Experienced writer/directors Philip Dart and Claudia Leaf from Scene Three Creative offer help and advice on acting in the open air.
If you’re feeling trapped inside the theatre space where your drama group usually performs, maybe it’s time to hit the great outdoors. Here are ten tips to help you conquer the elements and get your work outside this summer.
There are several things to bear in mind when you are choosing a venue for your outdoor performance. Is it quiet? Can you cordon it off to keep out non-payers? Can people sit safely and comfortably for ninety minutes or more in your space? Are public toilets reasonably close? Can people park nearby? Is your performance likely to cause a nuisance to anyone? Do you have access to electrical power?
If your actors find it hard to project their voices, then outdoor may not be the right choice for them (alternatively it may be a useful opportunity to introduce some formal vocal training). However, you can do a lot to help them by carefully planning the location of your stage. Look for an area with a high bank or hedge behind it, as this will help to contain the sound.
Don’t go too far off-piste. If you normally perform in a village hall close to a recreation field or village green, that space might be the best option for your open-air performance. The hall will not only provide a changing room for the actors, it will also offer a place for the audience to shelter in the event of a heavy shower (we are talking about the British summer, after all). Alternatively you could put up tents for changing, but do make sure they are waterproof and securely staked into the ground. If you’ve obtained permission to perform in a town centre space, then look out for a nearby pub that could offer changing space to your group in exchange for selling drinks to your audience members in the interval.
As a rule it’s always best to check with the licensing department of the appropriate local authority (ie relevant to your venue’s location), especially if you want to perform in or near a built-up area. The rules about performing are much tighter in town centres, but if your play takes place in a rural or semi-rural area between 8am and 11pm, and there are no more than 500 people (including the acting company and organisers) taking part or watching, there’s a good chance that you won’t need a licence to perform.
Seating the audience
Whether you seat the audience on chairs or hay bales or let them find their own spaces, sitting on the ground, will largely depend on sightlines. If you are able to perform on a raised area, then conventional seating should be fine. If you are performing on a flat piece of ground, then the audience will need to seat themselves at ground level, too (always a good excuse to bring a picnic). There are many more distractions when you’re performing outdoors so your actors may fare better if they can perform on a raised platform or a mound, with the audience seated formally, on chairs.
It’s always a magical moment when darkness starts to fall and the stage lighting comes into full effect, but lighting an open air performance isn’t a matter of simply attaching the lamps from your theatre to portable stands. Electricity and rain aren’t happy companions, so you’ll need to hire specially made outdoor stage lights. Ideally you’ll draw your power from a nearby building, using electric cable mats to avoid creating a trip hazard. Alternatively you could choose to perform in full daylight: sunset times are around 9pm in the UK in July/August and this should give you plenty of time to end the performance before dark.
Outdoor performance needs a radically different approach to designing and making a stage set. Untreated wood will quickly warp in outdoor conditions and flattage – no matter how well it has been weighted down – can be a risk to actors and audience if the wind is strong. That’s why it’s better to choose a performance site with a relatively plain backdrop – such as trees or hedges – and concentrate on props and costumes instead.
Shakespeare is always a safe choice for outdoor performance, but classic comedies like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ also work surprisingly well outdoors. If you want to appeal to a family audience, plays based on folk tales or legends are usually popular. Outdoor performances that worked exceptionally well for us included our own adaptations of The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. To view these and other scripts available for performance, go to scenethreecreative.co.uk and click on ‘Script writing and script bank’.
Health and safety
With the best will in the world, sometimes the heavens open, killing any chance of continuing with the performance. In the event of rain, you’ll need to consider the safety of the audience and your actors, so it’s a real bonus if you can be close to a village hall or other space where people can shelter safely. Decide beforehand on what constitutes grounds to stop the performance – for example you may all decide it’s fine to continue in light rain, but the actors must stop in the event of heavy rain and thunder. Appoint two people to take the decision between them.
Cancellation and refunds
It’s up to you whether you offer refunds for cancelled performances, but from a marketing viewpoint you may find people are more willing to book in advance if you can offer a refund for bad weather cancellation. If you are staging several performances you may be able to give customers the option of attending another show, rather than giving them their money back.
If it all goes well, open-air performance can be one of the most joyful and exciting experiences you can have as a performer. Being outside seems to put the audiences into a good mood, too – maybe it’s the picnic wine, or maybe it’s just the elemental thrill of seeing theatre as it was performed hundreds of years ago. So if you decide to ‘act out’, we wish you every success (and fingers crossed that it stays fine).
Scene Three Creative is an arts organisation formed by Philip Dart and Claudia Leaf, two experienced practitioners with a strong track record in theatre production and writing. Past projects have included professional theatre productions, education initiatives and literary and commercial writing projects.
Copyright http://www.scenethreecreative.co.uk 2018