The Working Waterfront

A new way to be alive, and live

OUTDOOR THEATER EXPERIMENT IS A SUCCESS

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2020-10-28
Last Modified 2020-10-28

A few months ago, my column focused on doing things differently, and having them still be good. Take out instead of dine in. Picnics instead of cocktail parties. Online events instead of in-person.

I got some good mileage out of that attitude, but by the end of August, I was pretty tired of these different but still good ways of living. I wanted some of my old life back. To that end, I hadn’t really conceived of doing a fall play. I was Zoomed out, tired of technical difficulties and speaker mode, and plays where characters spent their time yelling at each other over the phone or their space helmets or whatever. It wasn’t that those things were bad, it was that the differences were exhausting me.

How does one power not only a laptop and speakers, but body mics for all the actors, so they can be heard from behind their face shields?

It took a dedicated student to nudge me back to life and inspire me to try something a little new and different, and a little old and traditional. When one of my high schoolers sent me some photos of the Belfast Maskers live, in-person, distanced, face-shielded summer student production, I realized that there was in fact more than one way to put on a show in these weird times.

I’ve always had my eye on the grove of locust trees in Mullins Head Park as a possible outdoor theater venue. Its striking silhouette evokes the African savannah, which led me to the decision to finally stage Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt, a script that’s always caught my imagination. Even better, it focuses on a darkly prescient vision of a future subsumed by technology, and of a population divided through its use. What could be better than a little fictional dystopia to accompany some actual dystopia?

I recruited a small cast to participate in this experiment. For the past few years, my goal with the fall and spring theatrical productions has been to select scripts with opportunities for as many people as could possibly want to participate, especially younger actors. Tiny clowns in Twelfth Night, a whole gaggle of street urchins in Sherlock Holmes and the First Baker Street Irregular, extra children galore in How to Eat Like a Child. But in this case, I needed to keep things streamlined and safe.

I asked two siblings to be involved—I had a hunch I could use their pod status to my directorial advantage. My high school student, naturally, had a role, and two community adults agreed to take part. We’d rehearse outdoors whenever possible, and over Zoom when needed due to weather.

With the acting part of the theatrical production more or less under control, it was time to tackle the technical aspects. My husband, Bill, had graciously agreed to design the soundscape, with a whopping 72 cues, from helicopters to lions to electronic music. Artist David Wilson came on board for scenery.

But beyond those challenges were implementation and installation. How does one power not only a laptop and speakers, but body mics for all the actors, so they can be heard from behind their face shields? Once one finds an appropriate generator, how many feet of extension cord does it take to get it far enough away from the audience that it isn’t overpoweringly loud? Is using a generator even a good idea at all during a drought? How do you rehearse with scenery so it doesn’t get rained on or blown away? (The answer to that one is, you don’t until the final dress rehearsal).

As production drew near, we encountered new problems and worked through them. On a gusty day, we learned that a face shield makes a very effective wind tunnel, and that the wind blowing over a body mic is loud indeed. We became experts at packing and unpacking vehicles, and shuttling furniture, pop up tents, and other equipment between our houses and the park shed. Actors learned to wear layers underneath their costumes, and huddled underneath a prop quilt “backstage” (which was just the area behind a tree).

I had few expectations going into the production. I wanted to put on a good show, but viewed the process mostly as a way to work out the kinks of outdoor theater for the future. But by final dress rehearsal, it was shaping up to be a darn good show.

I was pleased, if slightly surprised, to see the audience pour in that afternoon, bolstered by the perfect weather and, perhaps, the utter absence of anything else to do. They spread out in the trees, on blankets or in beach chairs, masked and distanced from other pods. It was disorienting at first to hear their reactions—their laughter, or unnerved response to the sound design emanating from the speakers hidden in the trees, even their applause—and then, it lifted my spirits. More than anything, that was the missing element from all of our online performances, and, more than anything, that is the driving force behind live theater.

Outdoor theater is weather dependent, and Maine is heading into the cold, dark times. But should we still be in a pandemic come spring, I’m feeling energized and excited to revisit outdoor theater, especially now that we’ve completed our shakedown cruise.

Courtney Naliboff teaches theater, music, and writing and lives on North Haven.