The first actors were likely storytellers gathered around a campfire, recounting tales of the hunt, or the battle with the neighbors, or a comedy making fun of the tribal leader (who, hopefully, had a thick skin and a sense of humor). All this happened in the outdoors, or the occasional cave or teepee, with the natural environment playing a key role. Playing outdoors was not much of a choice when there was only natural light to see the performers and perhaps a natural amphitheater for a stage.
Electricity and exotic performing arts centers give us much more flexibility these days. Performance spaces can be completely controlled with masterfully designed sets, like the giant puppet model of King Kong that recently won a Tony Award at the annual event. Voice amplification can protect delicate vocal chords and insure perfect sound quality even to the cheap seats. Theatre lighting is able to create a vast array of nuanced moods to support any stage or technical director’s dream. It’s hard to imagine The Phantom of the Opera, for example, without the lighting effects that created the magic of subterranean canals. So why would a theatre troupe choose to return to the primeval outdoors to tell their story when technology is so much more sophisticated and available?
I recently attended an outdoor production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder of Twelfth Night. It was drizzling at the beginning of the beginning of the show and off and on throughout the first act. There were thunderstorms in the area and the lightning and thunder cut loose just as an actor finished a key speech. The audience gasped. It was as if the heavens had reinforced their approval of the performance.
Years ago a Piknik Theatre Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing in the Yampa River Botanic Park was racing to finish ahead of a summer storm moving in from the west. The clouds kept gathering, getting darker, while the actors kept telling the story with increasing speed and intensity. We had just arrived at the final scene when the skies opened and the rain poured down. Some of the audience members ran for their cars but many others huddled under the large umbrella that graces the middle of The Green area of the park. They were a bit wet and crammed together while the actors raced around in the driving rain covering props and an upright piano that had been trucked in (but that’s a whole other story).
At that point, the actors figured they couldn’t get any wetter so why not finish the end of the play, a comic scene where Pyrmus and Thisbe – two ill fated lovers – melodramatically and unconvincingly take their own lives. The rain came down, the audience crammed in cheek by jowl, and the sopping actors slipped and thrashed comically about outside on the wet grass. It was a hysterical moment that those in attendance will never forget; the remaining audience members roared. The physical comedy of the scene was unlike any that could have been rehearsed thanks to the magic of the natural environment.
The dramatic thunderclaps, the pouring rainstorms, the nesting osprey crying out overhead, all underscore how nature becomes an important and unrehearsed character in any outdoor performance. This collision of human drama, reimagined for telling a story, with the reality of the natural world create a performance that is totally improvised and unrepeatable. All theater is ephemeral and that’s the beauty of the art: a performance happens – even for Broadway shows that run for years – just for a particular moment in time and then is gone. No two are ever the same. But add the unpredictability of the environment into the storytelling process and the uniqueness of each performance is heightened, creating memories that last a lifetime.
The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Mesoamericans all recognized this almost supernatural connection and timed performative and cultural activities to align with astronomical events to add divine legitimacy to the ceremonies. Theatre is all about creating magic. Linking environmental “magic” with the power of storytelling magnified the impact on the imagination.
Playing on the imagination is, of course, what live theatre does best. We rationally know, as an audience, that these are pretend characters are telling us a made up story. Romeo and Juliet do not really die. But when those unpredictable moments of environmental improvisation occur, we more easily suspend our disbelief and our imaginations take flight. The story suddenly becomes more real thanks to the intervention of the natural world. Indoor performance rarely matches the flights of fancy that so often occur in the outdoors.
King Henry V of England speaking of the battle about to take place, in Shakespeare’s Henry V, understands well the connection between a natural event – “Saint Crispin’s Day – and human drama:
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”
Audience members who attend one of our outdoor performances and feel the connection between those happy unpredictable collisions of the natural and the rehearsed, become brothers with the actors, sharing the same air. And those who miss out, shall think themselves accursed that they were not there.