KATE TOWSEY

It’s currently so cold outside that my feet start hurting whenever I leave the house, but that also means I am longing for summer and everything it brings. Reading a book on a sunny window sill, turning every possible meal into a picnic, exams being over… Last year, prelims safely out of the way, much of my summer term was taken up with rehearsing for two May Week Shakespeare plays, both of which we were to perform outdoors. Whether I made a mistake thinking I could regurgitate that sheer amount of the Bard in one go isn’t up for debate. More importantly, the vitamin D deficiency I’d developed in my first two terms was almost instantly cured. We never needed to worry about finding rehearsal space – with few overcast days, let alone wet weather, almost all of our rehearsals were outside, by the river, under trees, in college gardens. It is an idyllic image, and at Cambridge, we’re on the whole extremely lucky to have such a saturation of beautiful and historic outdoor spaces. And the amount of space is needed – last year there were six different Shakespeare plays running across Cambridge in May Week. 

Sometimes, when the stars align properly, the greatest disadvantages to outdoor theatre can be their greatest advantages

Outdoor performances are inextricably linked to theatre tradition. The earliest formal plays in England were performed outdoors as part of religious festivals. In 1379, when the York Mystery Plays were performed as part of the festival of Corpus Christi, the tradition of moving pageant wagons was well established – the plays would travel around the city to perform to the widest possible audience. The open-air theatres of the 16th century long preceded their covered cousins, and as such many of Shakespeare’s plays were written with a quasi-outdoor staging in mind. You could argue that it is harder for a director to evoke the Forest of Arden or Italian countryside in the confines of an indoor venue than to situate Juliet’s balcony in a terraced garden. I once saw the varied locations of Romeo and Juliet depicted entirely in and around a VW camper in the middle of a park.

The capacity of Cambridge colleges for these kinds of performances is huge. The majority of colleges have an abundance of open, grassy courts surrounded by imposing historic architecture, while sculpted gardens and the occasional dark, wild corner are to be found all over the university. When outdoor performances are so tempting in the summer months, it is perhaps dangerously easy for the content to become somewhat repetitive. In the past four years, there have been twice as many summer term performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in and around Cambridge. And with so many performances going on each year, originality is arguably becoming harder and harder to come by. It becomes an uphill battle to stage a fresh take, even if performed on a flat, perfectly manicured college lawn.

There is also no getting around that performing in college outdoor spaces has some pretty major drawbacks. When using a court lawn rather than a secluded garden the performance is inevitably plagued by interruptions from residents and other college events, especially towards the end of the summer term, when societies venture outdoors for garden parties. This distracts both actors and audiences, and counteracts any possibility of full immersion, no matter how convincing the performances. Without the simple solution of a backstage area, it becomes a logistical nightmare to maintain the boundaries of the stage-area, and so the parameters within which the audience is asked to suspend their disbelief collapse.

If a production aims to avoid the noise problems with an evening performance, they then have to contend with the twilight; lengthier plays may find their final scenes take place in complete darkness. Natural lighting and weather conditions must be taken into account by directors. If the sunset does align with the performance, will it be counteracted or complemented by lighting choices? In established outdoor theatres, such as the Porthcurno’s iconic Minack Theatre, weather frequently does not affect the fact that the show must go on, but in Cambridge, on the door sales can be crippled by drizzle. 


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Sometimes, when the stars align properly, the greatest disadvantages to outdoor theatre can be their greatest advantages. In 2014 I saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The outdoor setting of this play lends itself to an open-air performance, but the central London location could not help but occasionally break my immersion in the rural Midwestern setting. At yet, as the play reached its climax, with Chris reading his brother’s letter, his dialogue was punctuated with the roar of a jet engine on the London City Airport flight path. No ambient noise could have been more appropriate or better enforced the emotional weight of the scene. Although maybe it was the combined quality of the performance and expert writing that meant I was fully engrossed in Miller’s world, rather than the outside world distracting me, distractions were incorporated into the world of the stage.

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