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Gig&Tell: Festival 56

  • An imperfectly perfect home away from home :)    
    08/09/2018  2:10am

    I am writing this as a two-time actor at Festival 56: This is a wonderful and exciting place to work if you enjoy creating good summer stock theatre with good people.

    During the summer season, your days will be full of demanding and largely rewarding work. Festival 56 currently utilizes a small pool of younger and (generally) progressively-minded directors/designers/theatre artists with a talent for innovative, impactful storytelling. The production staff is efficient, professional, friendly, and understanding. Each season balances a desire to produce interesting and relevant works and still satisfy the older, moderately conservative crowd that makes up an ample portion of the audiences. Most Festival 56 actors tend to be fairly recent graduates, with some either slightly above this "age line" or still attending school.

    Below, I've tried to describe how Festival 56 works from an actor's perspective in an accurate way, while still emphasizing how much I would recommend this place to any performer (particularly younger ones) who is in search of a place to do what they love and grow at the same time.

    - GENERAL: Located in the small town of Princeton (about 7700 people), which is about two hours southwest of Chicago. The Festival's main performance space is the Grace Performing Arts Center ("the Grace") which has a 150-seat theatre and a green room that doubles as a backstage area during shows. Other work areas include the costume shop, small offices for lighting and sound/music, and a lobby in the front that shares space with the box office and an operational bar. It's a charming, homey little building that could truthfully use a little love if the funds were available, but it works. The main rehearsal space is the Zearing-Prouty Community building ("the Prouty"), which is located just down and across the street from the Grace. The Festival uses the two rooms on the lower level of the Prouty, which can alternate between cold and humid, so layers are helpful. Other possible spaces include Soldiers and Sailors Park for the outdoor Shakespeare show, and (occasionally) the nearby Prairie Arts Center, formerly a small church. Budgets are fairly modest, but on the whole I was awestruck by the beautifully and appropriately imaginative work done by all of the designers and technicians.

    - REHEARSALS: As an actor, you will spend most of your time in the Prouty working three rehearsal blocks each day -- usually 9am-12pm, 1-5pm, and 7-10pm. (Small breaks are given during these blocks.) Each block could be spent working any one of the shows for which you are contracted. The work can be challenging but it's doable and is also, by and large, very fulfilling. Rehearsal schedules for the following day are emailed daily, usually around 6pm during dinner break.

    - PERFORMANCES: Your contract may include anything from 1-4 shows (out of a usual maximum of 6). There is also a New Works Festival at the very end of the season that some actors may or may not be cast in. The main acting company will also be required to participate in multiple cabaret nights. These are a lot of fun, although it's worth mentioning that the "late night" cabarets open shortly after a show (i.e. your work day on such occasions may not end until midnight). All descriptive elements of Festival performances aside, it is so much fun to go on for the people of Princeton. It is abundantly clear that this theatre means a lot to them, and not just from a business perspective. They appreciate and are excited by the Festival atmosphere, and the actors may occasionally be recognized about town for their work.

    - HOUSING: Can be pretty good. Festival has maintained an arrangement with the town of Princeton that allows most company members to stay with the locals in their homes, free of charge. (Some of the production staff are housed in apartment spaces above the shops on Main Street.) You may or may not have housemates. Host families are often very accommodating, and typically provide you with refrigeration space and laundry access in addition to your room. Many of the homes closer to the Grace are older, but still very livable and quite comfortable. Newer, more modern homes are slightly farther out, but still within driving/biking distance.

    - LIFESTYLE: Full disclosure -- there isn't a lot to do in Princeton. Everything that you need (groceries, gas, meals, Walmart, etc.) exists within close proximity. There is a very small cinema called the Apollo which plays two films per week at VERY reasonable prices. (Evening adult tickets are literally six dollars.) But aside from this, you will need to drive to places like Peru, IL (~25 minutes) or Peoria (~1 hour) or, of course, Chicago for other city-based activities. In town, many company members occupy themselves by going out for cheap drinks at the town bar, Kompany, or by hanging out at the Grace after hours. This can be more than enough to keep you occupied, though. Festival 56 seems to have a penchant for hiring extremely friendly and lovely people, and you will likely leave having made a close friend or two. (Cliques can happen, but most people generally make a genuine effort to reach out to everyone.) Also, pool parties on behalf of certain host families have been known to happen!

    - PHONE SERVICE/WI-FI: This can vary on an individual basis, but you will probably be fine. The Grace usually has pretty reliable Wi-Fi. The Prouty, however, is much spottier, and you are unlikely to receive texts or calls in the basement. Internet access within your housing is much more varied, with little in the way of recourse if you do experience problems. This is a minor gripe, though, when you consider that you are living for free in a person's home, who is more often than not very kind and caring :)

    - COMPENSATION: Pay for actors definitely goes toward the top of the list of things that could be improved. Based on personal experience and what I've gathered from friends, the pay range is typically between $175-$250/wk (depending on experience, roles/responsibilities, length of contract, etc). Not the worst, to be sure, but some planning and budgeting is definitely necessary. Modest and reasonable negotiations have been said to happen here and there. But if you are solely motivated by making a lot of money, you should look elsewhere. Luckily, your only real costs will be feeding yourself and *some* transportation. Speaking of which...

    - TRANSPORTATION: The Festival reimburses your to/from travel costs up to ~$150 in total. (So save your receipts!) If you want to venture outside of Princeton, or maybe relieve yourself of some pressure to be on time, I would highly recommend bringing a personal vehicle or becoming friends with someone who has one. **Moderate warning: The Princeton police seem to have a penchant for pulling over non-locals (or anyone who doesn't look like they're from rural Illinois) fairly frequently.** A few bikes are also available to borrow from the theatre.

    - OTHER: Actors are only required to assist in strike for one hour after each show closes. No other tech duties beyond that. (You're always welcome to help if time allows, but not at all expected to do so!) Full company meetings are held each Sunday evening for literally 15 minutes to receive general announcements and voice opinions, desires, and concerns. (The production staff leaves for this part, so you may voice your concerns to the two selected "liaisons" if you would prefer.) You will likely have Mondays off for the majority of the contract, but be sure to check on that if you receive an offer. Also, at the beginning of the summer, everyone is given a discount card highlighting certain businesses that offer Festival 56 members reduced rates for their goods/services. Very useful!

    All things considered, Festival 56 is a great summer stock theatre to work for. This is not the place to be if you're only concerned about making money as an actor, but it's definitely the place to be if you want to satisfy your artistic needs in a town that begins to feel like a second home, with people who could potentially become your lifelong friends. I, and many others, have returned to work here, and would definitely love to do so again if the right work presents itself. I hope you all find an opportunity to stop by Princeton for a summer of "small town, big drama!"