Perspectives on Outdoor Theater: Doug
“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: Doug Scholz-Carlson, GRSF Artistic Director
Every time the temperature gets over 90 and humid or a major thunderstorm passes over right at curtain time, I am thankful that the founders of this festival decided to perform indoors. And every time we are enjoying a beautiful summer evening on the green and have to go inside to see the play, I think back to how much I enjoyed certain nights when I was an actor performing outdoors at the Utah Shakespeare Festival or with Shakespeare in the Parks in Minneapolis. Performing outdoors is lovely when it’s lovely and terrible when it’s not.
Shakespeare’s company performed outdoors at the Globe Theater. In that space and at that time, the walls of the theater must have been sufficient to cut out the noise of the outside world and focus the vocal energy so that performers could deliver language with subtlety. Given audiences of today, it is often the case in outdoor venues that the main focus for the actors has to be on delivering the language loudly enough for everyone to hear or using artificial amplification which diminishes the human connection between actor and audience. I am grateful that our venue at Winona State University is acoustically live enough that our company can use a wide range in vocal projection to deliver the text with subtlety and variety.
There is some evidence that the plays themselves changed when Shakespeare’s company started performing indoors at the Blackfriars Theater. Performances may have become longer which allows greater character development and deeper exploration of the themes of the plays, and the language itself became more complex in later plays. Not all of that had to do with being indoors: the whole audience could sit, Shakespeare was growing as a playwright, and higher ticket prices limited the audience to the more educated (to name just a few other factors). Nonetheless, the actors must have found they could use silence and a greater range of vocal expression in the smaller indoor space, and I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare didn’t respond to that in his writing.
I’d love to try an outdoor performance someday with this company just as we have tried performing in bars. However, I am happy to have our core offerings out of the sun, the wind, the rain and the mosquitoes.
Read other perspectives on this issue (click a name to read their response):