Be seen, be heard, get on with it.

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Summer’s here and the time is right for…outdoor Shakespeare. All over the country audiences are packing their picnic baskets and hoping for decent weather as they head out to see Shakespeare in the open air.

Our Western tradition is based on outdoor theatre. From Greek tragedy through mystery plays and commedia dell’arte to pantomime and Shakespeare, actors have all faced the same problems of being seen and heard and holding the audiences attention in the face of distractions and unpredictable weather. Not surprisingly, they tend to come up with similar solutions. And while some companies, like the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival make a feature of avoiding ‘trendy revisionism’, other outdoor Shakespeare companies find they fall back on a traditional style of playing simply because it works.

Be seen. Greek and commedia dell’arte masks and Elizabethan costumes were highly visible so however far back you were in the audience you could still see the actors and follow the action. Dance, music, physical comedy and exaggerated gestures all say to the audience, ‘don’t look there, look here’. The same rule applies today, you don’t see many jeans and T-shirts outdoor Shakespeare productions, even the most cash-strapped company will give you something to look at as well as something to listen to. Oddsocks tour hugely popular outdoor productions using clowning and a mediaeval pageant cart which Shakespeare would recognise to create a strong visual focus to attract and hold the audience’s attention.

Be heard. The biggest complaint from theatre audiences is inaudible actors and it’s even worse outdoors. Method training and close miked TV work may have made diction and projection as redundant as 5 and 9 and nose putty but put a mumbly young Method actor in the middle of a field, throw in a crosswind to carry their voice away from the audience, add some birds singing, dogs barking, a bit of traffic noise in the distance and a radio playing somewhere in the background and it doesn’t take them long to work out that the terrible, old-fashioned, face the front, hit your consonents and belt it out style of acting is less an artistic decision than a practical solution and it still works today.

Get on with it. At 9.30pm it’s still a nice evening and the audience loves you. But as soon as the sun sets the temperature plummets and if they’re freezing to death at 10.30pm they’ll wish they’d never come. Shakespeare was under the same pressure to deliver the show as quickly as possible and send the audience home so his actors played it fast. In the 1970s Terry Hands taught the RSC actors to play the line rather than the convention at the time of colouring the word. As a result they speeded up their performances and they could get through Julius Caesar in two hours fifteen minutes. Barry Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company very nearly got Romeo And Juliet down to the Prologue’s promised ’two hours passage of our stage’ so if they can do it, there’s really no excuse.

So whether you’re going to see a professional company in a custom-built outdoor venue or amateurs performing in the local park, have a great summer, but don’t forget to take something warm.

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • The Minack was my 2nd choice of picture to illustrate this blog! I’m glad The Globe has legitimised open air theatre, and the audience-aware playing style that goes with it, but I suspect a lot of people see a lot of Shakespeare done in a very similar style in parks and stately homes up and down the country every summer.

  • Anonymous

    The Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, Cornwall, has to be the ultimate outdoor theatre.  There the actors compete against the roar of the sea, plus the beauty of the view, as well as the weather! I’ve only been as a day visitor, but I get the feeling that the audience rate it more if it rains as everybody gets soaked!

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