A photo of the stage at the Delacorte Theatre, used by The Public Theatre
A photo of the stage at the Delacorte Theatre, used by The Public Theatre

King of the Hill . . . and the Woods . . . and the Fields

Rhona Silverbush, leading acting and text coach and co-author of Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated, gives us the lowdown on why and how The Bard takes center stage around the country every summer.

For some folks, summer means baseball. For others, it’s time to fire up the grill. For others still — those who prefer winter, perhaps — it just means ducking mosquitoes until the next frost. But for theater lovers, it can mean only one thing: outdoor Shakespeare!

But why? What makes William Shakespeare the undisputed King of Summer Theater? Why has he dominated open-air offerings for the better part of four centuries now? I know this question has been plaguing you as much as it’s been gnawing at me.

There are many compelling reasons both for a theater company to mount Shakespeare’s plays and for a theatergoer to attend them, all of which dovetail to make Shakespeare the perfect summer fare.

What’s in it for the theater companies? 

I needn’t tell you about the obvious satisfaction derived from producing and performing plays that are gorgeously written, emotionally and psychologically astute, moving, and outright hilarious (even if, as with the tragedies, the humor only emerges now and again). As playwright Matthew Wells told me, “Creatively, even the least of [Shakespeare’s] plays is such a well-constructed verbal and theatrical engine that it will entertain a modern audience on some level.” So I’m not overlooking any of that when I point to a major deciding factor for theaters’ artistic and managing directors: the bottom line. No sane person starts a theater company in order to get rich quick — or at all, ever. Theater companies, even well-established ones, often fly by the seats of their pants, productions are expensive, and, frankly, every penny counts. Outdoor Shakespeare can be cost-effective at least in large part for the following reasons:

  • “All the world’s a stage.” It’s true! The guy knew what he was talking about when he put those words into Jaques’s mouth in As You Like It. A great many of Shakespeare’s plays are already set outdoors, which obviates the need for elaborate sets. Performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a play that takes place largely in the woods — in a clearing in the woods? No need to budget for faux foliage. Performing The Tempest — a play that takes place on an island following an enchanted shipwreck — in a field near the ocean? No need to paint a backdrop. As Shakespeare aficionado Frances Harris put it, with all due respect to the many brilliantly talented set designers out there: “A natural summer setting is more beautiful than the painted flats of the set designer. . . . The natural backdrop of tall trees and leafy woods lends a delightful authenticity to the plays.”
  • And even those plays that aren’t set primarily outdoors don’t need much in the way of sets. You see, for most of his career, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be produced in large, open-air theatres, where little was done in the way of sets. People in Shakespeare’s London didn’t say they were going to “see” a play; rather, they said they were going to “hear” a play. This is because most of Shakespeare’s contemporaneous audience members were “groundlings” who paid their minimal entry fee to experience his plays from the large mosh pit in the center of the big round theatre, from which vantage point they often could barely see the stage. “Words, words, words” were all that were needed to bring along the audience, and Shakespeare knew exactly how to use them to paint the mental pictures that would transport his audiences to “the vasty fields of France” or ancient Rome or pre-Christian Britain, or medieval Denmark . . .
  • And yes, I know what you’re thinking: If the audience wasn’t focused on watching the action, they probably didn’t need to see elaborate costumes either. Right you are. My favorite production of Hamlet ever (and I’ve seen my share) was performed by five actors, each playing multiple roles, all wearing white shirts and black pants. No set, either, by the way. Just the actors and the words, under the open sky, as Shakespeare intended.
  • And, most beautiful of all to a theater company, no copyright means no royalites. The plays are in the public domain. No playwright or heirs to pay? Priceless — literally. It’s quite breathtaking for a company’s artistic director to realize that Shakespeare’s works, the finest material available to a theater company, not only require little in the way of sets and costumes, especially when done outside, but also can be performed free and clear of any royalties whatsoever. What’s the opposite of “ironic?” That.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that in the U.S., comedies are served up more than Shakespeare’s other genres in the summertime. Once again this year, this maxim held up region by region — except, surprisingly, in the Midwest, where tragedies trumped. In fact, of all 11 productions of Hamlet my trusty researcher turned up for this summer, a full six of them are being done in the Midwest. It seems that while no other geographic region has more than one production of the tragedy, “something’s rotten in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, etc.” this summer. Similarly, California is trending tragic this summer, with just slightly fewer than half of the nation’s productions of Romeo and Juliet being mounted in that one state. I know it’s a big state and all, but that’s not actually normal. Oh, and you’ll be shocked — shocked! — to learn that almost no one is doing any of the histories. Too much context needed to follow the action? I’m guessing so. Too bad, because those plays are fantastic..

For a map showing which productions are being done where this summer, click here: http://www.maptive.com/ver3/04fd79450859f8d7d0e6a43eb9f07f5e

Then click on the map itself. Then go to a show.

But I digress.

OK, so we can see the appeal to theater companies. But why do we audience members go year after year? It’s not like we need to find out how the plays end.

I’m an admitted Shakespeare geek, so I’m not going to answer that myself or I’d go on and on. Rather, I’ll let theatergoers do that for themselves. I’ve conducted a wee survey of theater lovers of all ages, backgrounds, and locales who were happy to share their views.

Everyone noted that it was satisfying to experience natural backdrops for those plays that take place outdoors. Everyone. So now I’m embarrassed that I lectured you about that above. But my interviewees went further than that.

NYC college student Felicia Castaldo spoke for many when she noted, “The outdoor setting, for me, creates the illusion of there being no distance between a modern performance and one that may have taken place in Shakespeare’s own time.” Maryland resident Gail O’Donnell concurred: “Summer Shakespeare, with its outdoor scenario, picnics, meeting friends, walking through nature, and all the other stuff that surrounds the play, is a lovely throwback to the open-air theatres of Shakespeare’s day.”

There were the more high-minded comments. Scientist Carter Bancroft said, “My guess is that this is a time when people both want to ‘improve’ themselves by absorbing some ‘cultcha’ and also feel like they have the time and leisure to do it.” Along those lines, theater (and “cultcha”) lover Linda Watson suggested, “People may feel more relaxed in summer, work demands may slow down a bit, vacation time arrives, so there is perhaps more psychological energy available to focus on the speeches. The language, after all, demands a certain level of concentration from most audiences.” Actress Patricia Randell noted that “many of us gain from ‘going into the woods’ in the summer, so that we can come back enlarged somehow.” As a person who is perpetually cold, I greatly appreciated Rumi expert Peter Rogen’s apt, “Could Calgary [Alberta] or Nome [Alaska] ever be like Bali? Spring and summer encourage the opening of the heart and mind more than bitter autumn and freezing winter.” What a coincidence: Shakespeare’s plays encourage the opening of the heart and mind, period. Summer plus Shakespeare equals a winning formula.

But then there were those at the other end of the spectrum. One person reminded me that Tom Wolfe answered his own “Why do people love attending baseball games?” with “They don’t like it that much, but they love to be in the sun and eat hot dogs with mustard and drink beer.” Got it. Another comment? “Daddy can sleep while Mommy and the kids watch the play.” Been there.

Combining all of the above, Shakespeare director Dan Hanchrow probably summed it up best with, “I think even people who aren’t bardolaters appreciate the pageantry of Shakespeare in the open air, a true transportation from the every day. And if you can picnic before or during the show, why, that’s just living right!”

Yup, ‘tis. Verily.

Photo: Shakespeare in the Park by Tammy Shell.