By Luke Ofield
This summer I just completed my first experience of outdoor theatre, with Unmasked producing our own adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was crazy, beautiful and brilliant, and that was just the process. Outdoor theatre is a really exciting returning trend- with Brighton having the brilliant B.O.A.T- and I think the style is a great way to introduce new audiences. HOWEVER, performing, producing and watching outdoor theatre has many challenges that a nice indoor black box just doesn’t give you. So here is what I wish someone would have told me before I undertook such a venture.
What no-one tells you about outdoor theatre!
England gets cold
It can be a beautiful warm late summers day when you enter into the hallowed playing space. However, if due discretion is not taken, then by the time you leave, you may have grown very friendly and attached with the people sitting around you. Or, if you’re an actor, you might end up having furious words with the director because you’re simply dressed in blue paint and dungarees. Or if you’re manning the tech desk, you might start having dreams of sweaty boxes from theatres passed and swearing you’ll never complain again. (I probably still will) Just take a coat, or have some blankets you can covers yourself in if you get a brief pause. The strains of a theatre run are hard enough without introducing cold!
You can make as many back up plans for the weather, but solid contingencies are hard.
If it rains, we will do xyz. I wish we could have had a rain rehearsal! Sometimes during the rain, it involved me sneakily removing lighting, or placing cable-tied umbrellas over them. We had actors hand out umbrellas to audience members, we took early intervals, we moved large marquees over the seating areas, we tried near enough everything. Sadly, we still lost a show and a half to rain and wind. The latter being the worst as it created more of a health and safety risk. It’s also the changeable weather that is the worst, like a risky relationship with a duvet in summer.
Postponing the start time of our second production I ran to Poundland and bought a HUGE amount of umbrellas. I can laugh about it now… My main advice is make good plans, but be prepared to be flexible and be prepared to make some tough calls. Working through the elements can really add something to the production, the audience can be so supportive and actors often rise phenomenally to the occasion. On the other hand, you can you just get some really cold, wet, pissed off patrons and some dangerous working conditions.
The struggle for power
Generators are expensive and bad for the environment, so there becomes that desperate scour for plug sockets and extension leads. Our production of Alice looked absolutely mesmerising in the colourful washes, but the awkward moment when you trip half a nature centres power because some idiot plugged their hair-curlers into the same socket as your lighting array just sucks.
The twenty-first century is never far away.
Performing in a Walled Garden, with a playing space alone of over 950 square metres, you can feel very much in beautiful little bubble. The M23 is miles away. Gatwick is miles away. But not far enough, and sure enough, at the best enterprises of pith and moment comes the unmistakable whinge of a Boeing 747.
This is something you can never really fight. Even The Globe has a fairly regular flight path through it. It sucks, it really does, but I’ve still not heard back from EasyJet yet, and don’t think they’re going to move their flights for us, so all I can suggest is acknowledge is subtly, or play right through. If the works good enough, the audience might not notice the fuel being jettisoned behind them….
‘Sorry… what was that again?’
This one is fairly self-explanatory. It’s hard to project, hard to hear and sound gets swallowed so easily. As a company we did a lot of projection work, and were lucky enough to have a lot of time before in the space. If you’re thinking of programming an outdoor show or if your cast in one, make sure you do them breathing exercises!
‘I just cannot work in these conditions..’
I love actors. Actors are great. Our actors worked through some gruelling stuff: there was a change from a dinner suit to a full suit of armour in 48 seconds, the continuing to perform fast paced and hard choreography as the rain hit hard, or essentially a whole cast living in a stable. I’ve heard many a time the phrase ‘This dressing is a pig-sty’, this was not far off, and that was before the actors had the chance to explode in there.
The outdoors rarely comes with a kushty green room, and so sometimes you’re thankful for small things like a kettle, a free standing mirror or even your heavenly stage manager who remembers to pick up bin bags. When choosing an outdoor venue as a production company, it is important to really make sure you can really utilise the facilities on offer for your actors. Sometimes again some budget might have to be spared for this!
Actors become more considerate of the space
As much as I think this happens in most non-conventional performance areas, there are special moments that only the outdoors can provide. In a theatre
There was a beautiful moment where the actor playing The White Knight seemed to have summoned a flock of geese to impress Alice. If it had been scripted, you’d have given yourself a moment of self-congratulations at how ‘that just worked’. The actor played it beautifully and the audience loved it. I was at the Globe a couple of years ago in the pouring rain for a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Benedict came out with a deck chair and sunglasses. The look of irony and frustration was far greater than any of acting in what was actually a grand show.
These are things to really encourage. It’s almost the counter point to the invasion of the 21st century. The audience are often really on your side, so as an actor, my advice would be to really use whatever is thrown at you.