Perspectives on Outdoor Theater: Aaron
“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.
Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, “Why don’t you perform outdoors?” Considering that many theaters may now be asked this question – and many may be trying to figure out how they can move outside in order to have socially-distant performances – we thought it an appropriate time to address this question. The answer is a lot bigger than you think, so we asked a few different people about it! Click the links at the bottom of the article to read other responses.
Answer by: Aaron Young, GRSF Managing Director
I began my career as a theater producer at the outdoor Sundance Summer Theatre in the mountains of Utah. The glory of the natural scenery (at the base of Mt. Timpanogos) mixed with the theatrical lighting, music, and drama cannot be matched. Even in the summer, patrons had to bring their blankets and warmest coats, and we sold hot chocolate at intermission. Three hours south, colleagues of mine opened Tuacahn Center for the Arts at the base of the red cliffs near St. George, Utah. We produced during the same months, with the major difference being that in Southern Utah, you wore as little clothing as possible, purchased ice cream at intermission, and they sold spritzing fans at the souvenir shop. Tuacahn’s big attraction at the time was a flooding machine whereby they could completely flood the stage with about 12 inches of water. It raged down the front of the apron into a drainage grate just feet away from the front row. Those were the best seats in the house!
What I remember most about summers at Sundance was praying nightly that we wouldn’t have to refund the 1200 tickets each night because of rain. It was a true test of my faith. We would perform with modified choreography in a drizzle, pause for a downpour, and stop if the radar indicated a lengthy storm. If we didn’t make it to intermission, everyone received a rain check or a refund.
When I later ran a 160-year-old Victorian Opera House, staff would complain about leaks in the old roof dripping onto the stage. I was just glad for any type of roof. At Sundance, we mostly did musicals. It was a constant liability having the actors dance on a warped (and often) wet stage surface. And, because of the changing humidity as the sun set behind the mountain, the stringed instruments would go out of tune part way through Act I. As the lights on stage become more visible, so too did the giant moths and bats who loved to use actors as target practice. And it’s tough to compete for an audience’s attention when a family of deer stroll by to see what is happening on stage.
As tough as it was to produce theater in those circumstances, the audience loved it. Families engage with outdoor theater because it is more than just a theatrical experience. It is an entire excursion. My first theater experience was seeing Tony Randall in a production of The Music Man at the outdoor theater Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. I was maybe 5 or 6. My family enjoyed a picnic on the lawn and I caught a scene or two by looking through a pair of binoculars. I can’t say that I understood much of the show, but I knew that there was a funny song and dance in a library. Years later, I had the opportunity to produce The Music Man at Sundance. The footbridge in River City was built as an arch spanning the entire stage about 15 feet above the deck. As Marian the Librarian confessed her love for Professor Harold Hill on this bridge spotlighted against the dark of nature, the music swelled as they shared their first kiss. Suddenly, the red lights at the base of the giant pine trees behind the stage lit the sky ablaze. I’ll never forget the feeling that nature, story, and art created in me with that production. Outdoor theater can best be summed up in the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
Read other perspectives on this issue (click a name to read their response):