“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”, to quote the Bard, and all the shorter when you start to plan what to do with that all too fleeting flick of time. Get out to the beach as much as possible, go for a road trip, have a few barbecues, and maybe finally get out to see one of those Shakespeare in the Park shows. And there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities for them in the summer months. In most major cities with any semblance of green space, you’re likely to have Shakespearian companies putting on performances outdoors almost every day of the week. But why is it that becoming mosquito bitten throughout a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream has become such a booming pastime, and what does it really add to the experience of Shakespeare?
There are countless festivals and companies now offering this form of performance throughout the summer, most utilizing some play on the name Shakespeare In The Park (such as Shakespeare By The Sea in Halifax, NS). This became the official name of the well known program run by The Public Theatre in New York City, formerly the New York Shakespeare Festival, which dates back to 1954 under the direction of Joseph Papp. And before this program, there was Regent’s Open Air Theatre in London, which while not solely dedicated to Shakespeare has staged many such productions. And even before this, Sir Philip “Ben” Greet was touring parks, gardens, and campuses across England in the late 19th century, eventually getting the invitation to bring his outdoors Shakespearean productions to America.
Greet’s productions in the U.S. were the first outdoor Shakespearean plays presented there, starting with As You Like It at Colombia University campus in 1903. The concept spread widely from this point, cropping up in all parts of the U.S. and Canada over the next century; its success and staying power is unsurprising, coupling the advent of a novel outdoor pastime with an affordable (and oftentimes free) night of entertainment. It actively pushes against the classist undertones of majorly high ticket prices within theatre spheres. Especially in early-mid 20th century, the push for outdoor theatre not only connected back to the original roots of theatre, but it also focussed in on theatre’s primary competition: the television. And what better way to emphasize the liveness of the art form then presenting it in the unconfined natural world?
But just as popular theatre nowadays often struggles to be aware of what makes itself poignant in comparison to film and TV, so too do a number of outdoor Shakespeare programs seem void of a reason for their particular performances being put on outside. If there is a choice between performance type, it seems hard not to go with the one that involves a cushy seat and zero wasps assaulting you mid-soliloquy. Found-location theatre can be a toss up between a uniquely energizing, memorable performance and an indulgent, reasonless choice. But especially when it comes to Shakespeare In The Park companies utilizing the same locations annually, it is that much easier for them to make the same creative choices annually. The magic of a non-traditional performance location becomes familiar and is given the same treatment as any other stage. While it can have the benefit of appealing to tourists and first-time attendees, it will always run the risk of becoming bland to any given company’s public.
If a Shakespeare In The Park company seeks to continue the tradition of the Bard’s words being weaved into the summer air, it’s important- as in any artistic endeavour- to think about the raison d’être. If this work is to be shared, why should it be live? And if it should be live, why amongst nature? Because there is a true magic in a well executed piece of Shakespeare presented outside the confines of a theatre, connecting directly to the elemental language that fills up so many of those beloved scripts. But the moment a production loses sight of how special and organic an experience that can cultivate, all you can hear are the mosquitoes.