Missing Theater Under the Stars (Even the Bugs and the Rain)


In any year but this one, outdoor theater is part of the rhythm of summertime. We base our migrations on it, making pilgrimages to favorite seasonal spots.

As ancient as Western drama itself, open-air theater is for the most part not happening right now — no queuing for hours to snag a coveted free ticket to Shakespeare in the Park, no spreading of blankets and picnics to watch shows that start in the gloaming and end well after dark.

It’s a different absence than the loss of indoor theater, partly because of how fondly we cherish summer traditions. But as the director Anne Bogart said in a phone interview, outdoor performance by its nature involves a fuller embrace of life, and of accidents.

“Whatever is happening is part of the drama of the show,” said Bogart, who has staged three productions in the amphitheater at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “If a plane goes over, or the sea breeze comes in, or the smell of lavender floats in from the canyon, it has to all feed into the experience of the play. You can’t say those things don’t belong.”

As fans of outdoor theater know, such serendipity is often what we treasure most.

Time to savor some memories, then. We asked theater artists to think back on their experiences of working on outdoor stages across the country, and three critics offered thoughts of their own. These are edited excerpts.

It was idyllic. I would stop at the river, pick some blackberries, go for a swim and then go to rehearsal with my hair wet, in a sundress. I remember even when I had small parts, just waiting backstage under the stars. I was always getting in trouble for laying down in my costume, because I would lay down and look up at the sky. I’d come out, like, leaves all over my back.

When we were doing “Troilus and Cressida,” Corey Stoll had this great monologue. And every time he went out, a helicopter would be there. We were like, “What is going on? It’s like it’s waiting for him.” He finally tracked some people down and realized people were renting helicopters to go on dates and watch Shakespeare in the Park from a helicopter. For some reason they would time it exactly as he was about to give this speech. I had the speech right before and I never got helicoptered.

Shakespeare under the moon is a special kind of feeling, and I sure do miss it.

It was the summer of 2014 and we were doing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Shana Cooper. I had the pleasure of playing Hermia. Shana wanted Hermia’s world to start to shift as she wakes up alone in this dark, wild, mysterious, magical forest. She may kill me for telling you the tricks to this magic, but I’m gonna tell you.

The pillow I slept on in the scene was actually a large helium balloon. So as soon as Hermia wakes up, her pillow begins to rise in the air and adds to her fear and surprise. Most shows I would let the pillow rise and then jump for it and run offstage calling to Lysander, but this one windy night, I let go of the pillow. It went up and out, off the stage, beyond where I could jump for it, and into the audience.

When the panic left my body, I realized the audience members were collectively bouncing Hermia’s magic pillow around like a beach ball in a crowd. I started to call to each person who hit the pillow — “Lysander?” “Lysander?” — until a gust of wind took the pillow out and down the house right vom. I ran off the stage and followed the pillow, yelling for “Lysander.”

Ben Brantley on “King Lear”: On a bright summer night in 1996, Washington Square Park was pretending to be a storm-swept heath in ancient Britain for the Gorilla Rep’s open-air production of “King Lear.” The actor playing the title character was howling away at the elements when another angry, disheveled old man, who happened to be hanging in the park and had been doing some ranting on his own, came over to the mad monarch. “Hey, chief, how you doing tonight?” he asked. His voice suggested that whatever unmoored and hostile world Lear was inhabiting, he’d been there, too. The king didn’t answer this latter-day, real-life version of himself, but the affinity between two dispossessed souls registered like a clap of thunder.

I co-directed the world premiere of “The Parade” in 2006, which kicked off the first festival. Even then, we wanted to do the production outdoors, but couldn’t figure out how. There are so many considerations: entertainment licenses, audience accessibility, ambient noises, seating and storage, not to mention the weather! So, my first production of the play was, frankly, a compromise. It wasn’t until 2015 that we were able to produce the play exactly where it is set: amid sand dunes near the beach, in view of a lighthouse, where you can see the ferry leaving for Boston as the sun goes down. It was glorious.

Near our weather-beaten stage plopped on a little beach between the Provincetown Inn and the breakwater, actual sea gulls punctuated the prerecorded soundscape, making the sound design one with nature. When the script calls for a bag of mail to fall from a plane in the sky, there was no need for fancy stagecraft; we just tossed it from a nearby rooftop. Tourists and passers-by lingered to watch curiously, hikers on the stone breakwater became part of the scenery, and characters in the play arrived by bicycle. I can’t imagine directing this play indoors again.

Laura Collins-Hughes on “Much Ado About Nothing”: People must have been expecting “Much Ado” to be rained out that June evening last year. Walking up the path to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, I stopped in my tracks at the breathtaking sight of no line for the women’s room.

The drizzle was persistent, but Shakespeare in the Park was more so. And when Danielle Brooks, playing Beatrice, entered onto the balcony, she extended a hand, palm up, to feel for drops. As she tilted her face to the sky to catch them on her tongue, it felt like a celebration of circumstance — a joyous way of going on.

