Island Stage Left celebrates 25 years

What began as a humble stage of four platforms and gray carpet, Island Stage Left’s productions have evolved into dazzling and memorable performances, including their iconic Shakespeare Under the Stars productions every July and August. As the non profit theater company celebrates their silver anniversary this summer, co-founder Helen Machin-Smith reflects on the journey that brought her and her husband/co-founder Daniel Mayes to San Juan Island and the support they have received over the last 25 years.

Growing up in London, Shakespeare always had an important influence on Machin-Smith’s life. Her father introduced her to the famous playwright at a young age, taking her to see Julius Caesar when she was eight years old. Being born blind in one eye, Machin-Smith had a passion for language, and spent much of her youth reciting poems and performing at retirement homes with her family while her teachers in school had students exchanging famous Shakespeare verses in class.

After graduating drama school in 1969, Machin-Smith moved to Portland, Oregon and was hired as a director and teacher for Portland State University. Shortly after, she met Mayes after being casted in a play together. The couple married and continued to work in theater, including performing in the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in 1983 when the ensemble received a Tony award for outstanding achievement in regional theater. After having moved to Ashland from Portland for a few years, the couple settled in Seattle and made their living performing in regional theaters in the city.

Mayes had his first heart attack at the age of 36 and was given three years to live, prompting the couple to make the most of their time together and began vacationing on Orcas Island. The couple fell in love with the islands and dreamed of moving there. In 1992, the couple made their dream a reality after purchasing land on Wold road on San Juan Island with the aspiration of opening a small theater company with local talent and off-island professionals without charging the public for admissions.

“We were told by local officials and mainland actors that it would never work,” said Machin-Smith in the annual fundraising letter on Island Stage Left’s website. “Neighbors raised incredulous eyebrows at the ‘newbies’ not having the sense to realize the impossibility of their dream, a dream no one else believed in.”

In 1998, the couple celebrated Machin-Smith’s 50th birthday by holding a party on their land with musicians, actors, friends and family, with nothing but “a water pump in the middle of a field, a composting toilet, the beginnings of a barn and the basic framing of a house,” according to Machin-Smith’s fundraising letter. The following summer, Island Stage Left held their first Shakespeare Under the Stars performance, The Tempest. Since then, the theater company has put on 74 productions over the last 25 years, with five weeks of Shakespeare Under the Stars performances outdoors in the summer as well as fall, winter and spring plays written by old and new playwrights. For 20 years, Island Stage Left also toured the islands for one week each summer, performing on Orcas, Lopez, Shaw and Waldron.

Having worked in theater for decades, the couple has connections to many professional actors whom they recruit for their productions in addition to hiring local actors and hosting a week’s worth of auditions each year in Seattle to discover new talent. Although every performance is free of charge to the public, Island Stage Left pays their performers; due to the rise in minimum wage, it will cost the theater company $80,000 this summer to just pay their actors. Island Stage Left has since relied on the support and generosity of the community over the years to help meet these costs, as well as assist in many other aspects of the productions.

“Community support has been just amazing in every possible way – that is financially and helping with housing [for actors]. I have wonderful music people and people who build sets, and I have another wonderfully gifted seamstress who is our costumer. I’m surrounded with support, which is just terrific,” said Machin-Smith.

When looking back at some of the most memorable moments for Island Stage Left, Mayes and Machin-Smith both credited Mother Nature for some spectacular additions, such as stormy clouds and lightning flashes during “The Tempest,” and when Mayes – who was cast as Prospero in this production – stretched out his arms to cast a magic spell, it looked as though lightening was coming out from his fingertips. And during a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the northern lights blessed the performance with its otherworldly beauty.

However, sometimes Mother Nature’s ‘blessings’ felt more like a curse, with heavy rain that threatened to cancel the shows. The couple, reluctant to cancel performances, staged the shows inside their house instead, moving all of their furniture onto the porch and welcoming in the brave souls who still came to see the show, clad in rain gear. The couple also has fond memories of the summers that Island Stage Left toured the islands, sleeping in tents on the beach on Waldron and being fed by the locals, as well as their shows becoming standing-room-only after being faced with skepticism.

“Starting out, you know, people said, ‘well, you’ll never get people to come see Shakespeare here.’ And so we put out, I think, 100 chairs, and people were standing on the grass, and we were pulling out chairs from the house…that’s just a mere handful of special moments,” said Machin-Smith.

This summer’s Shakespeare Under the Stars production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” will be the third rendition of the famous play by Island Stage Left. Each interpretation has vastly differed, with one production set in the 1960s, one set in present day, and this summer’s production set in Greece in the 1910s, so audiences are guaranteed a refreshing new look at the timeless classic. Additionally, viewers can look forward to live music in this summer’s production. Besides the fact that it is the Bard’s most popular play, the couple chose “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because they felt the topsy-turvy nature of the play resonated with the current state of the world.

“The world is in such a difficult place right now, and there are references to arguments between the people in the play, arguments between the king and fairies that caused the whole world to change, the weather to change, so that you can’t tell winter from summer and everything’s upside down in nature because of this,” said Machin-Smith. “It’s a light play. It’s not a tragedy by any means, but it does address that at the beginning and it comes to a reconciliation – it’s a wonderful play.”

As the couple approaches their eighties, they are unsure how much longer they will be able to continue the large undertaking that is putting on Shakespeare Under the Stars performances, but they are in talks of getting someone to take the program over in the future. Otherwise, they plan to continue producing smaller-scale indoor shows.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will run July 11 through Aug. 11, Thursday – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free to the public and chairs are provided through the Fairground, although attendees are welcome to bring their own seating. Attendees are recommended to bring blankets, mosquito repellent, and to dress warmly. Latecomers are discouraged.

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