4 Tips for Working in Outdoor Theatre
Outdoor theatre; there’s really nothing quite like it! In many ways, it’s the most ‘pure’ form of theatre there is; from ancient Greek amphitheatres to the open-topped Globe theatre, the open air is where theatre was born and first enjoyed. Today I find myself sitting here thinking about my outdoor theatre experiences, both as an actor and audience member. Shakespeare in the park, Christmas festivals and theatre in education, they are all wonderful things to be involved with. But performing outdoors comes with its own unique challenges which the actor needs to prepare for, so today I’ll be passing on four tips for being able to work in outdoor theatre effectively and sustainably.
My first acting job post graduating from drama school was a 9 month tour working in Shakespeare theatre-in-education. We travelled all around Australia performing shows in schools for students of all different age groups. It was fantastic, and such a great way to start my career and practise my craft. In many ways, performing for school students was how I imagine performing in Shakespeare’s day would have been: the audience tells you exactly how they feel about your performance! It was a brutal and brilliant training ground for me as a young actor. I remember one show in particular in far north Queensland, (a state in Australia) at the end of summer. Due to the broad range of schools we were performing in, we could not guarantee we’d be performing in a hall or a theatre space every day, so we had to adapt. On this particular day, we were in what felt like an aircraft hanger with no walls. It would have been 35 degrees Celsius, so the teachers had switched on 7 or 8 industrial size fans to keep the air circulating beneath the corrugated iron roof. Oh, and the audience would have numbered between 150-200 14 year olds. It was a tough show; but that day I learnt a LOT about acting, and more in particular what it takes to perform outdoors. Between that show and a number of other outdoor theatre experiences of mine I’ve compiled a short list of things for you to consider in preparation for your next outdoor performance experience.
#1 Prioritise Voice Work
Everything which is important to you as an actor working in indoor theatre remains important when performing outdoors. The two number one priorities for the actors should and must always be the audience and the story. However, with any shift in medium comes a need for us to retune our instruments accordingly. Just like we would make a shift when moving from stage to screen, so too do we need to adjust our performances moving from indoors to outdoors.
The most essential element of the craft of an actor when working in outdoor theatre is their voice. Without proper voice work, the actor will quickly crumble under the demands of being exposed to the elements. Now, I know voice is probably pretty high on your priority list already, especially if you’ve been working in theatre for a while. But even to the most vocally-confident of actors I’d say they must revisit their process for voice.
When we are in a theatre, we often underestimate how important the structure of the room is in carrying our sound to the audience’s ears. The acoustics of the room, the shapes and angles and textures of the walls and ceiling and floor all assist with the job of carrying the story through the space. When we are outdoors, none of these structures are there to help us. The contrast between working outdoors and working in a well-designed theatre are drastic when it comes to voice. Indoors, if my voice is well prepared and firing I’ll feel like I can whisper and know that the old man sitting in the back row can hear me clearly. Outdoors, my voice often feels like it vanishes into thin air, and I’m sure I sound like Rose calling “come back” to Jack in Titanic after he lets go of the life raft. (Spoiler alert – no, what? Why am I giving a spoiler alert for TITANIC. I retract that alert.)
So what do we need to focus on when it comes to our voice work? One thing. Articulation. Again, the other factors of voice work don’t disappear, all the work must remain, but the focus needs to shift. When in a theatre, our focus might be on resonance or ‘projection’. We strive to ‘fill the space’ with our sound. A worthy pursuit whilst indoors, but a potentially hazardous one when outside. Pursuing projection outdoors will most likely cause us to simply increase the volume of our voice, and in doing so we may begin to push and introduce tension into our work.
Working outdoors is like working in a different theatre every night. Each night will bring with it different elements and different challenges – the direction of the wind will drastically impact how far your voice will be able to travel. Rather than pushing through this and literally trying to combat the wind, I’d advise you to release that struggle and focus on clarity and articulation rather than volume. In a fight against the wind, you will lose. Consonants in your words, however, can cut through the air even amidst a Tempest.
So, for your next outdoor gig, prioritise all the elements of your voice work which lend themselves to the articulation of your voice. This means vocal dexterity; tongue, jaw and lip freedom and access are key. Andrew’s article here will give you some great exercises for all things voice work, and part four of his article targets articulation specifically.
One final note on voice work in outdoor theatre: If you haven’t developed a habit of warming down after a show, begin now. We talk endlessly as actors about the need to warm up our voices, but we must treat the voice like any other muscle- it needs to be taken care of before and after we have worked it! This practice doesn’t need to be as lengthy or complex as your warm up. A simple gentle humming practise while you pack down after the show should suffice, just don’t leave your voice well worked after an outdoor show and expect to be as vocally strong the next day without a warm down.
#2 Understand Your Audience
Performing outdoors means freedom and variety. The sky’s the limit for our performances – in an outdoor setting they may be as grand and free as we wish. The elements will vary night to night, forcing us to adapt with whatever is right in front of us each performance. The same too goes for the audience: in outdoor settings, the audiences will be much FREER and VARIED than in an indoor auditorium. There won’t be allocated seating, no-one will be allowed to bring food into the theatre. Outdoors however, it would seem that anything goes! The audience will sit wherever they please, some far and sporadically, some basically sitting on the stage with you. With them they will bring every item from their pantry they might need for their picnic. Packets will rustle, bottles will fizz, conversations will be held. Outdoor theatre is a wonderful and joyous experience for the audience, and (especially if they are filling themselves with alcohol throughout the show) they will most likely be very engaged and vocal about your performance.
