The nationally recognized Illinois Shakespeare Festival (ISF) has been producing three shows in rotation ever since its inaugural season in 1978, which featured Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and As You Like It. And for its first 25 seasons, most of the time, all three shows were penned by the Bard himself.

Given that Shakespeare only wrote 38 plays, however, as the Festival lived on it began to cycle through the canon quickly. To slow the cycle down a bit, in 2003 ISF began to program two Shakespeare plays and a third play written by (gasp!) someone else.

This third play has sometimes been in the vein of Shakespeare (Sheridan’s The Rivals in 2012) and sometimes a classical farce (Moliere’s Scapin in 2009), but in recent years the third show has been a contemporary play. “Contemporary?!” you say? “But this is a Shakespeare festival!”

Performer on stage at ISF

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

Considering though that Shakespeare himself wrote contemporary plays inspired by his classics, ISF has been tearing a page from the Bard’s book, and producing new work inspired by our classics—namely, Shakespeare.

As is often the case with new work, patrons might find themselves unfamiliar with the title. But the third show has proven so strong in recent years that audiences are taking the leap, trusting that whatever the non-Shakespeare option is, it’s going to be entertaining, imaginative, and, in some way, Shakespearean.

Following are the five most recent examples of contemporary plays connected to Shakespeare that have helped ISF’s “third play” develop its reputation as one not to miss.

5. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), 2008 and 2011

In both the original and encore performances of this audience favorite, ISF veterans David Kortermeyer and Thomas Anthony Quinn raced through Shakespeare’s canon at light speed.

Review: A Follow Spot

Review: Shaltz Shakespeare Reviews

4. Failure, A Love Story, by Philip Dawkins, 2013

Actors in "Failure, A Love Story"

“Failure, A Love Story”

This poetic, haunting, and imaginative production, set in 1928 Chicago, received its third-ever production at ISF and has since been produced over 30 times nationally.

Review: A Follow Spot

Preview: The Pantagraph

3. Elizabeth Rex, by Timothy Findley, 2014

Elizabeth Rex

Curtail call at “Elizabeth Rex.”

Deb Staples, who returns in 2016 to play the title role in Hamlet, captivated audiences as Queen Elizabeth, who meets William Shakespeare on the eve of her lover’s execution in this brilliant and moving play.

Review: The Pantagraph

Review: A Follow Spot

2. Q Gents, by the Q Brothers, 2015

Q Brothers

The Q Brothers.

The internationally renown Q Brothers, famous for their hilarious hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (Bomb-itty of Errors, Funk It Up About Nothing, Othello: The Remix), brought down the house last summer with their latest offering, an adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Review: The Pantagraph

Preview: Illinois State University

1. Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elise, 2016

This summer’s third play is fun for the whole family, inspired by the popular children’s book, Peter and the Starcatchers. A magical origin story for Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Wendy and the Lost Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher was a smash hit on Broadway, garnering five Tonys in 2012.

Which play was your favorite? Answer in the Comments below.

One thought on “‘But that’s not Shakespeare!’ Brief history of Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s 3rd show

  1. Stan Strickler says:

    I really really loved Failure a Love Story. But I will say Peter ranks right up there. Also Q Gents was a fantastic romp. I am so happy that you are bringing other plays to the Shakespeare Festival What a great opportunity to see great theater in a beautiful setting. I hope the festival just goes on forever.