After theater has been suffering in the shadow cast by the pandemic for over a year, Island Stage Left has finally been approved to return, with their debut play being “Much Ado About Nothing.”
With the theater being located outdoors at 1062 Wold Road, the company’s revival show is running from July 8 through Aug. 8. Each show starts at 8 p.m.
When co-founders, London-raised Helen Machin-Smith and Oregon-raised Daniel Mayes, visited Orcas Island for what they thought was going to be a short vacation, they found themselves with the desire to move to the islands. Eventually, they fulfilled that pursuit and landed on San Juan Island. There was just one problem — there was no Shakespeare on the island.
“I knew we couldn’t go without theater, and I thought, well, we need to fix that,” Machin-Smith said.
They decided to build a theater in their backyard and in 1999, Island Stage Left was born.
After serving the island for 23 years, being forced to shut down due to the pandemic was difficult for Machin-Smith. Despite the road bumps, she said she hopes for “Much Ado About Nothing” to keep spirits light.
“It’s not a year for ‘King Lear,’” she said laughing. “I felt that after COVID, we definitely needed a comedy. And a romantic comedy at that. It has a nice balance of grief and happiness, but the grief is brief! It doesn’t stick.”
Machin-Smith said the play ends with music and dancing, which she hopes will lift the audience’s spirits.
The spirit of the play is a contrast to the road that was taken to reopening.
“It was a very dark time for theater,” Machin-Smith said.
Once the restrictions were out, the theater was done for, she said. After some restrictions eased up for others, the theater still wasn’t allowed to go on without all the actors being masked and originally 6 feet apart. Machin-Smith said this would have made it completely impossible to carry on. When she noticed that ballet dancers were allowed to dance and spectators were allowed to attend sports events while masked, she said she felt motivated to make a change.
“I just decided that we couldn’t go on like this forever, and I had to make some sort of calculated guess as to when we could reopen,” Machin-Smith said, making a deadline for April.
From there, Machin-Smith spoke to Karen Hanan the Executive Director of Washington State Arts Commission. Hanan was in touch with Gov. Jay Inslee, allowing her to relay information to him from Machin-Smith, she explained. After getting in contact with the state, they finally got the green light to perform — vaccinated and maskless. While Machin-Smith put forward a lot of hard work and time trying to sort the issue out, she also thinks that there were other theater groups contacting the state as well, as so many were struggling.
“It was a bit discouraging for a while, but we found a way!” she said.
Even after securing the OK to perform once again, there were still hurdles to jump, having to recast the whole play in a short amount of time.
While Machin-Smith has historically worked with mainly union actors, she was unable this year due to COVID-19 restrictions that came with the union. So, she had to recast those who were willing as non-union actors.
Now, she has a diverse cast consisting of actors from all over the country, such as Philadelphia, South Carolina, and Baltimore.
“We managed to make it work. It was tight, very tight, but we made it work,” she said.
To tend to the audiences’ needs, Machin-Smith created a designated spot to sit for those who don’t yet feel comfortable being around people who are maskless. On top of that, all of the actors are fully vaccinated.
As always, admission is free, but gold buckets will be located at the door for those who want to donate. Machin-Smith said she is thankful for the generosity of the community with donations made and volunteers to help out. Islander Sharon Lanndon sewed on over 200 buttons for the current show alone Machin-Smith noted.
With this help, so much has gotten done, which Machin-Smith describes as, “The uphill battle to opening night.”
“I’m excited to see this show in front of an audience,” she said. “I think it will be a really fun one. A pretty one too. It is a bit of a release and a relief.”