The butterflies had, understandably, burst out of a 16-month cocoon inside Rondale Gray’s stomach.

For the first time since the pandemic began, the May 2020 School of Theatre and Dance graduate was about to look out to a crowd ready to be entertained by his and his castmates’ performance of Measure for Measure in prime time on July 3 at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington. He could feel the audience before he could see it.

As the seconds ticked closer to the curtain opening, a wave of calmness he hadn’t felt in a long time grounded the butterflies.

When it was time for Gray, who was performing the roles of Elbow and Barnardine in the play, to step onto the stage, he dropped down, did a pair of pushups, and was ready to roll.

“It was just like, ‘Alright, let’s just get out there,’” he said. “I felt this utter excitement to put on a show for these people.”  

Actors such as Gray are getting back on the bike and learning to ride again, so to speak. The wide availability of vaccines has allowed for the loosening of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions across the United States, uniting performers with their audience after a long separation.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, a staple in Bloomington-Normal and significant partner to Illinois State University, had to cancel its 2020 season. The festival is back with shows—Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and the Theatre for Young Audience’s production of A Summer’s Winter Tale—that started the first week of July and run through August 7.

Man in front of a theater stage gesturing with his left hand. He is wearing a jersey that says "Wakanda."
Rondale Gray ’20 is in both Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

The festival’s resumption was a welcomed return for student actors who missed a year of honing their skills onstage.   

“I was really, really thrilled about it,” said Carol Kelleher, an acting major cast in the Theatre for Young Audience’s show and The Winter’s Tale. “There’s something really wonderful about outdoor theater. It’s magical. And the Shakespeare Fest has a really special place in the community.”

The School of Theatre and Dance has a long history of producing world-class talent, with stars such as Laurie Metcalf ’76, Jane Lynch ’82, Craig Robinson ’94, and Keith Habersberger ’08—to name just a few—all launching their careers at Illinois State. The University serves as a springboard for student actors and performers, providing a wide variety of opportunities to showcase themselves onstage to build their skill sets.

The pandemic made it that much harder for students to get that same experience, but they made the most of the 16 months away from the stage to hone their craft.

Many got involved with Zoom performances. Instead of expressing frustrations of not being able to feed off a live audience, they used the virtual world as a way to improve things they might take for granted onstage, which is now paying dividends on the return to the stage.

“I think that listening was key in the rehearsal process,” said acting major Nora McKirdie, who is in the Theatre for Young Audiences show as well as Measure for Measure. “It was super important to jump on people’s lines to beat the lag, and that is super important moving forward.”

The performers also used that time to sharpen their minds and learn by observing. Gray read some psychology books that kept him thinking creatively. He also watched television to study how accomplished professionals went about their business and tried to remain as physically fit as possible so he that was ready when the lights finally dimmed COVID-19 restrictions.

Kelleher workshopped a play her father had written. In fact, the play—The Hologram in the Mirror—will be performed August 20 and 21 on campus in Centennial West. She and McKirdie, who are both Sutter Family Shakespeare Scholarship recipients, also dipped their toes in the creation side of things, learning about directing and playwriting.

But make no mistake. The stage is their world, and they are happy to be players back on it performing in front of a live audience.

“It didn’t feel real until I was reading the scripts,” Gray said. “Then it felt like I was going down a slide.”