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November 30, 2004


By Peter Royston

“Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'

    - from AS YOU LIKE IT, by William Shakespeare

With the holidays coming and the chilling promise of snow in the air, it's a perfect time to think back on the summer past, to hot and steamy nights, sudden squalls, picnics in the park, and theatre under the stars. With 2.5 million people seeing outdoor theatre every year, Equity News asked the actors, stage managers and directors of many outdoor theatres who work under Equity contracts to talk about the challenges and joys of producing theatre under the open sky.

“The joys?! Are you on crack?” quips Marion Waggoner, Producer and Artistic director of Tecumseh in Chillicothe, Ohio, “There are no joys in running and maintaining an outdoor theatre! There is only pain, suffering and much misery. But wait... then why have I been doing it for nearly 35 years?” For Waggoner, outdoor theatre is a trip back in time to the source of all entertainment: “It is so much kin to Greek Theatre, that I feel a real connection to the genesis of our profession. It's all about moving the masses; changing their way of thinking about the world around them. And what better way to achieve this than taking them to the source?”

“There’s a feeling in the audience as if it were 400 years ago,” says Lue Douthit, Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Not that we do everything in a traditional way, but there’s something very special about being outside, knowing that these plays were done outside the first time they were produced. Our audiences will sit through the rain – they don’t care! There’s something thrilling about that because those performances would have gone on like that in the rain in London, too!”

A night at the MUNY Theatre in St. Louis

For most creators of outdoor theatre, the greatest joy is the feeling of community that seems to always be a part of producing theatre alfresco. When asked why audiences are attracted to outdoor theatre, Laura Peters Reilly, Director of Marketing at the MUNY in St. Louis says, “Like Tevye, ‘THAT I can tell you in one word: Tradition!’ In St. Louis, ‘The Muny’ has become synonymous with ‘summer.’ We have families who can trace their season tickets back to 1919—the first summer during which The Muny was incorporated. It’s where a lot of St. Louisans saw their very first show.”

The Adams Shakespearean Theatre, Utah.

Indeed, Fred C. Adams, Founder and Executive Producer for the Utah Shakespearean Festival notes that “Evenings feel almost like reunions as the long timers return year after year.” Kathy Brombacher, Artistic Director and Founder of Moonlight Stage Productions which performs a summer season of 4 Broadway-style musicals in Vista, California says, “People…embrace the sense of community in the outdoors…” Doug Mancheski, an actor from the American Folklore Theatre in Door County, Wisconsin laughs: “Outdoor theatre takes the stuffy aspect of theatre out the window.” For Bob Rohlf, President and Executive Producer of the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, “Knowing that what we do generates conversation and communication within families is wonderful. Parents talking to kids, and kids talking to parents!! Often, our performances are young people's first live theatre experience.”

The Old Globe’s outdoor venue for the Summer Shakespeare Festival. Pictured: Audience enjoying a production of TWELTH NIGHT. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

For many, outdoor theatre has become a summer ritual. “In this country,” says Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, “there is a great tradition of outdoor summer theatre…you grow up going to the beach, reading a paperback, or seeing Shakespeare in the park.”

The bond between audience and actors is somehow stronger in outdoor theatre. Joyce Porter, President of the Board of Directors for the Oak Park Festival in Illinois relates, “During the final performance of HAMLET, the last act was rained out and the cast and audience, not wanting to miss the end, moved to the parking garage across the street and finished it there.”

Pictured (left to rt): Sara Bruner (Rosalind), Tom Ford (Touchstone) & Carie Yonekawa (Celia) in AS YOU LIKE IT at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Photo Credit: Capitol Photography

Peter Dean, Production Stage Manager at the Commonwealth Shakespeare in Boston sees audience members coming to the theatre “as early as five hours before curtain to get a good seat and begin picnicking. A theatre tailgate, if you will.” For Mark Hofflund, the Managing Director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, “The play is only a part of the whole event. There is always a larger sense of ‘party’ going on; always a more festive atmosphere; always a lot more people-watching -- both onstage and off -- in an outdoor theater.” And speaking of a festive atmosphere, Brenda DeVita, Associate Artistic Director at the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin relates: “The stories we’re fondest of are about the many marriage proposals that have occurred before, during and after performances, or the stories of kids who have become Shakespeare fans as a result of seeing shows at APT.” The same kids who are the “results” of the marriage proposals, perhaps?

