There is something very special about watching a play outdoors. Whether it is the connection between actor and audience, the feeling that anything can happen, or the sense of nostalgia that makes you think “this is how it would’ve been back in the day”. It has a unique feeling to it. The idea of sitting outside and watching a play in the great outdoors is appealing to all lovers of theatre… and people who want to get a tan, eat a picnic and pretend to be cultured whilst drinking in the day time. It’s a win win! There are thousands of theatre troupes that pack up their set, props and costumes, and head out on the road every year to perform in front of thousands of willing audiences. From parks to pub gardens, there is an abundance of outdoor theatre to enjoy. But what makes an outdoor production brilliant? How do you approach the unpredictability of surrounding events? And most importantly, what do you do if it rains?
It would be very un-British to start with anything other than the weather. There is no denying that many unfortunate souls will not even brave an outdoor production, for fear of getting wet. However, for hardy theatre lovers, the possibility of bad weather is not a deal breaker. In fact, it sometimes amplifies the experience. “Remember that time we saw Importance of Being Earnest in the pouring rain?” is a great conversation starter, and the experience certainly sticks in the memory. It’s easy to forget, but if the show is good, people will stay and watch it (except for if any of them are floating/blowing away, then it’s probably a good idea to wrap it up). The point is, like many elements of outdoor theatre, this is one you cannot control. You can download the BBC weather app and check the chance of rain percentage to the nearest second, but at the end of the day… the show must go on. Of course you can take some precautions to stay ahead of the game; design your set to be waterproof, find venues with an indoor contingency or cover for the audience and try to justify all characters putting up umbrellas simultaneously. The audience knew the risks when they booked their ticket, so if you are a performer, director or producer, be safe in the knowledge that the weather doesn’t affect the audience nearly as much as you think. It is also a good idea to think about where to put your audience, you don’t want to set your crowd up with the sun in their eyes for an hour and a half and you definitely want everyone to see everything.
Another thing to consider is making everything a bit bigger. All of us have been guilty of being distracted during a show, whether you are counting the ceiling tiles or wondering if the person in front of you will ever finish their loud packet of Minstrels. Outside, there is an even more unpredictable mix of distractions. Picnics, drinking, chatting, passers by, traffic, aeroplanes, wildlife (I once competed with a Peacock during a Midsummer Night’s Dream soliloquy) among other things, contribute to distracting an audience’s attention. Therefore it is best to do everything a little bigger and more exaggerated than you would in an inside performance, to demand that all eyes are on you. Physicality and staging has to be enhanced because of the space you are filling. The voice also has to be diaphragm heavy, with concise and clipped consonants.
I always enjoy audience participation, (as long as I’m not the one getting picked) and I think that there is even more licence to include it when you’re doing a show outdoors. The audience are completely visible and more often than not, they are close by. This gives the play a sense of freedom and expression. There is a real connection between actor and audience when outdoors, so it seems wise to embrace that and make the show as inclusive as possible. For the actors, there is certainly a balance to be struck in terms of highlighting the unplanned moments and letting them go without any observation. If something outrageous happens, it might be a good idea to observe just how outrageous it is, but if there is a continuous bark of a dog, you may just need to power through. This can obviously be gaged by the tone of your piece, but never underestimate how much audiences love when something goes wrong!
Outdoor theatre is fantastic because it can be incredibly raw and pure. But you are also gifted a huge amount of freedom when creating a show for the outdoors. There’s very few limitations, which makes it so popular. Adaptability in a theatre piece is an incredibly useful thing. If a show can be put on anywhere and brave the unpredictability of the outdoors, then it is surely a winner.