Embrace this rabble. Love it! Understand the experience you are hoping your audience to have, and allow them to experience it in their own way. Relieve yourself of trying to control the audience too much, you won’t be able to.
As well as understanding your audience, you need to understand how you’ll best be able to connect with them. In rehearsals once you have moved onto your performance space, spend some time between your scenes in the audience area. Listen to the other actors; can you hear them well? Are there any spots on the stage where you can’t see or hear them? It’s worth partnering up with an ensemble member and taking turns speaking ‘performatively’ to each other while one of you is on the stage and one of you is in the audience. By doing this you’ll better be able to gauge how to reach the audience with your story, and which of your choices will be most effective.
#3 Manage Your Energy
Energy management is always essential in theatre. Theatre is a near athletic event for the performer at the best of times, but when we take the action outdoors the energy required from the actor usually skyrockets. With all the variables we spoke of before, from the unpredictable audiences to the sudden changes in the weather, performing outdoors can be exhausting. This is why energy management for the actor working in outdoor theatre is essential.
Under the heading of ‘energy management’ are many elements, including:
- An effective warm up/ warm down ritual
- High quality sleep
- Rest and energy conservation during the day before and after the show and between your scenes
- Self care practises: meditation, journalling, asking for help if you need it
- Diet; slow energy release foods rather than lots of caffeine or sugar to keep you going.
- Increased water intake (especially if you’re performing during the summer months!)
- Physical care; stretching, gentle exercise, yoga ect
- Tracing the ‘through line’ of your character throughout the show so you know what energy levels you need to reach at each moment
- An acceptance that each day will be different and you may have more or less energy than the day before
- Communication with the ensemble/ creative team about how you are going and what you need.
This list may just be the tip of the iceberg for your personal practise, but it at least begins the thought process if actively looking after yourself mid-season isn’t something you’ve had to think all too much about before. Outdoor theatre has a way of demanding a crazy amount of energy from the actor, so a decent practise for looking after yourself is essential if you want to make it through the season feeling happy and healthy.
Take what’s on this list and add to it; make it your own! Only you can determine what you need to do to stay healthy and sane during a season.
#4 Embrace the Unexpected
One final pointer for you ahead of your outdoor season: Embrace the unexpected. Don’t just expect or accept it, embrace it as a gift. Outdoor theatre has a habit of throwing us curveballs mid-performance. One Shakespeare company in Sydney which I love performs an outdoor season every summer on a beautiful heritage farmland property, and at the setting of the sun each day the local flock of birds sitting in a tree above the stage starts to make a lot of noise as they prepare for bedtime. As with most native Australian birds, their birdsong is not gentle tweeting and singing but rather aggressive strained squawks and screams. Not ideal for Shakespeare in the park, but it doesn’t deter the performers at all. They simply adapt to the new ‘given circumstances’ of their performance. They adjust their performance accordingly, tightening up their articulation, moving slightly closer to the audience, just riding the wave of the new obstacle until it passes. It’s quite wonderful to behold.
As well as this obstacle, unexpected theatre throws us plenty of opportunities to be distracted: sudden rainfall, boisterous audiences, non-audience general public wandering past and stumbling upon the show, humid and SWEATY weather conditions, animal intrusions, you name it. All you’ve got to remember is it’s not your responsibility to try and control these variables or even to try and fix or stop them. Your job remains the same: commit to the given circumstances of the scene, listen to the other actors. If a show stop is required, the stage manager will call for that and you can respond accordingly. Until that happens, however, all you need to do is stay in the moment and embrace whatever the world throws at you. And don’t feel like you need to ignore the variables, either! If it can be embraced within the given circumstances, embrace the variables in real time! Don’t pretend like it’s not raining, let your character feel the rain! The audience loves to watch actors adapt to the setting in real time. In the same way you wouldn’t ignore a spilled glass on stage, so too should you not pretend like the weather hasn’t changed. Embracing these changes makes the audience feel even more involved in the story, like they are a part of it.
Conclusion: Enjoy Yourself!
Outdoor theatre is wonderful. It’s fun, it’s filled with joy and catharsis for both the actors and audience alike. Some of my best memories of the theatre have happened outdoors. My Scottish Nana came to visit 8 or so years ago and we brought her to a production of Cyrano de Bergerac at an outdoor theatre. The sun set throughout the performance and the stars shone above during this beautiful performance on a humid Australian night. She still talks about that show nearly a decade later. Never underestimate how special an outdoor show can be for the audience. Embrace and love the privilege you have to be able to perform in such a fun and challenging setting. If you’re early in your career, it’s the perfect training ground. If you’re established but new to the outdoor setting, it’s the perfect way to add something new to your repertoire.
Have fun! I look forward to seeing you on the stage under the stars in the near future!
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