Of course, so many families are able to experience theatre in these venues because of the ticket price, or lack of it. Sidonie Garrett, Producing Artistic Director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Kansas City, Missouri says, “It's a great joy to see the diverse audience we get…to see whole families coming together, including all the kids, because we do FREE theatre for all ages. Which means they can afford to bring the WHOLE family. It's a thrill to see so many high school and college students who come back to see the show more than once because they really LIKE it and because they can afford it.”

Jonathan Moscone, Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater sums it up: “It is, in essence, a populist experience, which theater rarely is. The work on stage is high quality, but the ease with which people can experience it makes our theater special.”

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Theater at Lime Kiln, Lexington, VA

Outdoor theatre’s greatest asset (and as we’ll see, its greatest challenge), is its setting and the opportunity to paint with a larger brush, to work on a grander scale. John Healey, Artistic Director of Theatre at Lime Kiln in Lexington, Virginia says, “The ability to hear the night sounds and sit under the stars only enhances” the experience, and for Robert Townsend, Producing Director for the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, “The opportunity to exploit our outdoor setting is something we could never do on an indoor stage.” Jonno Roberts and Georgia Hatzis, husband and wife actors who played Beatrice and Benedick this past summer at the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in Boston say, “ The most beautiful theatre cannot rival a mediocre sunset.” Lue Doughit calls the outdoors “the original Environmental Theatre,” and Laura Peters Reilly remarks, “There are ‘special effects’ possible in an outdoor theatre that no theatre on Broadway could ever duplicate. For example, when we produced MISS SAIGON, we were able to have a real helicopter fly over the audience. During South Pacific, a vintage B-25 made its nightly appearance on-cue...”

Bert Garskof, Executive Producer for Bridgeport Free Shakespeare says that nothing beats “the Bard's works in a park, under beautiful trees, with stage lighting that, as darkness falls makes the tops of the trees into a kind of celestial cathedral.” Or as Sidonie Garrett says: “There is no other proscenium like the night sky.”

Ellen Geer, Artistic Director for the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California puts it clearly: “We need nature more and more as our society squeezes out natural settings. Our bodies need it, our minds need it, our souls need it…Imagination is freer outdoors.”

It’s not only the pristine setting that can add to outdoor theatre’s magic, but interaction with the forces, and creatures, of nature, whether it is, as Brenda DeVita relates, “a real storm starting up during the KING LEAR storm scene, or a family of bats joining the witches during MACBETH.” Marcus Cato, Managing Director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz proudly declares “I think we are the only festival that has a warning in its company handbook on what to do if you encounter a mountain lion!”

One of the joys, and challenges, of the setting for Bridgeport Free Shakespeare is its proximity to the Beardsley Zoo with its free- ranging peacocks. Bert Garskof remembers a production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM when a very dramatic peacock “started squawking during a Titania scene in our tree house bower. She changed her line – ‘and some keep back the clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders at our quaint spirits’ to ‘and some keep back the clamorous and squawking peacock’---to the great enjoyment of our audience.”

Calvin MacLean, Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival remembers, “One night…a bird flew directly into the blades of a turning ceiling fan on the periphery of our audience space. The dove dropped like a stone, the audience groaned and the performance stopped. Fortunately, the bird immediately recovered, flew out of the theatre, prompting cheers and applause.” Talk about outdoor drama!

Sometimes interaction with nature comes not from the surroundings, but from the audience itself. Fred C. Adams recalls “One sold out evening our hostesses noticed that a lady sitting on the front row of the first gallery had brought a large white rabbit (live) in her purse and now had the animal sitting on her lap. When approached by the house manager, who informed her that animals were not allowed in the theatre, she indignantly replied, ‘this happens to be my 'seeing eye' rabbit!’”

Marion Waggoner, whose company must care for a herd of horses that are part of the show, remembers a little old lady asking the box office manager, “Are the horses in the show real?” The Manager, who had heard this question hundreds of times, replied in a very polite and professional manner, “No Ma’am, we get them from Disney."

Peter Fitzkee, an actor in the show BLUE JACKET, which plays in Xenia, Ohio, says, “there are times when you have been working all night in the rain and the audience has been sitting there in their ponchos holding their umbrellas getting soaked and you get to the final speech the one that sums up the hopes and dreams of these people who are no longer here and no one moves a muscle they are sitting on the edges of their seats, drenched, and you get a sense of how powerful this story can be. Then there are also the instances when a flash of lightning, or beautiful rising new moon reinforces what's going on in the story. I look at that kind of thing as a gift from the universe and maybe a clue that we're doing things the right way.”

