I sometimes wonder why we eccentric British persist with open air theatre – a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one. We do not have Italian weather and I’ve often been very wet, very cold or both. Then I see something like Illyria’s The Mikado or Jesus Christ Superstar at Regents Park – both on pleasantly fine evenings last month – and of course I know why we do it. When open air theatre works and the weather gods are smiling, there is nothing like it. It’s a fantastic experience for cast, creatives, audience and everyone else involved.
It’s a growing, developing field of work too. Open Air Theatre, Regents Park is now a very different animal from the 1930s grassy amphitheatre whose programming could have been described as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other plays.” Today, Timothy Sheader and his team present cutting edge, innovative work (which increasingly often transfers) every year. The opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997 has moved things on tremendously during the last 20 years too. And there seem to be ever more small touring companies, taking work, which is often very high quality, out to communities. I saw the Illyria Mikado, for example in a Kent garden centre and I caught up with Changeling Theatre’s Hamlet (watch out for Alex Phelps – wonderful in title role) in the bombed ruins of the Garrison Church in Woolwich.
Given that, against all the odds, we do so much open air theatre so successfully in Britain, why does it feature so little in drama school training? It comes with very specific challenges. Ask actors such as Matthew Needham (currently wowing the crowds at The Globe as Benedick in Matthew Dunster’s Much Ado About Nothing) about verse speaking under the Heathrow, up-the-Thames flightpath for example – not to mention low hovering helicopters which, I sometimes suspect come down deliberately just for a look and to annoy actors and their audience. Touring open air theatre often pops up in country parks and stately homes where actors have to be audible over shrieking peacocks. And even trees make a lot of noise when a breeze ruffles their leaves. I thought the youth theatre actors in Chichester Festival Theatre’s Grimm Tales did extraordinarily well this summer in the leafy Cass Sculpture Park, for example.
It isn’t just making yourself heard either. Open air actors have to manage an intimacy with their audience which would be unusual in an indoor auditorium. They often mingle before and after the show – even during the interval. And the punters are very close during the show itself – often picnicking on the grass just a few feet away. It’s a skill which actors have to learn to carry off. There’s more dependence on physical theatre too as, on a summer evening, the first half of the show is largely unlit so each performer is very exposed and has to establish presence through action.
I think drama schools which don’t do it should think seriously about taking students out on at least one outdoor tour, or mount a static outdoor show, to teach them some of these skills. And well done Jo Hawes and Marylyn Phillips – whose new training initiative, The Rep Company, is considering doing a site specific, possibly outdoor show next summer. It’s so much better to have some awareness and experience under your belt rather than having to pick these skills up, from scratch, as you go along. Open air theatre has become mainstream and “Industry readiness” should include it.