Creating the Magic of Outdoor Theatre
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: A scene from "An Ideal Husband" (2016), performed at American Player Theatre's outdoor Hill Theatre. Photo courtesy of American Players Theatre.
Once the summer months hit, Wisconsinites break out their lawn chairs and picnic blankets to enjoy an evening of theatre underneath the stars. But what goes into producing live, open-air productions? Turns out it’s never a smooth ride. We caught up with American Players Theatre, Optimist Theatre, and SummerStage of Delafield to hear some of their behind-the-scenes stories.
American Players Theatre
Nestled between 110 acres of hilly woods and meadows, American Players Theatre’s newly renovated 1,089-seat outdoor amphitheater often gets some uninvited guests.
“Critters are definitely a feature here,” says Sara Young, APT’s communications director. In the past APT has had a raccoon set up camp in a piece of scenery, a bird land on stage during the middle of a show, deer roam around the lobby, and noisy whippoorwills distract from the action.
"A patron once sent in a letter and said the whippoorwills were too loud and we should really turn that recording down," Young explains. "Guess she thought it was a recording of whippoorwills for atmosphere or something."
As far as creating the elaborate sets and costumes to withstand the great outdoors, APT has picked up a few tips and tricks. Young says they add grit to the paint in order to give it more texture and reduce slickness on stage.
The set for 2017's Three Sisters at the newly renovated Hill Theatre. Photo courtesy of American Players Theatre.
In regard to costumes, each play has a heat plan and a cold plan for the actors to follow. For those dreadful 90-degree days, the director and costume designer allow the actors to remove certain layers and help them hide ice packs in their costumes. For the chilly September nights, the actors are given additional coats or other layers to wear.
“One fun thing about the costumes is that for the wigs they almost always use real hair,” Young says. She explains that synthetic hair would not react naturally to rain and humidity like human hair would.
Surprisingly enough, American Players Theatre has only cancelled one performance in advance throughout its 38-year history. The cancellation occurred due to a heavy flood in 2008, making the roads impassable for patrons. Young says the company works closely with Weather Central in Madison and Great Lakes Weather based in North Central Wisconsin to get an expert opinion on what the conditions will be like around show time.
“We take a cue from our audience a little bit,’” Young says. “If they are there and still tuned in, and there isn’t anything dangerous in the area, we just keep going.”
Up this season: At the outdoor Hill Theatre: As You Like It (June 9 - Oct. 7), Born Yesterday (June 15 – Sept. 22), The Recruiting Officer (June 22 – Sept. 29), Heartbreak House (Aug. 3 – Oct. 5), Measure For Measure (Aug. 10 – Oct. 6).
At the indoor Touchstone Theatre: Blood Knot (June 9 – Sept. 27), Exit the King (June 26 – Sept. 27), Our Country’s Good (Aug. 11 – Oct. 7), Engaging Shaw (Oct. 25 – Nov. 18). For tickets visit americanplayers.org or call the box office at 608-588-7401.
Optimist Theatre, Shakespeare in the Park
Susan Fry, executive director of Optimist Theatre, describes the company’s new performance space at the Marcus Center’s Peck Pavilion as pure luxury. No longer does the company have to drag port-o-johns up the hill of Riverwest’s Kadish Park, or cart costumes, lighting and sound equipment back and forth to storage at the beginning and end of each performance.
Optimist is preparing for its second season at the Peck after four seasons at Kadish and a prior three seasons at Alverno College. While some artists find the level of unpredictability that comes with outdoor theatre daunting, Fry thrives off the excitement.
“For younger actors, it throws them,” Fry says. “You can see it in their face, ‘oh my god there’s a Harley going by? What do I do?,’ You can’t prepare for these things. It’s going to throw you the first time a plane goes overhead and you see the audience’s heads all look over. For an actor that’s killer, it’s like ‘I’ve lost them all, they’re not watching what we are doing anymore.’ The audience will look over. They’ll look back. They’re still there with you. It’s ok.”
A packed audience for Much Ado About Nothing (2017), Optimist’s first production at the Peck Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Optimist Theatre.
Fry also describes some of the worldly distractions as “serendipitously cool.” For instance, during the 2013 production of As You Like It, an ambulance abruptly blew by Commerce St. as actor Christopher Elst got dragged off stage following a brutal fist fight. Another ironic occurrence came during the 2016 performance of Julius Caesar, when a heavy downpour came just after Brutus killed Caesar.
Along with learning how to stay focused, working for Optimist allows young actors to work alongside some local performing veterans, including James Pickering, Jonathan Wainwright and Malkia Stampley. Pickering helped launch the company as Prospero in The Tempest in 2010 and will be playing the title role in this year’s production of King Lear.
“After you do a season of outdoor theatre, at the end of it you are fearless,” Fry explains. “You know you can handle anything and that’s a valuable skill for an actor to have.”
Up this Season: King Lear, July 5 – 21 at the Marcus Center’s Peck Pavilion, 929 N. Water Street.
SummerStage of Delafield
Venture into the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and you will find the SummerStage of Delafield’s outdoor amphitheater, just off one of the hiking trails.
Although a performance will not stop a biker or jogger from using the trails, artistic director Dustin J. Martin says the weather is the real distraction for his SummerStage performers.
“They are too worried about the weather to worry about anything else going on,” Martin jokes. “I always tell the cast that by the end of the production they are going to be amateur meterogologists. Everyone involved with the show becomes obsessed with the weather.”
Like true hearty Wisconsinites, SummerStage patrons often come prepared with rain gear and umbrellas, as the show must go on during light rain. Of course, SummerStage has a protocol in place to get everyone out of the park safely in case dangerous weather rolls in.
Romeo & Juliet (2017). Photo courtesy of SummerStage of Delafield.
As far as sets, wind and critters are the biggest threats. Martin says they have learned the hard way that set pieces on wheels should be avoided, as one of their pieces went flying across the stage after a gust of wind hit in the middle of a show.
SummerStage previously had a family of groundhogs who lived under the stage and enjoyed nibbling on the set. Thankfully, with the help of an animal expert, the family of critters was rescued and relocated to a retirement groundhog community in Watertown, Wisconsin.
Despite these added challenges, Martin says nothing beats sitting out in the fresh air enjoying live theatre. He describes some of the classics they perform as having an “earthy” feel, allowing the audience to better connect with the pieces when they are outdoors.
“I always use the word idyllic to describe our setting out in the park, with the sun setting in the west,” Martin says. “Because you are stripped away from things that you rely on indoors, a greater focus is put on the actors, the story and the performance.”
Up this Season: Tartuffe (June 7 – 23), The Trip to Bountiful (July 19 – Aug. 4), Pride and Prejudice (Aug. 23 – Sept. 8) at the Kettle Moraine State Forest, W329 N846 County Highway C Delafield, WI 53018. For tickets visit summerstageofdelafield.org or call the box office at 262-337-1560.