SHAKESPEARE TYPICALLY DIVIDES people into two groups: those who love the Bard’s mastery of the English language, and those who’d rather be home watching The Apprentice. It takes a troupe like Shakespeare & Company to bring the contrasting crowds together.
For the past 30 years, the White Bear Lake–based ensemble has performed at Century College on an outdoor stage, rain or shine. Although some local theaters, such as Shakespeare in the Park and Cromulent Shakespeare Company, also perform outside, Shakespeare & Company is the only Minnesota troupe to have its own permanent stage alfresco. According to actor Jay Urmann, that permanence has its perks.
“The best part is that I don’t have to get in my car and drive from park to park,” Urmann jokes.
Some elements of outdoor theater can challenge actors to their benefit. Urmann—who is also a founder of Twin Cities–based Pigs Eye Theatre, which performs indoors—says it’s hard to hide flaws and faults on an outdoor stage. Natural lighting can be unforgiving: sleight of hand is impossible; flimsy sets and thin costumes are apparent. Direct sunlight can work against an actor’s makeup (which is crucial for playing, say, an aged character), because it doesn’t have the same effect that it might under stage lights. The most difficult hurdle, especially for new actors, Urmann says, is the intimacy with the audience. Unlike the crowd attending an indoor performance, where the house lights go dark during the show, the patrons lolling on the lawn at an outdoor performance are clearly visible and often just a few feet away from the actors.
“You begin to get regulars, and the audience becomes part of the family,” Urmann says. He remembers one elderly couple who came every year to every show of the season and sat in the same place on the grass. “As an actor, you scope out the audience before the show, and I always knew I’d have a good performance when I spotted them,” Urmann says.
Frequent patrons get to see actors in multiple roles during the theater’s season, since Shakespeare & Company performs in repertory, staging three plays on alternating nights throughout the summer.
Acting in rep, as they say, is a heavy load to take on. Many of the actors need to memorize multiple lines and portray different characters in concurrently running shows. But Urmann, who joined Shakespeare & Company in 1980, says such rotations have forced him to stretch and expand his acting skills.
There are downsides to outdoor performances, of course—chiefly the weather. Artistic director George Roesler says guests will usually sit through a sprinkle (he’ll call off the play if severe weather is in store), but the actors have no choice but to play on, even in the event of a downpour. Urmann recalls a crucial scene in Henry IV when it began raining hard: “I was King Henry and I had to die, and I ended up dying with my mouth open, trying my best to send thoughts to the other actor to pull a sheet over my head so I wouldn’t drown.”
If a cloudy day doesn’t dampen attendance, little else can, and Roesler believes the outdoor environment and informality makes Shakespeare particularly accessible. “There’s a boundary between the players and the audience, but actors will go out into the audience and walk around them,” Roesler says. Audiences can relax, kick off their shoes, and lie back on the ground. Couples enjoy their pre-packed picnics on blankets as actors doff their feathered caps. Families seated in folding chairs look on as fairies float across the stage. Children romp and dogs circle as the three witches of Macbeth prophesy the Scot’s rise to power. It’s not hard to imagine this as a performance at the Globe in Shakespeare’s time.
“We stay true to the poetry, but because we’re a little more relaxed—the audience can come in T-shirts and shorts—they seem to understand it in a different way,” Roesler says. “They are directly engaged…and it becomes less intimidating. For most families, they aren’t going to bring their 6-year-old to the Guthrie to see Hamlet. But they will bring them here.”
Shakespeare & Company presents Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Moliere’s The Miser, weekends in July. Visit www.shakespeare-company.org for more information.