Native St. Louisan and Muny veteran Mary Wickes said that outdoor theatre is “as close to heaven as some of us will get!” And speaking of Heaven, Ellen Geer remembers a particularly heart-stopping conclusion to a production of OUR TOWN when “an owl flying onto the stage during Emily’s coming back to see her family after she’d died…everyone stopped and held their breath as this beautiful bird looked right, then left, then sped away…”

Of course, as Marion Waggoner says, “The very thing that makes outdoor drama unique is also its Achilles heel; it's outside!” An outdoor theatre artist must become part shaman, part meteorologist as the summer approaches. For Waggoner, each season begins with frantic questions: “How much will it rain this summer? At what time during the day will it rain? How hot will it get? How cold will it get? How many absolutely perfect, clear, 75-degree daytime/68-degree evening days will you have? Will there be swarms of cicadas? How bad will the mosquitoes be in August? Will they carry the West Nile Virus? Will the TV stations in the area create 'high drama' surrounding that large evil looking cloud over in the next state? It could kill you, you know! My God,'s a tornado!!!”

Sidonie Garrett says that “during production season our entire production management team is glued to the Weather Channel for continual daily updates,” but Steve Cardamone, Artistic Director for the Nashville Shakespeare Festival relies on a more old-fashioned form of weather forecasting: “I have never worried nor prayed to the heavens so much that it not rain.” Jonno Roberts and Georgia Hatzis remember, “This summer on the Common we had a couple of evenings where performances were held halfway through for 15 or so minutes due to drizzle. Each suspension in the performance was met with boos, each resumption with loud cheers. What better demonstration to a cast that the audience is on our side?” Doug Mancheski ruefully recalls, “The silly irony of talking or singing about a beautiful sunset, when it's cold and dank and drizzling rain is patting your face. Ah, only in the outdoors!”

Kevin McKilip as Puck, First Folio Shakespeare Festival. Photo by D. Rice.

Being an outdoor theatre artist can convince you of global warming’s reality. Frustratingly, the main concern this past summer for David Rice, Managing Director for the First Folio Shakespeare Festival, was not heat or rain, but the cold: “We had to battle…the coldest July/August in almost 100 years. Canceling two performances in mid-August because temperatures were going to be in the 40's was not something I had ever anticipated doing,” and Joyce Porter says, “In the past decade, we have endured the hottest, wettest and coldest summers of our lifetimes.”

For David Dreyfoos, Producing Director the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the biggest challenge nature presents is programming: “You have to construct a season outside. You want to construct a season where you’re filling the seats, but we can’t continually do AS YOU LIKE IT, MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR…for us, it’s about balance and choice…we’ve done our own adaptation of THREE MUSKETEERS, next year we’re doing DR. FAUSTUS, the following year we’re looking at CYRANO. Something that’s swashbuckling, larger than life.”

The elements can even change history. Mark Hofflund recalls one summer’s production of JULIUS CAESAR, and the scene in which Caesar’s wife tries to convince her husband to not go to the Senate and, usually, fails: “As the stage manager gave in to a growing downpour, and announced that the scene would halt, Calpurnia took Caesar by the arm, waved back the audience and smilingly led him safely away. That night, the course of history was changed, as a lengthy squall crossed the southern desert of Idaho, the Roman Senate never convened, and Calpurnia finally got her way.”

With rain and humidity comes BUGS. Working outdoors has a tendency to change many an actor’s diet. Actor Robert Goulet recalls working at the Muny and “those adorable moths and butterflies that took unerring dives into the open mouths of a baritone singing a high note.” Kathy Brombacher relates, “In our first MY FAIR LADY Professor Higgins had to show Eliza that the chocolates that he was using for a reward were good, so he ate half of one; unbeknownst to Higgins, ants had infested the chocolates, so he had no choice but to ingest the ant-filled chocolate. His language was very colorful when he finally got offstage!”

John Rensenhouse (Caesar) and Melinda McCrary (Calpurnia) in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival 2004 production of JULIUS CAESAR. Photo by: Doug Hamer.

Of course, the outdoor distractions are not always natural. Sidonie Garrett relates a story straight out of the TV show COPS: “Our park venue is located in the middle of Kansas City, and off one very busy street. In the second year of the Festival during a performance of A MIDSUMMERS NIGHT'S DREAM a car crashed through two sets of barricades with a couple of police cars in full pursuit with sirens and lights.” When the Nashville Shakespeare Festival produced THE COMEDY OF ERRORS this past summer, Steve Cardamone remembers, “As our Antipholus asked for ‘some blessed power to deliver (him) from hence,’ a helicopter flew overhead. He fell down and worshipped it.”

