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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2019

Ice Cream, Heartbreak, and the World of Outdoor Theatre

Wednesday, August 7, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

The band strikes up in an intentionally dissonant arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Audience members scurry to their picnic blankets, hastily reapply sunscreen, and settle in, their cheese plates tactically positioned. When actor Lizzie Calogero takes the stage, framed by San Francisco's city skyline, she addresses the crowd directly, inviting them into the story. Meanwhile, a football from a neighboring game occasionally flies by stage left, squeals of laughter from children on the playground meld with the show’s musical score, and a particularly vocal bird inserts itself into the scene with a decisive squawk. It’s opening weekend of The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s (SFMT) Treasure Island in Dolores Park and summer has officially begun.

The Mime Troupe, which celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year, is just one in a constellation of theatres across the Bay Area that keep alive that sacred summer tradition of enjoying theatre al fresco; and while the wildness and unpredictability of mother nature can lend romance or energy to a performance, it also creates unique challenges for a production and its artists as they build and perform the show.

The cast of San Francisco Mime Troupe's Treasure Island. Photo by Mike Melnyk.

One ever-present challenge is the weather, which has grown more severe as of late due to climate change. Veteran California Shakespeare Theatre actor, Rami Margron, who appeared in this season’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, describes a tech process besieged by torrential rain, wind, and freezing temperatures. 

The cast would work on scenes in the heated greenroom, while a few of the designers tried to continue working outside,” Margron says, “When the rain would let up, we would put on ponchos and get as much tech done as we could...The [set’s] doors wouldn’t work properly because the wood was swollen, our impressive light-box arch got water in it and was only half-lit. We were really behind, and we couldn’t see what we had...Opening night was our second runthrough. But, it all worked out.”

Conversely, extreme heat can pose danger for both performers and the audience. Companies like San Francisco Shakespeare Festival (SF Shakes) have weather policies in place outlining precautionary measures for when temperatures are on the rise, which range from cooling down the deck of the stage with water to potentially cancelling a show. Some of the measures are preventative in nature and are built into the design of a show, such as hidden pockets in costumes for ice packs or, as Marin Shakespeare Company’s (MSC) set designer, Jackson Currier explains, painting the stage a lighter color so that it deflects the heat.

Currier, who also works as master carpenter, technical director, and lighting designer for the company, elaborates other facets of their amphitheater space that require creative solutions.

“There is no fly space, no proscenium arch, very few (if any) existing positions to hang lights or speakers from, no established "wings" or even a "backstage," no rigging or grid for drops, curtains, or screens, everything, including the stage deck itself, has to be constructed anew at the start of each season…. One-fourth of all of our performances are matinees, which means that we cannot rely on using lights to isolate certain areas of the stage, or ever plan on using blackouts to cover transitions or entrances/exits. Creating the intimacy that theatre so often thrives on can be very tricky.  The sets that I design, large as they are, want to help focus the audience’s attention towards specific acting areas.”

Marin Shakespeare Company's Measure for Measure. Photo courtesy MSC.

For companies like SFMT and SF Shakes, touring to different parks across the Bay and beyond poses the added problem of building a set that supports the story but still travels well. SF Shakes technical director Neal Ormond says, “For an organization like SF Shakes with our Free Shakespeare in the Park at five different outdoor park and amphitheater venues each summer, flexibility of the set design is very important to conform to the wide range of topography, surface materials, microclimates...we encounter across the venues.” 

The company’s current production of As You Like It: A New Musical employs a backdrop of accordion-style wooden panels which can be manipulated to fit different stage floor layouts but also easily folded and stacked for transport. 

Michael Gene Sullivan—an SFMT Collective member, the Troupe’s resident playwright, and writer of this year’s show — feels that the often grueling assembly and takedown of their unit set allows the audience to identify with the performers. 

“That they see us do the work and prepare is part of the process of them understanding that we are workers just like them, and that they are seeing a play, not magic,” says Sullivan.

As You Like It: The Musical by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jay Yamada.

For Ormond, the challenges keep his interest sharpened. “It's all totally worthwhile when after an insane week of load-in I get to put down the tools, change into sandals and dry clothes, step out of the sun and feel a bit of cool breeze as the sun starts to set, hear the sounds of a piano wafting through the park as the musicians warm up, grab a beer, and transition into audience member mode as I get to sit back and enjoy the result of our labor.”

Currier shares this sentiment. “There is a certain magic present on nights when the air is calm, the temperature is nice, and the sky is clear. The stars, trees, and even the animals become a part of the world of the show, dissipating the fourth wall... On some nights, the moon, occasionally a full moon, will rise perfectly over the set during a performance as if its entrance was preordained in the stage manager's call sheet.”

SF Shakes resident artist Maryssa Wanlass, who plays the melancholy Jaques this summer in As You Like It, equally savors the moments “where nature is suddenly your most brilliant creative collaborator.” These spontaneous collaborations are a heady drug that many performers allude to when speaking of their passion for performing outdoors. 

“You are purposely working with an inconsistent and uncontrollable element,” Margron says. “I like the improvisation and creativity required to do that.  In one particular performance, every time I had a monologue a plane would fly by... Sometimes a dog will enter your scene, and now your character has a dog.” 

Maintaining the integrity of a performance while incorporating the unexpected requires agility, deep presence, and in some cases, such as when an inebriated gentleman wandered onto the Mime Troupe stage, a dose of humor.

“It keeps you humble,” says Lizzie Calagero, who plays Jill Hawkins in Treasure Island, “If an ice-cream truck comes through while you’re opening your heart in your big monologue, you just have to roll with it. That’s life: sometimes your heart breaks, and there’s ice cream at the same time.”

Wanlass agrees that the flexibility required can “make you less precious about your craft.” Nevertheless, she points out, the craft must be strong to play to an audience outdoors where the energy can be diffuse, uncontained by the walls of a building. Actors must make bold choices but find a way to maintain some nuance even when sizing characters up for large parks and monitoring the potential wear on their voices.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Cal Shakes. Photo by Kevin Berne.

But beyond the challenges and beyond the joys, there is the familial connection that’s fostered over shared summers. For many artists, it seems as much of a tradition to work in outdoor theatre each summer as it is for audience members to attend. Sullivan, who has been an SFMT Collective member since 1988, recalls his father taking him to see the Troupe when he was a teenager. Currier and his partner Luisa Frasconi, who played Isabella in MSC’s production of Measure for Measure this summer, return every summer with their two daughters in tow, “We have actors and crew members who have worked with Marin Shakes since I was a baby and remember seeing me playing with sticks and running around the theatre,” Currier says. “Now they see my children doing the same, and it reminds me of the community that has been built by sharing evenings outdoors together making art.” 

Perhaps it’s the simple act of sharing a summer afternoon or evening together that keeps loyal audience members returning. “To be in a park, to look around and see people's houses, really grounds you in the community’s experience of the story you’re telling...You’re in their backyard,” says Calogero.

It’s this backyard energy that permeates Dolores Park on July 4th as audience members chat with their neighbors and actors after the curtain call. It feels like a BBQ and a revolution at the same time. 

“We want the audience to have a great time, but we also want them to feel activated to fight the good fight, to battle injustice, to know that their ethics are important, and to know they are not alone,” Sullivan says.When performing outside there is nothing between you, the audience, and the universe. There is no real separation between performer and audience —we can see them, and they know we can see them. We are talking not to a darkness of quiet but to a vast living world.”

Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.