Outdoor theater: The pleasures and perils

July 27, 2012

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As I sit in my air-conditioned apartment dodging 100-degree heat, I must admit I don’t look forward to venturing out to spend an evening on a lawn breathing leaden air and watching Shakespeare.  And that tells you the entire story of the drawbacks of outdoor theater: Everyone, actors and audience alike, is at the mercy of the elements.  If it rains, we have to cancel; if it already has rained, we have to skirt mud and still end up with wet bottoms; if mosquitoes arrive, we can slap them or ignore them but either way they're going to be around. (And if you tickle us, do we not laugh?) Outdoor theater, in other words, is a supremely physical experience.

And that, despite its disadvantages, is what makes outdoor theater worth doing. Theater artists often comment on the difference between a film, where the actors are mere shadows on screen, and a play, where the actors are living breathing beings occupying the space right in front of you. One of these events is real in a way the other is not.

By the same token, the physical awareness provoked by outdoor theater – that we’re all sharing the humidity or the bugs or the sound of that plane that just flew overhead – makes an evening on the turf real in a way indoor performances are not. We may think we’re distracted when we notice the pair of bunnies seated next to the stage earnestly observing the bipeds, but we’re actually becoming aware of the whole environment in which theater takes place. 

“Theater” doesn’t just happen on the stage; as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin observed in In Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In fact, they described “the goosebump experience” of a play as being provoked by the fact that “a group of strangers sitting together in the dark are laughing and crying about the same thing.”  It's hard to worry about mosquito bites when you're experiencing goosebumps – so come on out and play.

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