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Working for an outdoor theatre company – will it be sunshine or thundershowers?

Open Bar Theatre performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: L H Photoshots Open Bar Theatre performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: L H Photoshots
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From Shakespeare to puppets, pub gardens to palaces, the summer season provides opportunities for outdoor work across the UK. John Byrne speaks to actors, directors and producers to find out how they got involved

With summer approaching, getting a foot in the door of the industry will be a priority for every drama school graduate. The change in the seasons also means the advent of open-air theatre and, with hundreds of companies performing around the UK, this can provide thousands of potential opportunities for experienced and newly graduated actors alike.

“I graduated from Drama Studio London without an agent and thought to myself: ‘If I don’t take control of my career and give myself opportunities, no one will’,” says Vicky Gaskin. “With my friend Nicky Diss I started Open Book theatre company, where we took adaptations of classic novels into libraries. In 2016, we were approached by Fullers, who, based on our experience of working in unconventional spaces, asked us to produce their summer series of Shakespeare plays in pub gardens around the country. Open Bar Theatre was born.”

Diss, Gaskin’s co-artistic director, had already toured as an actor with several open-air theatre companies. “When I started directing our own shows I brought all the tricks and influences I had learned from those experiences to the job. Shakespeare isn’t formal and our pub audience certainly isn’t. That relaxed atmosphere is perfect for making people laugh. Our audiences are bright, fun – some theatre lovers, lots of theatre converts. When I hear the first laugh on opening night… my heart bursts.”

The logistics of touring from pub to pub means a typical Open Bar cast for even the most populous drama is limited to four actors.

Bath Spa acting graduate Grace Miller says that adds to the fun. “In The Comedy of Errors, I played both Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus, and had to have an argument with myself every night. It was both ridiculous and wonderful to perform.”

Thomas Judd, another regular, is equally enthusiastic about the joys of outdoor work, even when coping with the worst of UK weather. “Playing Paris in Romeo and Juliet, during a wet spell, I had to lie in a puddle every night until the play finished. I got plied with brandy afterwards, so it wasn’t all bad.”

In common with other experienced outdoor performers, Judd cautions that the biggest challenge is not coping with the elements, but protecting your voice. “For the audition, I assumed that because it was outdoors, you had to be really loud, so I bellowed the whole thing. Now I have learned that diction and clarity are so much more important than volume.”

Shakespeare is by far the most popular theme for outdoor productions around the country, ranging from small, site-specific shows to companies such as Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, which offers not only pop-up productions at venues including Clifford’s Tower in York and the grounds of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, but a full 16th-century experience complete with surrounding village, minstrels and Elizabethan garden.

Actors Paul Hawkyard and Leandra Ashton at the launch of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in Blenheim Palace. Photo: Charlotte Graham

RADA graduate Leandra Ashton feels that, no matter how sophisticated the theatrical technology, it is the elements themselves that often add the most unique flavour to familiar scenes. “I loved playing Lady Macbeth for Shakespeare’s Rose last year. You feel so close to the audience and to the natural world. We were baked in scorching sun for most of the run apart from one night when a lightning storm hit, flooding the stage with golf-ball sized hail stones. It meant: ‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lighting or in rain?’ got a laugh.”

Richard Standing, playing Claudius in Hamlet and another Shakespeare’s Rose returnee, feels resilience and teamwork are key qualities that successful outdoor players need.

“The biggest achievement was the sense of collective effort. As a company, we worked through a long, hot summer, but never lost passion or enthusiasm.”

Mark Hayward, a seasoned outdoor performer and co-artistic director of The Pantaloons, a company that has produced a range of open-air shows – the latest will be Sense and Sensibility – agrees that collaboration between performers and the audience is what gives this type of show a special feel.

“Open-air performances feel like more of an experience than watching a play. I think audiences see attending them as a real event – you pack your picnic, grab a group of friends. They sometimes help to bring communities – particularly rural communities – together and it is very satisfying being a part of that.”

For Simon Michael-Morgan, originally from South Wales but now living in Norfolk, the desire to bring quality productions to his home community was a big impetus for the founding of Strange Fascination Theatre Company. “I’ve always had a soft spot for open-air performances. It requires a great deal of skill to accomplish with conviction as well as providing huge opportunities for audience interaction. Our biggest achievement to date has been playing to a 500-plus audience at the prestigious Holkham Hall, plus our continued association with that venue. It is the backbone of our tour and provides remuneration that can allow us to manoeuvre further. Getting to this point has been difficult because in Norfolk there is a large amateur movement so venues expect work for free, but we like to think we are part of turning the tide towards it being the norm to pay for the work.”

Strange Fascination co-owner Daisy Plackett notes the work involved to create a successful outdoor production can include solving basic problems that wouldn’t usually arise inside a theatre.

“As a designer, producer and theatremaker, my biggest challenge has been combating the fact there is no theatre lighting in what we do. This lack of a black box can be quite unforgiving in terms of set design, especially for entrances, exits and scene changes, but the best part of the job is watching the show, taking in the action and the audience’s reactions, the costumes, sets and puppets and thinking: ‘We did that. That whole show came from us.’ Those moments make all the hard work, the worry and stress worthwhile. Sometimes, I smile so much my face aches.’’

Seasoned outdoor performer Elizabeth Burden encourages actors with outdoor ambitions to apply ‘blue-sky’ thinking from the outset. “Many companies regularly advertise their spring and summer outdoor shows. Go see them and have a chat. If there’s none and you’d still love to do it, have a think. Have you ever seen a place locally and thought: ‘Ooh I’d love to see a Macbeth done here’? Just do it – it’s so much fun.”

Pop-up Shakespeare Theatre at Blenheim Palace gets green light

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