Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, seating around 1,200 people and entirely outdoors, is about to open its new season. Since 1932, the theatre has become a staple of the summer theatre scene, and last year in particular saw a hugely successful season, which included a staging of To Kill a Mockingbird and a production of The Sound of Music that was lauded by both critics and audiences. This year, the theatre is set to impress again.
“I like the diversity of it,” says Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre, when I speak to him over the phone. “I’m thrilled to be doing another Arthur Miller piece – a darker, more serious, more socially questioning play, alongside a brilliant Victorian comedy,” he says, referring to the revival of Miller’s All My Sons, which he will be directing, and a version of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. If this did not demonstrate the season’s “diversity” enough, audiences will also have the opportunity to see a comedy by Harold Brighouse, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the return of To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, just as exciting as the programme is the theatre in which it plays. How does Sheader find working in a theatre with a relatively relaxed atmosphere, where audience and performers are subject to the elements? “I think every theatre is different. There are various specifics here, but whenever I’m making a piece of work – wherever it is – I ask myself where I’m making it, for whom I’m making it, and when I’m making it. Otherwise I think we live in a vacuum, and the work is not responding to the nerve and pulse of that particular time, or that particular audience, or that particular space.”
Directing theatre outdoors could be a tough challenge, but Sheader seems very practical in his attitude. Having graduated with a law degree, he trained at the Orange Tree Theatre and then at the RSC as an assistant. He has been directing for nearly 20 years – “oh dear, I can’t quite believe I just said that. It doesn’t feel like 20 years” – and was freelance before taking over the Open Air Theatre. This year marks his seventh season here, where he has “two jobs really: I produce the shows, and then I direct some of them”, and is “creatively responsible for the output of the entire theatre”. When discussing the challenges of directing outdoors, he details how “the decisions start immediately with what to programme”, and launches into a pragmatic list of how to deal with challenges: “What might work that starts in daylight and ends in darkness? What is not going to be destroyed by excessive sun or excessive rain – or excessive anything? What might benefit from being re-interpreted by being outside, with the audience and the performers having that shared experience of a large space without a roof?”
On the joys of directing outdoors, Sheader describes a very important aspect of the Open Air Theatre: how the audience, arriving in daylight, find themselves “being drawn, almost mysteriously, into the night”. At this point, he says, “it becomes more like traditional theatre, where we can see what the director’s telling us to see and that’s all, whereas at the beginning of the evening that’s not the case at all”. In the early part of the evening, Sheader notes that the creative team can direct the focus to the best of their ability, but “ultimately, the performers can see the audience, and the audience can see each other, and the performers, and the birds, and whatever else is going on”. The changing of focus with the progression from daylight to darkness is, most definitely, something that makes the experience unique.
Since taking on the Open Air Theatre, Sheader has taken its programming in a new direction, meaning it is no longer predominantly Shakespeare. He repeatedly mentions the opportunity the space presents to re-think and re-interpret texts, suggesting this is an aspect of the space he is very fond of. “I think that there are other playwrights that could be explored, and there are other writers whose stories might benefit from being re-imagined outside. It’s not that I’ve had enough of Shakespeare, it’s not that I have anything against Shakespeare, I love Shakespeare – it’s just that I think the balance has always been in his favour, and I just thought, well let’s try and redress that.”
The balance does seem to have been altered. Shakespeare, who Sheader wittily describes as having “had a really good innings”, appears once in this year’s season. The production of Twelfth Night is re-imagined for everyone from ages six and up, part of a project Sheader introduced to the theatre, and one of which he is justly proud: “art needs to be taught. Some people might say, ‘Well why don’t you just do a grown-up production?’ But you don’t just run a marathon, you train for it.” Past directors of these re-imagined plays include Natalie Abrahami and Steve Marmion, clearly showing a commitment to making sure children and young people “are being introduced to the best available art”.
When talking of bringing back To Kill a Mockingbird, last summer’s hit, Sheader touches once more on both the highlights of working in the theatre space and this close consideration of its audiences. “I know audiences loved it, I know that they loved the experience of sharing that book together – which is what the basis of the production was: how can we share this book together?” There is a great sense of a togetherness created in the open air space – something Sheader is hoping to recreate when the production goes on tour. “It was staged in what I hope is an imaginative, creative way, and I hope it’ll be available for more young audiences to see, both here and on tour. That’s really why we’re touring it, because it’s a piece of work that I feel proud of, and a piece of work I feel proud to introduce to younger audiences.”
Considering his experience and expertise, does he have any advice for young or aspiring directors? “You really have to want to do it because it’s really competitive, but if you really want to do it, you should try.” Drawing on his time as an assistant director, he reflects that “I perhaps think I assisted for too long, and so my voice took quite a long time to develop. I think it’s getting the balance between making your own work, finding your own voice, finding your own tastes and aesthetics and what you have to say, and working with more experienced directors and learning from them and being introduced to the mainstream industry.” Finally, he firmly adds, “Do it. Just go out and do it, and have a good time.”
For more information on the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and all of its productions, please visit its website.