Actors working in outdoor theatre must balance the joys of creating epic classical plays or musicals for large audiences with challenges that often go beyond simply snacking on bugs. How do they deal with it? Ellen Geer answers, “With all their energy and resources as an artist. Vocally, physically, mentally it is a huge challenge outdoors…it is not for the weak of heart! But when all is in place, it is like skiing down a hill and a huge high of delight that can’t be compared to indoor theatre.”

Jonno Roberts and Georgia Hatzis say, “We get audiences that according to some estimates reach 10,000 people. Trying to telegraph anything subtle to someone watching from almost 300 feet away is an acting challenge that is not always easy to negotiate. Go big or go home.”

Marion Waggoner lays it on the table: “The physical and mental demands of performing in an outdoor drama are incredible. I'm not suggesting that it is THE most difficult form of theatre to perform, but it is certainly near the top. You need to be a combination actor/athlete in order to come through the experience in good shape…” For her unique show, actors “may be riding horses; bareback! You may be loading and firing live primitive black powder weapons. You may be loading and firing cannon.”

The terrible heat can be traumatic for actors, especially playing Shakespeare. Peter Dean remembers this past summer when “most of the men were wearing wool jackets and leather pants. During one Saturday afternoon, the temperature reached a scorching 97 degrees. We cut almost twelve minutes off our regular run time. I attribute this to the air conditioned dressing trailers located a few feet away from the stage.”

Lack of rehearsal time is also a challenge. Robert Townsend says, “Because of rain, two of our four productions (we do only one each year) have opened to the audience without benefit of tech rehearsals or previews. Both went well!” Many of the challenges, Townsend believes, are forgotten when actors discover ”the fact that there are people as far as the eye can see” in the audience.

Just as the audience feels a sense of unity at outdoor theatre, so the acting company can grow into a family. The actors Jon Moscone works with make the outdoor theatre “their home rather than a place to work…They try to create a sense of community among themselves and the crew because like the audience, they don’t just show up for the show – they spend time there before and after the show, being in nature, being with their colleagues.” David Rice says, “At First Folio, we strive to make working at our theater a bit like being a part of a family. We organize games and events (barbecues, bowling nights, etc.) to help increase the sense of community within the cast. Many of our actors are cast in both summer productions, so they work with us for about four months.”

The Company in Moonlight Stage Productions’ KISS ME, KATE in the Moonlight Amphitheatre August 4-15, 2004. Photo by Ken Jacques Photography.

Kathy Brombacher says “Actors deal with stresses and joys of working in an outdoor theatre in amazing ways: they put up with hot and cold nights; all kinds of humidity, dust, insects and light...If the audiences are appreciative, it goes a long way to loving this outdoor performing experience…” Peter Dean asks, “Where else could an actor play in front of almost 100,000 people in a two month run?”

The audiences are appreciative. Again and again, outdoor theatre creators speak of what Brenda DeVita calls “a natural calming effect” that comes over audiences when they are outside, and David Rice says “Between the communing with nature and the communing with Shakespeare, many of my customers have commented on how relaxed and revived they feel when leaving a show, even one as intense as HAMLET." David Dreyfoos says, “It’s very spiritual. There’s a freeing, wonderful experience to be outside.” This spiritual serenity is not limited to audience members. Darko Tresnjak observes that during tech rehearsal, “when I get irritated about something, I take a look at the sunset or the stars. Ten minutes later, I’ll go back to feeling like the most privileged man on earth.” Or as Ellen Geer imparts, “Nature calms everything.”

Although outdoor theatre is an international phenomenon, there’s something uniquely American about seeing these larger than life plays and musicals on such a grand scale under a big sky. Marion Waggoner says, “the American public thrives on this aspect of our culture,” and Scott Parker, Director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama writes that outdoor productions must be big enough to match American dreams: “These audiences are Americans extroverted enough to send men to the moon, and the plays written for them had better meet them on their own ground. These people want to see big problems met, not discussed.”

Perhaps it’s the democratic qualities of the outdoor theatre experience that attract us. Sidonie Garrett says “Outdoor theatre is a great leveler…everyone is in their shorts and t-shirts and it doesn't matter how much theatre you've seen, or whether you're in the loge, or orchestra seating.” In the end, though, as says, it all comes down to the work: “As Shakespeare said, ‘the play's the thing.’ If it's a good show, most people will see it anywhere, even if they have to brave the outdoors, hard benches and legions of mosquitoes.”

Peter Royston wrote the special Equity Timeline/History for last year’s 90th Anniversary, and has also written about this year’s gala at the Actor’s Club and Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre for Equity News.

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