Outdoor theater is a rewarding tradition for Baltimore-area troupes — if the weather cooperates

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

For some theater companies, every summer brings a welcome opportunity to step outside and put a literal spin on Shakespeare’s all-the-world’s-a-stage notion.

In the Baltimore-Annapolis area, audiences can take in plays and musicals with only sky for a ceiling, natural breezes in lieu of air conditioning, assorted ambient noises, and a decidedly informal atmosphere.

“Theater was born outside, starting around campfires with stories of hunts,” says Ian Gallanar, founding artistic director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which marks its 15th anniversary of stagings works amid the ruins at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City with a production of “The Tempest,” opening Friday .

“Theater is also a gathering. Obviously, you can gather indoors, but something about that outdoor togetherness strikes a chord,” Gallanar says.

It’s an actual chord in the case of the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, which stages musicals in a cozy, roof-less building a stone’s throw from the waterfront.

In addition to a spirited production of “Sister Act,” which closes Saturday, two more Broadway musicals are on Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s lineup this season: “The Full Monty,” opening at the end of the month, and “In the Heights,” opening in August.

“Performing outside is really not that different from working in a [indoor] theater, but you can be a little freer,” says “Sister Act” cast member Josh Mooney. “It’s like in the Shakespearean era.”

Although musicals are now solidly the focus, Summer Garden Theatre used to include a Bard play among its offerings each season. No wonder — the courtyard-like space evokes something of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, with its open-air seating area surrounded by walls.

For companies that specialize in Shakespeare, providing a vintage, outdoor experience for audiences is a common mission.

“We’re really dedicated to re-creating Shakespeare’s performance conditions,” says Tom Delise, founding artistic director of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, which started in 2006 and put on shows in diverse outdoor locations before beginning an annual summer residence in the meadow behind Evergreen Museum and Library in 2012.

“In Shakespeare’s time, a troupe would have performed on the back of a big wagon. It’s kind of what we’re doing now,” Delise says. “The deer will come out during a performance, and the foxes. It’s a really gorgeous setting.”

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory will do two productions this summer, starting with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in early July; “Love’s Labours Lost” will open there later that month. (The company will present performances of each work indoors, too, at St. Mary’s Community Center in Hampden.)

With “The Tempest” and several other of the Bard’s works, outdoor scenes are part of the plot, so actually staging them in a natural setting can enhance the effect.

“Performing outside has to be a sensory overload experience,” says Sally Boyett, founding artistic director of Annapolis Shakespeare Company. “Shakespeare [plays] can give that, as long as it’s presented well.”

Annapolis Shakespeare Company, which grew from a workshop in 2009 to a professional organization that includes a percentage of union actors in its casts, has its own indoor theater. But come summer, the company spreads out into two under-the-stars locations in town.

The three-actor romp “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” has been up and running in the open-air courtyard at Reynolds Tavern since May and runs into September. On the elegant grounds of the riparian birthplace of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll, Annapolis Shakespeare Company will open a production of “The Tempest” next month.

“I was driving across the Spa Creek bridge one day and looked to the left at the Charles Carroll House,” Boyett says. “I thought it would be a perfect place for performing Shakespeare.”

The first Annapolis Shakespeare Company production in the gardens — the actors perform on the grass, not a stage — was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last summer.

“The backdrop is the 18th-century house with a terraced garden that was designed before the Declaration of Independence was signed,” Boyett says. “We have some seats at the front, or you can bring your own chairs and blankets and sit on a hill. Natural beauty is built in.”

Audiences for Chesapeake Shakespeare productions get a different kind of built-in experience at the hilltop Patapsco Female Institute, where performances take place amid what’s left of the 19th-century structure. (Chesapeake Shakespeare’s regular season is presented at its home in downtown Baltimore.)

“It’s wonderful that the crumbling site wasn’t razed,” says Nathan Thomas, who plays Prospero in “The Tempest” at the park. “You can still see the marvelous architecture. I find the ambiance of the space very inspiring. And it’s great to play to an audience that’s relaxed, that can have a bottle of wine and a nice picnic.”

Chesapeake Shakespeare erects a stage nestled into a corner of the ruins in front of a grassy area.

“It’s counter to how an outdoor theater should be, where you have the audience on a hill, like in a Greek amphitheater, and the sound rises to them,” Gallanar says. “But it works. The flagstone of the ruins reflects sound. We don’t use mics.”

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory likewise eschews amplification. But, with little acoustical boost in the Evergreen meadow, actors have their work cut out for them.

“It’s a test of your projection,” says Jessica Behar, who has performed in several productions and is costume designer for this year’s “ Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “If it doesn’t sound ridiculously loud in your head, it’s not loud enough. Your diaphragm aches and your abs hurt because you’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing.”

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre does use microphones, but, like outdoor performers everywhere, these actors have their share of other challenges.

“All of us have had that moment onstage when you go, ‘I think a fly flew in my mouth; that was disgusting.’ But you just keep going,” says Summer Garden Theatre board member Ashley Gladden, who has acted in several shows and will be in the cast of “In the Heights” this summer.

Being outside can also mean occasional sonic competition. Boat horns occasionally add extra notes to Summer Garden Theatre performances, for example.

“Because [Carroll House] is at the water, we get boaters who come up and yell, ‘Hey, what are y’all doing?’,” says Annapolis Shakespeare’s Boyett. “Last year, there was a protest going on at the [State House] and during an entire act of ‘Midsummer’ we had a TV news helicopter hovering overhead. Anytime you’re dealing with outdoor theater, everything’s going to happen, at least once.”

The biggest issue for outdoor theater, by far, is meteorological.

At some performances of “Sister Act” a few weeks ago, audiences clutched blankets because of the unusually cool night air. Then there’s the other end of the thermometer.

“In 100 degree weather, I’ve had cold rags stuffed in my costumes,” Gladden says.

But the most problematic situation arises when, as the good Bard says, “the skies look grimly and threaten present blusters.”

Rain has caused performance cancellations for each of these outdoor companies. If a storm threat is evident early enough, the show is scrapped before it starts.

“I have five weather apps on my phone,” says Lesley Malin, Chesapeake Shakespeare’s managing director.

But some nights, everyone is caught off guard.

On one such occasion, Behar sought shelter with fellow Shakespeare Factory cast members under a rickety tent when a storm hit.

“The water was pouring in and I thought, ‘This is it, the end,’” she says with a laugh. “But I figured, well, I love the people I’m here with and I love Shakespeare, so this is a fitting way to go.”

If you go

Annapolis Shakespeare Company presents “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” on Tuesday nights through Sept. 26 at Reynolds Tavern, 7 Church Circle. Tickets are $35. “The Tempest” will be performed July 7-23 at Charles Carroll House Gardens, 107 Duke of Gloucester St. Tickets are $10 to $50. 410-415-3513, annapolisshakespeare.org.

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre presents “Sister Act” through Saturday; “The Full Monty” on June 29-July 22; “In the Heights” on Aug. 3-Sept. 3; “Light Up the Stars” (cabaret fundraiser) on Sept. 15-24. 143 Compromise St. Tickets are $25. 410-268-9212, summergarden.com.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on July 7-23 and “Love’s Labours Lost” on July 28-Aug. 13 in the Meadow at Evergreen Museum and Library, 4545 N. Charles St. Tickets are $15 to $20. 410-662-9455, baltimoreshakespearefactory.org.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents “The Tempest” on Friday to July 23 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah’s Lane, Ellicott City. Tickets are $15.50 to $45.50. 410-244-8570, chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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