Perspectives on Outdoor Theater: Tarah
“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: Tarah Flanagan, GRSF Co-Associate Artistic Director
In over 25 years as a professional actor, I have had only two experiences performing plays outside. Most of my knowledge concerning the joys and hazards of theatre-in-the-Great-Outdoors comes from sitting in the audience. There can be something magical about the way a play draws you in deeper as the sun sets. The imagined world becomes more focused as the real world darkens around you. The crickets and the stars come out, and one feels a heightened connection to the story and fellow audience members. One’s awareness of theatre being just a fancier convention for sitting around a campfire telling stories is so clear. Outdoor theatre can be truly magical.
However, “outdoors” is also where they keep the weather. Thunderstorms mean canceled performances. Less severe weather still requires costume and set designers to produce designs that can withstand water. Stage-fights and dances need to be changed or slowed or removed if the stage becomes slippery. Actors wearing layers of synthetic water resistant clothing and wigs must have ice packs built into their costumes. Lighting designers must design for sunsets that will happen later and later and then earlier and earlier as the summer progresses. Animals also seem to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitoes are one obvious annoyance. I believe at APT (American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI), any actor who “dies” on stage must have another actor stationed near them to flick away any mosquitoes that land and might cause the “dead body” to suddenly flinch.
And yet, for all the minor discomforts, there is something wonderful about seeing an audience put on rain poncho and stick it out through a rain shower; watching an actor expertly ad lib a joke to explain a possum who has wandered on stage. The spirit of “we are all in this together” is so alive in those moments. There is something powerful about seeing a child look up at a play while snuggled in their parent’s lap. Performing outdoors is not my favorite. I enjoy the cool, insect-free comfort of performing indoors. I appreciate the subtlety of performance that is possible in a more quiet and focused environment. I would never want to give that up entirely. And yet – the challenge and reward, the camaraderie forged in performing out of doors is something I have learned to appreciate.
Read other perspectives on this issue (click a name to read their response):