There is formidable girl power happening at Lincoln Park Classic Theatre in Rock Island.
For the first time in the 66-year history of the unique nonprofit, Genesius Guild, a woman is running the show. The first play in the summer season of free theater in the park — Shakespeare’s immortal “Romeo and Juliet” — is directed by a woman, and nearly the entire cast is comprised of female actors.
A new production of “Romeo” (featuring nearly all local high school students) opened at Lincoln Park (1120 40th St.) this past weekend, under the direction of Kitty Israel, and leadership of new executive director Isabel Dawson, 24, who graduated just two years ago from Augustana College.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with Isabel this season,” Israel said recently. “In addition to serving as executive director, she is also the producer for our shows this year. I think the thing that’s impressed me the most is that she knows how to delegate, but she’s also willing to get her hands dirty and help out when she’s needed.
“She was out in the heat helping paint and build the stage. She’s the props manager for Romeo and Juliet, and she’s filled in as a stage manager if someone has to be gone,” she said. “Whenever she comes to rehearsal, she never leaves without asking, ‘Is there anything you need from me?'”
Doug Tschopp — director of Augie’s Entrepreneurial Center — was Genesius executive director for 15 years, has been involved in the nonprofit for 26 years, and worked closely with Dawson at Augie, where she majored in theater and business management.
“I just knew her skillset was super strong, her interest in local theater,” he said of Dawson’s fit for Genesius Guild, appointing her his assistant in 2021. “With COVID and everything – at some point, it would be time for me to step back anyway. I didn’t know how active I was able to be.”
For Tschopp’s public relations class at Augie, Dawson assembled a 99-page plan for Q-C theaters to cooperate, called the QC Performing Arts Collective. The idea for a cooperative organization was like Quad City Presenters, which Genesius founder Don Wooten originally formed 50 years ago, but she didn’t know about.
“She developed the full business plan — she’s all about her research and knowledge,” Tschopp said. He was also immensely impressed when Dawson alone won the $4,500 first prize in the Augustana Business Plan Competition, for inventing a new bra for women with unevenly shaped or sized breasts.
Since last fall, she’s providing valuable support in a new way, when the Genesius Guild board approved her as executive director, which is a paid position.
Dawson was nervous to come into the role, as Tschopp wanted someone with a business expertise to take on the position, she said recently.
“I think Doug knew I had the business/theater balance, but a lot of people saw a young outsider being brought in,” Dawson said. “I can respect that. I’m here to keep things moving.”
From Bloomington-Normal to QC
She has done theater her whole life, and loves the collaborative aspects.
“I’ve done a lot of different roles – been on stage, backstage, I’ve stage managed, I’ve done props, I helped build sets,” Dawson said. “I’ve had a nice well-rounded background.”
She went to high school in Normal, Ill., where she took part in 11 theater productions (on and off stage). When she was 16, her high school theater got to travel to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, over two weeks, and performed John Patrick Shanley plays.
She directed last summer’s “Shakespeare’s Life and Works” during the abridged three-show season at Genesius. Dawson said directing is not her favorite.
“It’s just a very unique position within the theater – not only are you a mentor, but not dictating, also staging,” she said. “I like stage managing much more than directing, but that’s why directors are so valuable.”
A stage manager makes sure all the technical aspects of a show work, and director’s notes are communicated to everyone. The stage manager often will run sound or lights during a show, Dawson said.
She graduated from Augustana in 2020, majoring in theater and business management, with minors in nonprofit leadership and entrepreneurship. She wasn’t involved with Genesius Guild over her summers during college – the only summer she was here, in 2018, Dawson interned for Mississippi Bend Players, the professional summer stock at Augie.
That year, she was the staff stage manager for the three shows. “It was a fun summer and I was honored by the responsibility,” Dawson said.
Dawson got involved in nonprofits in high school (Bloomington-Normal), when she was in a “youth engaged in philanthropy” program very similar to the Teens for Tomorrow of the QC Community Foundation. High schoolers learned about local nonprofit and then decided how to award grants.
Scaling back in 2021
The Shakespeare’s Life and Works last year was one of the old scripts from Genesius founder Don Wooten, which featured brief excerpts from the Bard’s plays with a cast of six.
Last summer, they did a new adaptation of “Measure for Measure,” which Dawson was able to secure for no royalties – the abridged adaptation was by Kevin Rich, who she knew from Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
Last summer, the Genesius shows started at 7 p.m. instead of 8 (which continues this summer), and all the shows were under 90 minutes. That eliminated the need for stage lights.
“It made it safer for our tech team not to have to put up and take down lights every night,” Dawson said.
Last year, Tschopp was having some mobility issues and he asked her to be assistant executive director and be his “eyes and ears” in the park, planning to have her take over this year.
“I jumped in with both feet, was there every night making sure things were running smoothly,” Dawson said. “I learned a lot as I went along, too.”
As executive director, she doesn’t have to do fundraising – which is led by Gary Rowe for Genesius, who’s been involved several years.
She was a senior when Genesius was burglarized (in fall 2019), and had to replace all the equipment — of thousands of dollars worth from its locked storage space behind the Lincoln Park Classic Theatre. The theft included 12-foot and 10-foot ladders, a cabinet full of tools, a basket full of the theater company’s wiring, lamps, a two-wheel hand truck, and 100 other tools and items.
“We had a fundraiser and many people stepped up and made it work,” Dawson said.
After last season, Tschopp recommended they swap positions, and he is working as operations director. “I’m more the face of the park,” she said.
Genesius has an artistic advisory committee, which recommended the shows and directors this summer, decided by the board. Dawson had ultimate say on the directors and production staff.
