Ellie Chamberlain Galidas, founder of outdoor Shakespeare series, dies at 91


Ellie Chamberlain poses for a portrait on March 22, 1961 in Washington, D.C. Chamberlain was the founder and director of Washington’s Shakespeare Summer Festival. (The Washington Post)
July 6, 2013

New in town in the summer of 1959, Ellie Chamberlain Galidas wanted a career in theater. She took a giant step toward that goal with her starring role as Lady Teazle in a Little Theatre of Alexandria production of “The School for Scandal,” performed outdoors in the cobblestone courtyard of the historic Gadsby’s Tavern.

It seemed like an ideal setting for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy, but there was one drawback the author never could have anticipated: Gadsby’s was directly under the flight path of Washington National Airport, and the roar of aircraft engines drowned out the actors’ lines.

Someone devised a plan: When planes flew overhead, everything stopped on stage, lines in mid-sentence, movement in mid-step. The actors turned their backs to the audience. When the noise of the engines subsided, they whirled 180 degrees, faced the audience and picked up exactly where they left off.

The imperfect solution did not deter Ms. Chamberlain — as she was known professionally — from her theatrical aspirations.

Before coming to Washington, she had studied in New York under theater producer Joseph Papp, and she was determined to bring to the national capital a free series of Shakespeare productions modeled after those Papp did in New York’s Central Park.

For more than two decades as the chief executive, artistic director and primary fundraiser of the Washington Summer Shakespeare Festival, Ms. Chamberlain produced free outdoor performances of Shakespeare plays at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument. From 1961 through 1982, she oversaw productions of such plays as “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor. The productions ran for periods up to three weeks.

On summer nights in those years, thousands of spectators brought blankets and picnic baskets to the monument grounds, where they sat on benches or stretched out on the grass to savor the antics of Puck, Sir John Falstaff, Toby Belch, Olivia, Petruchio, Oberon, Titania, Pyramus and Thisbe.

For its 22nd and last season — having lost much of its support from the National Park Service — the festival moved its performances to the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.

Ms. Chamberlain died of complications from bronchitis May 21 at the Methodist Home of the District of Columbia. She was 91. She lived in Washington.

Ariadne Henry, her friend and executor, confirmed her death.

‘Infectious good spirits’

Ms. Chamberlain’s outdoor Shakespeare productions began as makeshift operations in staging and casting, relying heavily on volunteer contributions of equipment and services from individuals, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Park Service. But within a few years, the festival attracted professional actors and directors. Funding came from government grants and foundation gifts.

If the shows did not regularly draw rave reviews, they could usually count on a modicum of respect and admiration from the critics. Typical was this 1980 Washington Post review: “If the production is not elegant and the performances not always that polished, this year’s ‘Midsummer’ more than makes up for this with its energy and infectious good spirits. The young people have fun doing Shakespeare and they make it fun for the audience.”

In the summer of 1975, a young and unknown actress named Glenn Close, a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary, delighted audiences with her performance as Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew.”

In its early years, the Washington Shakespeare Summer Festival operated in an age of theatrical scarcity in Washington. Arena Stage was the only resident professional theater company in town, and Catholic University had the city’s only degree-granting drama school. Broadway productions had short-lived tryouts at the National Theatre, and small companies of amateur thespians tried their hands at community theaters in the suburbs.

With her husband, Panos Galidas, whom she married in 1956, Ms. Chamberlain moved to Washington in 1958 from New York, where she was born Nov. 18, 1921. She graduated from Hunter College in 1944 and received a master’s degree in drama and speech at New York University in 1955. She had a few small roles in Papp’s productions.

A strong vision

Ms. Chamberlain had strong feelings about Shakespeare’s works and staunchly held opinions about how they should be produced.

“She had a feel for how Shakespeare should be spoken,” said Norman Brown, a former president of the festival’s board. “She felt his lines should be heard as conversation, not as a recitations of poetry.”

The best available site for outdoor Shakespeare in Washington was a wooden platform on the grounds of the Washington Monument, known as the Sylvan Theatre. Ms. Chamberlain sought permission from the Park Service and other support from the D.C. parks department. Her first production, “Twelfth Night,” drew an audience of 4,000 in the summer of 1961, according to the Park Service.

Over the years, the performances increased in popularity, and by the late 1970s the Park Service was pushing to expand Shakespeare productions at other sites. With a truck fitted with a stage and a costume closet, the festival traveled around the region for one- and two-night Shakespeare stands.

In the early 1980s, according to Janet Brown, a friend of Ms. Chamberlain’s, the Park Service became less supportive of the Shakespeare productions. They were moved to Rockville in 1982, and by the next year there was no free Shakespeare in the park.

In subsequent years, there were outdoor Shakespeare performances at Carter Barron Amphitheater and other venues, but the Washington Summer Shakespeare Festival, as Ms. Chamberlain had conceived it, effectively ceased to exist.

Galidas died in 1989. He and Ms. Chamberlain had no children, and she leaves no immediate survivors.

After 1983, she directed occasional dramatic productions around the area, and she was a mentor and teacher for aspiring actors.

“But it was never the same for her,” said Janet Brown. “Those 22 years were her life.”