By Melissa Mitchell
The Illinois Repertory Theater is dishing up yet another hot summer season combining mystery and romance with an ample portion of comic relief. And as always, the series has a distinctly British flavor.
The English accent is a reflection of the personal and professional experiences shared by Summerfest artistic director David Knight and his longtime collaborator, wife Wendy McClure Knight. Together, the unofficial First Couple of Theater at UI for two decades has played a major role in shaping the series, which was resurrected at the request of former Provost Robert Berdahl in 1990 after several years of dormancy.
Each summer, three plays have been performed in rotation at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater by the repertory company, which includes mostly UI students. And for the past seven seasons, both Knights have been in the directors' chairs, along with another theater faculty member. Given the Knights' background he was a star of stage, film and television in England for two decades; she's a Scottish-born performer with a background in ballet and movement IRT's summer season has typically featured popular fare by some of Great Britain's best-loved playwrights. Notable among them is Alan Ayckbourn, a personal favorite of Wendy Knight.
This year's selections include Ayckbourn's "Bedroom Farce," directed by Wendy Knight; Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap," directed by David Knight; and "Sylvia" by A.R. Gurney, directed by theater professor Nancy Hovasse. (For dates and times of productions, see calendar above.)
David Knight, head of the UI's professional acting program since 1976, said Summerfest '97's program was designed to fit a formula that has been "extremely successful" since the series was reinvented. "The idea was that we would present two comedies and a thriller, and that they'd be good no junk." Beyond that, he said, the key to the series' success has always been "light summer fare, where there is air conditioning in the building and food is available."
In most respects, the '97 season is quite typical. However, behind the scenes and between the lines projected by the actors, a sub-plot is unfolding: This is the Knights' final run. When the curtain falls on Summerfest, the Knights will take their final bows and exit stage West.
After a 21-year partnership at the UI, they are retiring in August. Their immediate plans include setting up permanent residence in their condo near Boulder, Colo. The move will place them at a point equidistant between their two children: Moyra, who lives in Chicago, and Eugene, in San Francisco.
In the spring, the pair plans to travel to England for an extended visit with friends and relatives. After that, Wendy Knight hopes to write a book documenting her research on the dances that appear in works by William Shakespeare. In his new-found free time, David Knight said he "would love to do some acting," and "wouldn't sneer at an invitation" to come back to Illinois in the future as a guest director.
Looking back on his career at Illinois, which included 10 years as head of the theater department, David Knight said one of the accomplishments he is most proud of is the success of the graduate program in acting. The program, which he started and nurtured through the years, ranked among the top 20 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report's 1997 survey of schools.
Wendy Knight added that they are both proud of the department's ability to attract "top-notch" minority students and faculty. "They have brought strength, humor and talent to the department, and to see them grow has been wonderful." In addition, she said, having a diverse talent pool "has been so enriching for all students, because we have had to examine the history and the literature in ways we would not have done otherwise."
Besides the accomplishments and the memories, the Knights will leave
behind an additional legacy. The theater department has established the
David and Wendy McClure Knight Scholarship Fund, which, the Knights said,
will support a student "who shows promise in theater." Proceeds
from the Aug. 1, 2 and 3 Summerfest performances will be donated to the