Performing in the outdoors is not simply a case of setting up stage in a field – it’s a demanding art form that presents more obstacles than most theatrical environments. Unpredictability is inherent, with challenges ranging from overcoming noise pollution and lighting problems to the most obvious contender: the volatility of the Great British weather.
Despite these hindrances, open-air theatre is a consistently popular British cultural event, with an abundance of companies populating the country’s amphitheatres, historical estates and national parks during the summer months. What is it about performing amongst nature that persuades actors to commit to one of the most vagarious of theatre forms?
Heartbreak Productions is an open-air theatre company that has been touring the UK since 1991, and with 20 years’ experience it knows a few things about the less alluring side of outdoor theatre. A major threat to the creative outcome of an open-air play is the technical difficulties it entails. With no spotlight on their best angles, the actors have to work with natural sunlight and rely on electrical lighting after dark. Adrian Fear, who is currently playing the infamous Mr Darcy in Heartbreak’s Pride and Prejudice, talks about these difficulties: “The basic lighting can only be used to illuminate the actors so they can be seen – there is no opportunity to create changing lighting states as one could in a theatre. You have to make sure that you can be seen and that you are not blocking any of the lights to ensure your fellow actors are properly illuminated.”
Spatial awareness is more important than ever, then, but the actors also have to project their voices over everything from aeroplanes to “local yobs yelling obscenities during a sensitive scene”, as Andrew Cullum, currently touring with Heartbreak’s The Taming of the Shrew, phrases it. This lack of appreciation for Shakespeare’s emotional intricacies is shared by noisy wildlife, but theirs is a distraction that can inadvertently aid the actors. Fear recalls: “Sometimes animal sounds will occur at very opportune or inappropriate moments, much to the amusement of the audience.” Georgina Sherrington, who toured last year with Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s Beauty and the Beast, has also experienced unexpected guests: “I once performed a whole monologue completely unaware that a cricket was sitting on top of my head. And I’ve seen a funeral scene carry right on while two fornicating squirrels fell from a tree onto the casket.”
Even if disruptive woodland creatures provide a comedic extra, the weather is still an inevitable – and uncontrollable – complication, and the set and costumes of a touring company take a beating. “Sets need to be robust to withstand twelve weeks of being loaded and offloaded from a van,” Cullum explains. “It’s also very hard work in wet weather when everything gets soaked and you’ve no chance of drying it out, or in blazing hot sunshine when you get so sweaty that your costume sticks to you. Even a fine evening can cause its problems, if the sun dazzles you as you try to make eye contact with another actor.”
Clearly, open-air theatre is full of inconveniences, but the atmosphere created by performing amongst nature is great. The beauty of the outdoors provides an enviable backdrop, and performing in the grounds of stately mansions is an instant evocation of past centuries. Sherrington notes: “You drive to remote areas of the country, and see beautiful parts of that area. I think it’s the best way to see England, even if you do have to do some set building to pay your way! I left my tour having made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.” Cullum adds: “The bottom line is that despite everything, it’s fun.”
Touristic trappings aside, life on the road is not for everyone. The hours are long, the schedule is intense and the actors spend a lot of time away from home. They have to do more than just act, with duties including driving themselves to the venue, putting up sets, seating the audience and dismantling the stage at the end of the night. “It’s a lifestyle that’s generally more suited to the young – or at least the energetic – and unattached. I have a family and they don’t always find it easy when I’m away,” Cullum admits. Fear adds, “Perhaps younger actors are more likely to put up with uncomfortable situations in a way that some more established actors might not. Although this may be more down to personal inclination than age.”
For actors who decide to commit to the touring lifestyle, they can rest assured that their hard work will appeal to theatregoers. Companies attract dedicated followings of regulars and their audiences can range from the very young to the very old, with children as young as four attending. “Pride and Prejudice is a challenging show for younger audiences, but a lot have really enjoyed it,” Fear notes. Perhaps the freedom of an outdoor show, without the potentially stifling formalities that come with conventional theatre, can keep younger audience members engaged for longer? Fear agrees that “some people may be more comfortable with going to see a show where they can eat and drink, rather than in a more restrictive, traditional theatre setting. Heartbreak shows are less expensive than a lot of theatres so I would hope that this alone would increase accessibility.”
The cheap tickets and picnic-friendly environment that attracts younger crowds seems like the ideal platform for playwrights to stage new work. The Heartbreak and Chapterhouse actors, however, disagree. They state that their audiences want to “play it a bit safe”, a fact that is proven by their show choices: Heartbreak is touring with The Taming of the Shrew, Pride and Prejudice, and a reworking of the children’s story Pinocchio, whilst Chapterhouse presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sense and Sensibility and Snow White, amongst others. Other open-air theatre companies follow a similar format: Illyria is touring with Twelfth Night, Pirates of Penzance and Fantastic Mr Fox, and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men offers its usual brand of all-male Shakespeares.
Yet even the familiarity provided by Shakespearian classics is not enough to ensure bums on seats (or rugs), Cullum insists, with the type of play on offer affecting viewing figures. “The audience choose comedies rather than tragedies. Romeo and Juliet does well because, despite it being a tragedy, the public tend to think of it as a love story. I would be happy to watch King Lear with a picnic, but I am an actor. The general public are more conservative.” Do actors underestimate the public’s appetite for contemporary writing, or is outdoor theatre, with all its other uncertainties, more suited to renowned works? Sherrington has an answer: “Shakespeare was written for bare-bones touring: they used to tour his plays just like we do and each play can be double-cast down to approximately eight actors. I also think producers stick to classics because the travel, accommodation and venue-hire needed to set up a tour make it fairly expensive. You only have that particular audience for one night, and you need to get them through the door.”
Traditional plays may dominate the companies’ programmes, but it’s not all Shakespearean love triangles and eighteenth century socialites. “One of the things I enjoy is our fresh approach to established classics,” Cullum says. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and working with a small cast on a small budget can lead to very imaginative productions.” There is plenty of room for originality, demonstrated by the number of companies taking on established children’s stories usually seen on screen. Overriding or building upon Disney’s Pinocchio or Snow White is no easy task – yet both Heartbreak and Chapterhouse are doing just this.
Even with the creative adaptations of Disney favourites in mind, Fear states, “I think it would be harder to find audiences for a completely new piece of writing unless it had an obviously strong selling point. I’d quite like to be proven wrong on this though.” Sherrington agrees with Fear, stating: “Open-air theatre in itself is a very flexible medium, but I don’t always think it’s utilised in that way. It has connotations of the traditional English day out. But fingers crossed, that will change.” An invitation, perhaps, for aspiring writers out there?
Al fresco theatre is a perfect fit for energetic actors who don’t mind a spot of rain and are big fans of Shakespeare. This being said, there is plenty of room for innovative writers to turn classics on their head or even create completely new plays fit for the great outdoors. Ultimately, the atmosphere generated by open-air theatre means that a lack of special effects seems unimportant; performing outdoors makes everything appear sharper and more pronounced, without the need for elaborate lighting or complex sets. Open-air theatre is certainly volatile, but then so is every great work of art.
Make the most of the last of summer and enjoy some open-air theatre, with companies touring into September. See their websites for more information.