Outdoor theater: Shakespeare under the stars

Area companies present the Bard's plays in picturesque settings

  • John Thomas Millen, as Juliet, got up close and personal with the audience during the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."
John Thomas Millen, as Juliet, got up close and personal with… (COLBY WARE, BALTIMORE SUN )
July 02, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Fireflies crisscross a meadow as an audience on lawn chairs and blankets takes in the fast-paced complications of "As You Like It" on the grounds of the Evergreen Museum and Library — a particularly apt setting for the Maryland Shakespeare Festival production.

"We wondered if we should bring scenery, since this is perfect for the Forest of Arden, where the action takes place," said company artistic director John Bellomo. "Looking up at the stars and hearing this great poetry, it's like we're all in the woods together."

Experiencing Shakespeare in the open air can come with logistical and weather issues, but it's a time-honored practice in many parts of the world. Two hardy organizations are keeping that tradition alive in our region with engaging productions running this month.

The Frederick-based Maryland Shakespeare Festival, launched in 1999, tours the state each summer, giving outdoor performances from Upper Marlboro to Cumberland. The inaugural Evergreen visit, which runs through July 10, fills a void left when the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival folded in April after 17 years.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company marks its ninth season of productions at another atmospheric outdoors spot, this one in Ellicott City — the hilltop, stonewall ruins of Patapsco Female Institute.

"The park was barely being used before we came along," said Ian Gallanar, artistic director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. "But this space doesn't do anything a theater does. We're not allowed to attach anything to the building; the sets have to be free-standing. It's more work, but it pays off. That's the culture of our company; we enjoy challenges."

The Chesapeake troupe, with an annual budget of about $500,000 and an ensemble of professional actors, offers two productions in repertory this summer, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the popular parody "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." The organization seems to thrive on figuring out how to maneuver shows effectively in and around the imposing ruins.

The Maryland Shakespeare Festival, with a budget of nearly $300,000 and a paid cast that includes two Equity actors in "As You Like It," faces its share of challenges, too. Carting actors, crew, costumes, scenery and lighting to a dozen or so communities across the state requires a certain flair for logistics and patience.

In each company's case, the motivation keeping everything on track is the same. They do it for the Bard.

"I think there's a desire — because of the hook-up, turn-on world we live in — for communal events," Gallanar said. "Some people find that in church or other ways. Some people find it in Shakespeare, the great artist who brings people together."

Bringing them together outdoors is part of the attraction. Although both companies present productions indoors during other times of the year, the summer season is a major focus. The open-air environment also provides a way of "getting back to Shakespeare's roots," Bellomo said.

"It's a tradition," added veteran actor Steven Lorne Williams, who colorfully portrays two roles in "As You Like It." "Performing outdoors was certainly done in Shakespeare's day. The Globe Theatre had an open top."

Ian Sullivan, who plays Orlando, has been performing Shakespeare outdoors for six summers.

"People love Shakespeare because he speaks to the human condition," Sullivan said. "This man, whoever he was, tapped into something we can all relate to."

If some finer points of Shakespeare and stagecraft are more easily conveyed in a theater with four walls and a roof overhead, there are rewards to stepping outside.

"In outdoor performances, there's more of a party atmosphere," Gallanar said. "There is less distance between the audience and the actors. There can be a lot more interaction."

And not just during performances. Other than some tents serving as dressing rooms, the ruins provide scant shelter, since little roofing is left.

"You can't really get privacy here, so we decided to get rid of it altogether," Gallanar said. "People can peer down at us when we're getting ready, like we're fish in an aquarium, and that's fine. We might even say 'Hi.' Actors are also encouraged to go out in costume to greet the audience, to get rid of the mystery of the process. In a space like this, it's hard to hide the process, so we do the opposite."

Audiences at the Evergreen site will likewise find few barriers. Before showtime, the actors can be seen doing their warming-up chants and physical exercises around a couple of tents set up behind the small stage area. The performers also break the outdoor equivalent of the fourth wall by offering pre-show and intermission entertainment.

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