Riverside Theatre returns with Shakespeare Festival after 2008 flood

BY ELLEN HARRIS | JUNE 11, 2009 7:26 AM

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Almost a year to the day, the anniversary of the 2008 flood will be celebrated by the frolicking fairies and lovelorn ladies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the featured productions in this year’s Riverside Theatre Shakespeare Festival.

Theater cofounder Ron Clark looks back on the evacuation day with a mixture of prideand sadness.
“[The flood] was devastating,” he said. “But the upside is this: We found out we can endure damn near anything.”

And endure the company has, with the members busting their behinds to get this summer’s Shakespeare Festival up and running, with performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opening Friday at 8 p.m. and running through July 12. The second play, the drama Richard III, will open June 19 and will run concurrently, intermixed with performances of the comedy.

Four days before the 2008 festival opened, the cast and crew were forced to evacuate the park, wading through 18-24 inches of water as they struggled to salvage everything they could.

“Every person, from interns to union actors, was carrying things on their back up the hillside,” Clark said.

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The city-donated festival stage proved no match for the rising currents. Riverside development director Sara O’Leary noted the extensive damage done to the facility.

“The seating, the stage, the new pavilion and picnic area, the restrooms, the Green Show stage … Most of that work has been covered by [Iowa City’s] flood insurance,” she said.

A few miles away from the park, another Riverside property faced challenges from the impeding flood. The costume and scene shop, originally located in a donated basement in a Coralville strip mall, sustained massive water damage. Community members worked tirelessly to save the facility’s contents from destruction.

“Since the flood, we’ve moved our costume shop to a donated farmhouse, called Art Farm, and we’ve rented a space for our sets,” O’Leary said. “We are, however, looking for a more permanent solution.”

The real testimonial to the theater’s community importance lay in the directors’ ability to make ends meet during that devastating time.

“I’m proud to say we met every payroll,” Clark said. “We didn’t shorten any contracts.”

In approximately one month, Riverside raised $60,000, a majority of which came in the form of small gifts ($5 to $5,000).

“These were people who had already given to our [fall 2007] campaign,” O’Leary said. “I was just amazed — just amazed.”

Riverside, a year-round theater, worked with the city to prepare for the 2009 summer festival. Only two weeks ago, workers tore out the 472 destroyed seats and put in new ones, diligently repairing the damage done to several locations on the festival grounds leading up to this summer’s premiere of Midsummer.

Midsummer, the first show in the Shakespeare Festival’s 10th season, is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous comedy. In the piece, a mischievous sprite pits two sets of lovers against one another, while a feuding fairy king and queen (and a troupe of misfit actors) cavort around the forest.

Patrick DuLaney leads the merry performers as Nick Bottom in the ensemble cast. DuLaney, whose background is primarily in musical theater, headed to Riverside from Missouri for his second season, despite the drawbacks that last year’s flooding caused.

“I had a really good time [last year],” he said. “I begged to come back.”

DuLaney drew on his musical theater experience when preparing to play Bottom.

“Shakespeare is innately musical,” he said. “You can latch onto the rhythm and meter of it. There’s something very beautiful in that.”

Dennis Fox, the festival’s other headliner, enters his fifth (nonconsecutive) year with Riverside as the title character in Richard III, returning to the Midwestern place he’d grown to love from the East Coast, where he works as an actor and a director.

“[Iowa City] has been a wonderful place to come and do theater and take a rest from the intensity of New York City,” he said.

While Midsummer sets audiences to laughing, Richard III leaves shock in its wake. Fox’s ambitious and violent Richard claws and connives his way to the English throne in one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. For him (Fox played Leontes in last year’s The Winter’s Tale), stepping into the shoes of the manipulative king was slightly intimidating.

“It’s huge — it’s the second-largest role in Shakespeare,” he said.

Clark, who directs Midsummer and acts in both shows, raved about the two men he’d come to know so well.

“Dennis Fox … just does it for the artistry,” Clark said. “He’s one of ‘those guys’ — very, very serious, very little ego going on. [He’s] quite an amazing actor.”

And DuLaney?

“He’s truly one of the funniest human beings I know,” Clark said. “Patrick is so inventive, moment-to-moment — he’s fresh, every single time. He wears his characters as lightly as a cap.”

Fox understands wearing a character lightly, too.

“Actors love [the role of Richard III] because essentially you’re playing a guy who’s a great actor,” he said. “He pretends to do all sorts of things — he play-acts with the audience. He’s saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do — watch how well I do it.’ ”

Of the 25 actors hired by the theater each summer from around the nation, many have managed to find an artistic home here — and it’s a home they care about. This was never more apparent than during last year’s flood.

“I started discovering, on afternoons or days off, they’d be downtown sandbagging,” Clark said. “They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to, but they’d discovered a beautiful place to live.”

Each year, Riverside invites a handful of technical and performance interns to join its artistic family. This season, the company welcomed two UI students: junior Lauren Baker and sophomore Megan Renner.

Hailing from Ankeny, Iowa, Renner rose to the challenge of assistant stage manager for Richard III and seized the opportunity to learn from the seasoned stage veterans around her.

“It’s just a blast that I can talk to these professional actors,” she said. “I mean, I’m learning so much, hearing all these different stories. It’s really exciting.”

Of the eight acting interns, four perform in Richard III and four in Midsummer. Baker, an Iowa City native, plays Cobweb, one of the Midsummer fairies.

“All of the interns understudy, as well,” she said. “We thought it was a rare occurrence when an understudy went on. [But I guess] every season except for two the understudies have gone on. We’re like, ‘Oh — well — that’s good.’ ”

The male interns work in the scene shop, while the women are sent to costuming.

“You learn [to sew] — real quickly,” Baker said. “I made a pair of pants in my first week. I made Oberon’s pants.”

The importance of providing excellent internships to young artists summer after summer, regardless of inclement weather, is not lost on Clark.

“You don’t go into the arts to make a vast fortune,” he said. “It had better be exciting — it had better be joyful.”

No flood can keep the joy of this festival down.

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