The thing that’s kind of cool about Marcus Garvey Park is that it does have an overhang. Our final show of “Macbeth” in 2016, there’s probably only 15 minutes left and the sky opened up. I was playing Macbeth. People started to leave, but another 200 people stayed, and they all came down to the front of the stage, because the overhang can kind of protect you. So it’s me and Macduff. The stage is slick. We have this big, elaborate fight, but what was beautiful is that we had 200 people — it was like a boxing match — right there at the edge of the stage.

Alexis Soloski on “As You Like It”: A few years ago, I saw one and a half performances of Shaina Taub’s adaptation at the Delacorte. (The half? A rare rain casualty.) A Public Works project, it brought more than 200 New Yorkers together onstage, a celebration of the city’s variety and vitality. When the show ended and we all filed out into the summer dark, it felt — for a moment, anyway, until we checked our phones — like the Forest of Arden and the sanctuary it promised had come along with us.

I was 16 — I think we’re talking 1973 — and I played Louise in “Gypsy.” Because it was kind of out in the country and there were farmers all around, they decided it would be fun to have livestock in the shows, because you could. There’s the song “Little Lamb” that Louise sings — and it was August, I think, by the time we did “Gypsy.” They thought it would be great to bring a real lamb, and of course they don’t bring the silly thing until the day before you’re going to do it for people.

A spring lamb is basically a sheep by August — so they bring him in, and he’s got a little rope around his neck so I can hold onto him. Now, I can’t pick this thing up — it’s huge, it’s like a real sheep. And it’s also got what felt like hundreds of live bees orbiting around its head. I got about halfway through the song with all these bees and me holding this thing, and it’s struggling to get away from me as I’m singing. Believe me, we only did it for dress rehearsal. Between the bees and the bleating, my little lamb got fired and I used a puppet from then on.

The layout of our set meant that the audience sometimes became part of the action. They sat in the middle of the park, on picnic blankets and low-slung chairs, surrounded by different playing areas for the actors around the perimeter. There were pathways through the audience, which met like spokes of a wheel at a playing area in the center. At one point in Act III, in one of my scenes with Lady Macbeth, I walked from the “Castle” area to the center hub to recite my incantation speech (“Come, seeling night…”).

As I was walking toward the spot, I saw a man walking toward me from the other side of the park. I came to a stop, not sure what was going on. The man was dressed in a suit, with his tie loosened. I watched with the rest of the audience as he walked right up one of the pathways (reserved for actors only), past the center playing area, and past me, to sit down with his family, who happened to be sitting on the ground right next to where I stood. After taking a second to regain my composure, I looked at him and said out loud, “I’m glad you made it. This next part is really good.”

I did “Hello, Dolly!” at the Muny six years ago, and during intermission, it started to rain. By the time I’m walking down the stairs for Dolly’s big “Hello, Dolly” entrance — since it’s the Muny, it must have been 40 steps — it’s pouring. I just remember having a huge feather hat, and by the time I reach the bottom of the stairs, it was wet feathers all over my costume and face. The stage managers are all looking at me like, we’re going to call this. And I’m like, nuh-uh. At least let them have this number.

So we kept doing it as best we could. The audience was standing up with their umbrellas, and the orchestra musicians — one would opt to play, the other one would opt to put the umbrella over their instrument so they could play. We finished the number, and then the show was called. No matter where I am, people still come up to me and go, “I was there the night it rained at the Muny.” It’s like we’re in this special club together.

At the end of “Orestes,” a Chuck Mee play that we did at the Penn Yards, the god comes down to talk to everyone, and he’s played by a boy. These guards pick him up and walk to the edge of the Hudson River and throw him in. Of course we didn’t do that; it was an illusion. But every night they would chuck him over into something and we’d see a huge splash, and people really thought we had thrown this kid in the river.

We are obligated to protect all of our animals. If you were backstage, you would see these little fences that we have to build around any place that we see the turtles laying eggs. We of course have our raccoons, but years ago, we also had a woodchuck that lived in the rocks, back by the tech shed. When we were doing “Othello” with Chris Walken and Raul Julia, the Cypriots would swarm onto the stage with platters of fruit. One night, I looked upstage where the platters were set out ready. And there’s the woodchuck like at an Atlantic City buffet, from plate to plate to plate taking a little fruit here and a little fruit there.

I directed “Urinetown” in 2015, and the set was this really cool, transformer-type Porta Potty that would unfold and flip around. What I failed to account for was that we could get huge wind gusts in that park.

One day, the wind ended up being so bad that in the middle of the first act, this gigantic Porta Potty flies open and falls down toward the audience. It was like a scene out of a movie. All the cast that was not currently onstage had been hiding behind the set, and they all reached down, grabbed it and literally held it back up for the next scene or two, until the wind died down enough for us to sandbag it and prevent it from falling down again.

When you died in a Shakespeare play, you always had to have a series of signals that you established with the person playing your page on where to kill the bugs on your face. So you were dead, but if you switched your right hand, then they knew that there was a mosquito devouring your right eyelid. So they would be weeping over your body, but at the same time providing manual insecticide.

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