When the Idaho Shakespeare Festival first unveiled its 2018 season, more than a few patrons took note of the fact that only one play from The Bard was on the schedule. Instead of an additional Shakespeare piece, a fresh stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was slated to be the third production of the season. Apparently, that decision was spot on. Ticket sales are at an historic high for ISF this summer, and even before Pride and Prejudice began performances on Aug. 3, it was the hottest ticket in town, along with ISF's Mamma Mia!
Boise Weekly sat down with ISF veterans Laura Welsh Berg and Nick Steen, who embody the iconic roles of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, to chat about the much-anticipated production.
Let's start off with talking about this season at the amphitheater. Yes, there are unprecedented ticket sales, but there's also a tangible energy in the audience. I've been attending ISF performances for years, but I don't remember a season quite like this one.
Steen: It definitely feels electric when you're out there. And let's be clear: It's going fantastically, but there are still ways to get tickets. That said, our subscription base, I believe, is up something like 20 percent.
Berg: Twenty-six percent.
Steen: Wow. We're having a phenomenal year, and we're tremendously thankful for it.
Berg: We drive around in Idaho Shakespeare Festival-labeled vehicles, and people stop us in parking lots to say, "'Hey we saw Mamma Mia! last night,' [or] 'We saw Macbeth and Misery.'" It's incredibly exciting.
Is it true that Pride and Prejudice is already close to being sold out?
Berg: Close. But definitely call the box office.
Talk about great expectations.
Berg: Pressure! It feels good to know that people want to see what you're doing. A lot of those expectations come from how popular Pride and Prejudice is as a book and on the screen.
There have been a number of iconic performances of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy over the years. In the 1940s it was Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. In the 1990s, it was Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and in 2005, it was Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.
Let's talk a bit about [ISF Producing Artistic Director] Charlie Fee's decision to mount this production in a slot usually reserved for a second Shakespeare play.
Berg: I think it was pretty bold. It's great for an artistic company to take risks, and change is always difficult. We had this rare opportunity to stage a classical piece of literature that, based on ticket sales alone, everyone is interested in seeing. For the record, they've already announced that we'll present two Shakespeare productions next summer.
Steen: I can't tell you how much of a gift it has been to work on Jane Austen's text. Sometimes you get plays where you have to work really hard to string that story together. But Jane Austen is with you, no matter what. Every look, every small comment, means something.
Berg: And it's deeply personal for anyone who loves this story. I've had a very long relationship with this book. I've loved it since I was a little girl, and I've re-read it many, many times throughout my life. It was so exciting to have a female protagonist. I saw the world through her eyes. She makes these devastating mistakes, yet she has an autonomy to correct them. It's a beautiful journey to watch her make things right.
Pride and Prejudice is the very definition of a costume drama, so talk to me about your wardrobes for this production.
Steen: Magnificent. I think part of my wardrobe comes from the Darcy costume shop.
Wait a minute. What?
Steen: As our costume designer was fitting me for a vest, she said, "And this piece, we actually got from the Darcy costume shop." And I'm, like, "That's a thing?" She said there's a high demand for Mr. Darcy costumes.
That's quite different from the costumes you're both wearing in Mamma Mia!, which you'll be performing in repertory with Pride and Prejudice throughout the month of August.
Berg: One of my colleagues walked by my dressing room and said, "Can you believe that we get to do this?" We had just come off stage from singing the ABBA megamix at the curtain call of Mamma Mia! And then the very next day, we're doing Jane Austen.
How are you holding up in the heat?
Berg: Most of us are half-naked in Mamma Mia! Pride and Prejudice actually requires a number of the women to wear tights, corsets, ball gowns and then [a] dress on top of all that. Plus, we're wearing wigs.
Steen: One of our company members, Jon Dyrud, alternated the role of Hamlet last summer with Laura. And he would have his costume put into a freezer for at least 30 minutes prior to a show. Of course, we have ice packs to strap to our lower backs and gallons of water backstage.
Berg: It's mostly about hydration. You've got to drink plenty of water through the day and eat enough food, which is difficult because the heat can take your appetite away. And if you come to Pride and Prejudice, you'll no doubt see me with handkerchiefs wiping my brow. I think I leave the stage on only two occasions during the show.
I know this is hard work, but are you having fun?
Berg: So many women have read Pride and Prejudice and identify with Elizabeth Bennet. This is a pretty special time for me. I get up in the morning and say to myself, "I get to be Elizabeth Bennet today."