Back to a standard summer
Compared to three shorter shows last year, Genesius is back to four. The plays are a little longer, and she left it up to directors whether or not to have an intermission. “Romeo and Juliet” is just 100 minutes, with no intermission.
“It’s a perfect script to do with high schoolers,” Dawson said, noting the young lovers are supposed to be teens. “They’ve really brought a lot of good energy to it.”
“The biggest joy is to get the final result – to see the audience, the excitement, to see it all come together,” she said of Genesius. “It’s been stressful at times, but it’s a great honor to be in the role and be helping support everybody to do the best work that we can do.”
The season last year made it easier for Genesius to welcome patrons back during the pandemic, compared to many indoor theaters.
“There were some audience members who definitely felt more comfortable being an outdoor space, versus an indoor space,” Dawson said. “Clearly, there’s no cut end date to this pandemic, so it’s nice to still have that always on our side. That’s a cool part of who we’ve been throughout the ages.”
Dawson also got to be a recent guest on Wooten’s “Saturday Morning Live” show (May 7) on WVIK Quad Cities NPR.
“That was really special, because it has such a long history, and to hear his stories about founding it 66 years ago, it’s just incredible,” she said. Wooten founded Genesius when he was not much older than Dawson is now.
“It’s been a long journey to get us to where we are today,” she said, noting she’s long been a fan of Shakespeare.
“I worked at Illinois Shakespeare Festival,” Dawson said. “I loved taking Dr. Crowe’s Shakespeare class at Augustana.”
Of the prolific playwright’s works (38 plays in his 52 years), she said: “They have depth to them. The more you see ‘em, time and time again, the more you get out of them.”
The stories of both Shakespeare and the Greeks have timeless plots that speak to us today, Dawson noted.
She’s optimistic that bigger crowds will return this season, since it’s comprised of well-known titles. “Free classics in the park, it’s really a service to the community. I really believe in it,” Dawson said.
Her full-time job (since July 2020) is administrative coordinator for Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors, at its new headquarters at 5704 Utica Ridge Road, Davenport. She called it a “jack of all trades” position, as assistant to the CEO, president and office manager.
“I also run a lot of the training. I’m on the recruitment team, so I’m one of the first people that someone who applies to be an agent would hear from,” Dawson said. “I work a lot with the survey process, where we survey every single client, and I also do some marketing duties as well.”
“They’ve been very supportive of my role with Genesius,” she said, noting he company is a sponsor of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Being more inclusive
Dawson praised the entire Genesius team, including Lily Blouin, who’s serving as fight choreographer for the first time, for “Romeo and Juliet.”
The new comedy team Haus of Ruckus (TJ Green and Calvin Vo) are also joining for the first time, to direct the last Genesius show, a modern take on Aristophanes’ “The Frogs.”
“Both of them have been in Genesius in the past; they know Greek comedy,” Dawson said. “They know Genesius and they’re ready to conquer this.”
“We are so excited,” she said. “We have a great production team and it’s really going to result in strong theater.”
Of “Romeo and Juliet,” she added: “It doesn’t feel like a high school show; it just feels like a show. They’re bringing great energy to it and really bringing it to life.”
Dawson supports the many gender-flipped roles in the show, which is appropriate since in Shakespeare’s time, men played female roles all the time.
In his plays, Shakespeare often used cross-dressing characters – in fact, “drag” is a Shakespearean term, she said. It’s an acronym (DRAG) for “dressed as a girl,” Dawson said.
In Genesius’ “Romeo,” the male roles of Mercutio and Tybalt are played by girls — namely, Bella Kuta and Mae Dolan, respectively.
“I’ve been really pushing inclusivity, to make sure we’re an open and inviting environment for everyone,” Dawson said, noting she also wanted to get new directors involved this season.
The first two directors are women, including Jill Sullivan-Bennin, who’s leading “Electra.” The director of “Midsummer” will be Jeremy Mahr. “It’s nice to have a little more representation,” Dawson said.
Cast of mostly women
“I think the biggest thing audiences will notice when it comes to gender for this show is that the cast is mostly women,” Kitty Israel, the “Romeo” director, said by e-mail. “In a cast of 14, only three actors are male. So I cast the show with the idea that pretty much any role could be played by any gender. I cast the actors who I thought would be best for each part, regardless of gender.
“Then when I offered roles to each actor, we talked about how they would feel most comfortable portraying their character,” she said. “For example, in our show, Tybalt and Mercutio, both of which are traditionally male roles, are played by women. And the actors and I decided that, for our show, those characters would also be women. Mae Dolan and Bella Kuta (who play Tybalt and Mercutio, respectively) have both done a great job putting a feminine spin on the characters.”
Israel agreed it’s fitting “Romeo and Juliet” is performed by a teenaged cast since most of the characters are teens. “Even the parents in this show are very young adults,” she said. “One thing I’ve really tried to bring out in this show is the role that parental relationships (particularly Juliet’s relationship with her mother) influences so much of the plot.
“Romeo and Juliet are both caught in the awkward position of being not-quite-adults but also having to fulfill adult expectations,” Israel said. “I think that’s something that every teenager can relate to. I have LOVED working with this cast. I love working with teenagers because their enthusiasm is contagious. They’re willing to try new things, and they always bring fresh perspective to the table. I’m incredibly proud of this group.”
“Romeo and Juliet” will continue June 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. The remaining summer schedule is:
- July 2, 3, 9, 10 — Sophocles: “Electra”
- July 16, 17, 23, 24 — Shakespeare: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
- July 30, 31, Aug. 6, 7 — Aristophanes: “The Frogs”
For more information, visit the Genesius website.