Theatre for a New Old Age

Having just completed our 2021 outdoor Piknik Theatre season, I’m overwhelmed at the popularity and the ability of these little pieces of free theatre to touch the souls of audience members. We had more in attendance this season than ever, despite the ongoing pandemic cloud constantly lingering overhead; and the wildfires contributing beautiful and toxic sunsets. People spread out on blankets and chairs as usual, maybe a little more spread out than usual but with new loudspeakers supporting their voices, these professional performers had little trouble being heard.

Shakespeare had audiences chuckling and the original “world” premiere (well, maybe; we’ve not heard of anyone else adapting Charlie Mackesy’s beautiful little graphic book the Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse into a dramatic performance work) brought tears to the eyes of grown men and wonder to the eyes of little children. There was such joy in the creating process during our rehearsals – all of which were held outside for obvious reasons; there was such joy in the performances to the receptive and generous outdoor audience members (thank you all very much!!). If there was any doubt why live theatre is so powerful, these two shows put those doubts to rest.

Now Piknik Theatre moves indoors to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for a season of Romeo and Juliet with the security usually reserved for the courtroom. They’ll be a strong arm at the door checking IDs, vaccination cards, and providing masks for those without. There will be social distancing and limited seating capacity. And we’re not the only theatre in the country taking these precautions. From LA to NYC, all professional theatres are taking similar measures to protect both actors and audience members from a slippery and elusive virus that continues to sicken and kill the unwary. Where’s the joy going to be for these performances?

We trust our actors to overcome adversity and focus on the telling of a story that transcends these shaky circumstances. If you look at theatres in Afghanistan and Palestine, or Myanmar and Hong Kong, you know that storytelling can persevere under the most difficult environments. If we learned anything from our productions this summer, it’s that theatre is resilient and powerful. We are a group of artists working in an art form that has an inexorable appeal to the human spirit. “People will come, Ray, people will most definitely come. For it is money they have and peace they lack.” For those brief moments in the beauty of the Yampa River Botanic Park, peace and the tranquility of the soul prevailed through timeless stories wonderfully told. In the hallowed sanctuary of St. Paul’s, the classic Shakespearean romantic tragedy told in magical words will stir our spirits once again.

Over two thousand years ago, our Western storytelling tradition began in the outdoors amphitheaters of ancient Greece. There were no microphones, no lights or electricity, and no asphalt parking spaces. I’m not sure what they did for toilets but I’m certain they didn’t flush. There was just the simplicity of a story well told in sound and movement. We can return to this level of simple storytelling once again in our beautiful outdoor environments of Steamboat Springs. That appreciation of the outdoors is what has brought so many of us to this valley over the years. If we’re to continue these traditions that began thousands of years ago, and avoid the pandemic issues that began in 2020, it will be through a return to outdoor performance.

Is there a perfect location for an outdoor performance venue in the Steamboat Springs area? Of course not. We’ve got a major highway that’s seen incredible traffic and truck jams this summer due to interstate highway closures that will persist for years to come. We’ve got a railway line with train traffic that will continue regardless of the fate of the coal industry. There’s an airport who’s glide path covers much of the town from east to west. The Greeks didn’t have to deal with the overwhelming cacophony of modern life. Vacant land, public or privately owned, is precious and rare. Quiet public or private land is even more dear. The City owned property in the Spring Creek drainage that was once an industrial area – the town’s water supply a hundred years ago – is both quiet and badly in need of rehabilitation after a botched dam decommissioning. The barren rock and weed strewn gravel are begging for a new life as a quiet spot for Verdi, Mozart, and Shakespeare. We need only look back to see the possibilities for the beautiful simplicity of outdoor performance; we need only look to the present to realize that the outdoors in Steamboat is both our reason for living here and our salvation for safe and inspirational stories.

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