This summer, as indoor theaters roll out strict social distancing measures, some are battling Covid-19 issues by taking things outside.
That works. The theater was born in the open air. From ancient Greek amphitheatres to re-enactment carriages from which games of mystery and miracle were played from the 10th to the 16th century, actors have always been used to battling the elements. In Elizabethan times, hostel courtyards and theaters gave way to purpose-built open-roofed theaters. The indoor theater is a relatively new development.
Despite the appeal of the ceilings, walls, and plush seating, there is an inherent romance in the open-air theater. Being outside adds another layer of life to the experience, with the scenery, sky, and setting sun all part of the performance. The UK already has several permanent outdoor venues. In London there is the faithful recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe, a place which, at its best, can capture the intimacy of the theater like few other places, and the Open air theater, nestled in a glade in Regent’s Park. Across the country there is the Minack Theater, carved out of a Cornish cliff, and Grosvenor Park Open Air Theater in Chester.
Plus, this year, as theaters rush to build Covid-secured outdoor stages to accommodate their summer seasons, gardens, forests and city centers are also being transformed into venues. The Royal Shakespeare Company built a theater on the banks of the River Avon for its summer production of The Comedy of Errors; Manchester Home’s arts venue is erecting Homeground, a 400-seat space outside its Deansgate site, where you can see Filter the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Newbury’s Watermill Theater stages As you like it in its gardens; and St Albans’ Maltings Theater will host an open-air festival in the city’s Roman theater.
In Scotland, where stricter distancing rules mean reopening indoors is currently not a viable option for many, the Pitlochry Festival Theater is building an amphitheater, where it will premiere a new play by David Greig, Adventures with painted people, in June.
For Elizabeth Newman, Pitlochry Festival Theaterartistic director, there is something transformative about watching an actor perform in the woods. “It can change your heart,” she says. The staging of the work outside also allows a level of spectacle that is not possible, even reasonable, inside. There’s a reason you don’t see flamethrowers deployed in small studios. One of the benefits of staging outdoors, Newman says, is that it allows you to do “all the hard things to do indoors: flames go out, a car drives around the audience.”
Many memorable productions have been made on a scale that would be impossible indoors. In Leeds, Slung Low staged The White Whale, a version of Moby-Dick on floating platforms in the city’s quay. Polish company Biuro Podróży’s Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? fills the air with the screeching of motorcycles and the smell of gasoline.
This is the UK, however, and the weather has a way of mitigating outdoor activities. Yet the past few months have hardened our already robust minds in the face of weather sabotage. Once you’ve fed a pint in a shaky gazebo during a hailstorm, you’re ready for anything. The public seems too happy to engage in the performance outdoors. I was at the Globe when the skies emptied, and punters simply protected their wine goblets while making impromptu rain hats from carry bags. On the contrary, it intensified the feeling of camaraderie.
However, think about the actors, who must confront nature in all its ungovernable glory. Sophie Russell, who plays Bottom in The dream of a summer night on the globe, remembers leaving his costume in a bush while performing in parks, only to find that a “fox had grass in it or a dog had run away with it.” But there are also moments of beauty, “when a bird lands on the stage or lightning above its head”. This is especially true of the wooden “O” shape of the globe, which she likens to a vortex. Standing on stage, Russell says she feels “plugged right into the sky, the river, the light.”
Having been deprived of live performances for so long, it seems fitting that in many places the theater returns to the way it originally started. Some hailstones will not be a deterrent. But bring a sweater and a spare plastic bag, just in case.