Applauding the outdoor theatre

Outdoor productions open doors to new artistic challenges and their inventiveness can create an intimate, informal atmosphere, amazing stage sets and the opportunity for picnics. There is a sense of family and community. Perhaps the audience may take their fold-up chair, or move the one’s provided around, creating their own higgledy-piggledy outdoor auditorium.

Venues in Europe can be stunning and excellent backdrops to the performances: old castles, ruined abbeys, stately homes, beautiful gardens. So often the venues add to the atmosphere and sense of occasion for the audiences. Take the amazing backdrop to the Mimack theatre in South-West Cornwall. Carrying on the tradition of the Greek or Roman amphitheatre, set on a rugged cliff overlooking the ocean, the venue is magical enough before the performance has even begun.

These backdrops offer a great opportunity for the creativity and innovation of the set designers to find expression. Or perhaps a troop decide to keep the scenery to a minimum and let the backdrop speak for itself. Macbeth with a ruined abbey as a backdrop definitely adds to the sense of drama. A stary night adding to the sinister nature here, or the intimate magic there.

Often the audiences can wander around the grounds of the venue before the play starts and during the interval, which can add gravitas to the occasion. It can feel like a private visit, with a play put on especially for you!

To have the old stone wall of an abbey glowing in the evening sun behind the actors is beautiful. The stage is lit up by the natural lowering sunlight. However, once the sun does dip it usually gets chilly, so a well-prepared audience takes along warm clothing, waterproofs and perhaps a hot toddy in a thermos. Rain or wind can add to the experience as most professional actors can adapt, implying they need the wind for the story, or making humour out of the fact that it’s raining during the stories sunny day! The actors can thus engage and include the audience in ways that are not so accessible in an indoor venue.

Unlike some parts of Australia, in northern and western Europe the weather is very unpredictable and it can rain on your parade, or performance, and a group of performers can end up playing to empty deck chairs. Chepstow Castle in Wales is one of the earliest stone built castles in Britain. Dating back to 1067 it’s a brilliantly atmospheric venue for open-air theatre. But all too often rain provided a wet blanket (pun intended), so a local team erected a large, high tent-like cover. Now the audience no longer needs to take along umbrellas, but they don’t have their sense of being outdoors taken away.

Then there is the risk of nature getting in on the act. As the evening moves on and the play gets underway, and the audience engages so pigeons, gulls and other birds often engage as well. They call to each other and fly overhead, perhaps checking for picnic remains. Gulls, in particular, can be noisy and invasive, but usually, the wildlife adds to the occasion – making further unscripted additions to the story! This can again call upon the improvisation and skill of the actors, such as one performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” in Glastonbury Abbey – when two ducks waddled towards the “stage” not noticing they had stolen the limelight. The actors included them in the play to great hilarity. A unique performance no one will forget.

Outdoor theatre offers an ease for audience participation. A woman from the audience whispers in one of the performers ear during a break. An American boy on holiday in Britain gets singled out in the second half to become the fifth musketeer galloping in front of the stage for five minutes.

That was an impromptu moment with Illyria Open-Air Touring Theatre. When Illyria started their open-air tours, almost 30 years ago, they put on almost exclusively Shakespearian plays. Today they tour throughout the UK, parts of mainland Europe, the United States and Canada. They claim to have given more performances to people across a wider area than any other touring theatre company. Not just Shakespeare, but many classics find their way into their repertoire today, from plucking out the humour of Jane Austin to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Another bonus comes if you wait with folding up your chair and take another glass of wine. You might just be rewarded by seeing the cast in “mufti” as they help dismantle the stage and props. It makes it all very human. Outdoor performers often work hard – arriving, setting up the stage and props, selling programmes, mingling with the audience, doing the performance, dismantling stage & props then driving onto the next venue. Actors need to constantly think on their feet, perform several characters (usually), rush about and improvise. They need to project their voices over the hubbub of life going on around them and oftentimes spin on a sixpence with the unknown aspect of that event. Yet they exude energy and enthusiasm, and their performances are usually full of high energy and are dynamic. This can be captivating for the audience as they see the person behind the character and appreciate the acting all the more. The expertise of the actors is impossible to ignore from that close-up. But it’s not every actor’s cup of tea, as it demands a different type of virtuosity than only acting.

There is, therefore, an intimacy, because the actors are right there, the stage is small and temporary. Almost like a conspiracy between performers and the audience, as all enter a magical spot in the special venue together and enjoy a stolen few hours together. And it’s a live performance, where anything can happen – wind, rain, ducks, even an excited child, as performers and audience fuse.

So there are pros and cons to outdoor theatre for both the performer and the audience. But perhaps one last pro for now; in a time of social distancing what better way to enjoy theatre, find work for the struggling business or actor, and adhere to social distancing?

Sarah Johnson

Sarah is a British born Communication and Media Graduate from the University of Leeds. Sarah has written for a number of publications and has an avid interest in theatre and the arts in general.

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