another misconception is the perception that there is a finite interest in the arts. But the truth is the fine arts do not compete with each other. Rather, the more experiences there are in fine arts, the more a community’s appetite is whetted for more, he said.
Festival 56 theater has helped enrich the night scene in Princeton, along with places like local coffee shops, Fitzgerald’s Piano Lounge and the Prairie Arts Center. Those venues compliment each other to bring a cultural depth and richness to the community and to give the Princeton community the option to walk out its front door and find a high quality, cultural experience.
Not only has Festival 56 helped to enrich the cultural and night scene in Princeton, Brigham said it has also impacted the community economically. Working with the Princeton Tourism Bureau, Festival 56 is bringing people into the community from the Chicago area, Quad Cities and Peoria. Those visitors shop in Princeton’s stores, eat at their restaurants and stay in their hotels, he said.
Looking ahead to the next 20 years and beyond for Festival 56, Brigham said he has a lot of thoughts in his head of what Festival 56 can bring to the community in terms of energy and culture, tourism and economy.
“I have great plans and big dreams,” Brigham said. “We are tightly woven into the community, and we plan on being here for many, many years to come. We will continue to bring professional theater at its finest to the Princeton area.”
FALL SCHEDULE FOR FESTIVAL 56
• Nov. 9 to Nov. 17 at Grace Performing Arts Center, Princeton.
Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” adapted by David Birney
Master storyteller and towering literary figure, Mark Twain, hilariously recreates the first days in this ingenious, witty and delightful retelling of the dawn of human creation, with many a grain of truth for today’s gender disputes. Adam is something of a recluse, ill prepared for the arrival of Eve, a talkative, emotional and highly-charged female. Yet in time, after some conflict, they learn to live together and come to realize that men and women can, in fact, live in harmony.
• Nov. 23 to Dec. 1 at Grace Performing Arts Center, Princeton.
“Almost, Maine” by John Carianai
On a cold, clear, moonless night in the middle of winter, all is not quite what it seems in the remote, mythical town of Almost, Maine. As the northern lights hover in the star-filled sky above, Almost’s residents find themselves falling in and out of love in unexpected and often hilarious ways. Knees are bruised. Hearts are broken. But the bruises heal, and the hearts mend —almost — in this delightful midwinter night’s dream.
• Dec. 7 to Dec. 22 at Grace Performing Arts Center, Princeton.
“A Tuna Christmas” by Joe Sears and Jaston Williams
Come spend the holidays with all your favorite citizens of Tuna, Texas, and make some new friends while you’re there. Two men, with the help of split-second costume changes, portray all 24 citizens of Texas’ third smallest town, where the Lions Club is too liberal, and Patsy Cline never dies. It’s 24 hours before Christmas, and all comic hell is about to break loose as the eccentric residents of Tuna attempt to cope with a disaster-prone production of “A Christmas Carol” and a yard decorating contest being sabotaged by a mysterious Christmas phantom! Bring the whole family and join in the holiday fun!
FESTIVAL 56 TIMELINE
• Festival 56 was founded in 2004 as a partnership between Princeton Theatre Group and The November Ten, a New York-based theatre company.
• In its first season, the festival offered five productions in four weeks during July, and all 28 visiting artists stayed with host families in the Princeton community.
• The festival attracted about 2,000 patrons the first year, proving that professional theatre could flourish in rural Illinois.
• The Princeton Theatre Group acquired the old Bureau County Republican newspaper building, located at 316 S. Main St. in Princeton, and renovated it in 2007 into a 150-seat studio theatre. The newly-minted Grace Performing Arts Center is now home to seven of the festival’s 10 annual offerings.
• Festival 56 operates year round with a full time staff of two and a committed board of volunteers, presenting performances from June through August and then again from late October through Christmas.
• Festival 56 now has 9,000 patrons and 50 visiting artists coming to Princeton throughout the year, All of the visiting artists still live with host families during their Festival 56 stay.
• The festival still includes Shakespeare in the Park each summer. Since the very beginning, the festival has presented a fully-staged production of one of Shakespeare’s plays in the town square. This production is a gift to the community and is presented free of charge all summer long with performances every Sunday and Wednesday.
Photos by Donna Barker and Becky Kramer