BWW Feature: Our Favourite Outdoor Theatre Memories
This summer, we're sadly not going to be seeing all the outdoor theatre that we've loved in past years - whether at venues like Regent's Park and Shakespeare's Globe or dedicated festivals and other open-air arts gatherings. So, until we can welcome all these wonderful events back again, BroadwayWorld reviewers are paying tribute to them with some of our favourite memories!
Aliya Al-Hassan: Despite the vagaries of the British weather, I adore open-air theatre productions. In 2018, I was lucky enough to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Yes it was drizzling, yes it was rather cold, but there was a brilliant energy to the show, with the spectacle of 'Don't Feed The Plant' blasting out across the night sky of London.
US drag performer Vicky Vox was a unique and inspired choice to play Audrey II, with a filthy laugh and outrageous sense of humour. All performers were excellent in this production, but my standout memory is of the trio of street singers - comprised of Reneé Lamb, Seyi Omooba and Christina Modestou. They strutted around the stage with huge amounts of attitude and conviction, vocalising with some incredible harmonies. Such fun.
However, the open-air performance that sticks with me most was a weekend at the end of August in 2015 when I was lucky enough to see Il Barbera di Siviglia at the Arena di Verona. Built in the first century, the venue is one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the world. It looks incredible from the outside, but nothing prepares you for the scale and atmosphere inside.
There was a long delay to the start, as the performers waited for the rain to clear -showing that even in Italy, the weather isn't always reliable. Interestingly, despite sparkling performances by both Mario Cassi as Figaro and Jessica Pratt as Rosina, my memories are more of the the truly magical atmosphere inside the arena. We were lucky enough to be sitting on padded seats in the front section and so it felt hot, humid and very immersive, as 15,000 people sat around us. The stage was massive, the live orchestra was extraordinary and there was so much to take in. It was one of those nights where I felt I needed to pause to soak up every second.
As the sun set, the experience took on an even more ethereal hue, with glowing lights and an audience enthralled by what they were experiencing. Saying something was magical is an overused term in theatre, but this really was a night that will stay with me always.
The day after the show, we walked around Piazza Brà, where the arena is located. There is no storage facility for the various sets for the opera and ballets and so the public is able to meander around the absolutely colossal parts of various sets, separated by a flimsy rope barrier. The wonderful garden setting from Il Barbiere had a beautiful set where the performers were dwarfed by large flowers and plants. It was a slightly bizarre experience to be able to wander around seeing a multitude of red roses that were at least 20ft high.
We decided to queue for returns for Aida, which was that night's show. We managed to get cheap seats at the very top of the arena, which was also utterly thrilling, but incredibly hard on the posterior after more than three hours! It was only then that it made sense why nearly every market stall in the city sold cushions...
Fiona Scott: I loved having the Brighton Open Air Theatre on my doorstep when I lived on the south coast. From Shakespeare to singalongs, it was a great space for an afternoon or evening out (with or without a picnic) to take in a show or a concert. I particularly remember seeing the Lord Chamberlain's Men production of The Tempest at the Brighton Festival having to improvise with set and costumes, mere days after their company van had been stolen!
Gary Naylor: An old law professor of mine was teaching us Land Law and remarked that you could tell which London squares had remained in private hands by their charm. Be that as it may, these oases of Georgian calm in the world city hurly-burly of the 21st century are a delight, and never more delightful than when hosting a Shakespeare in the Squares production.
Just off the King's Road, a troupe of actors set out their stall (literally) and entertained us with an As You Like It performed in the slanting evening sunshine. The traffic noise faded, the centuries dropped away, the words wove their wonders. One felt a connection with the Merrie England of the carnivalesque, of generosity of spirit, of social and cultural connection.
Two hours later, we were back navigating busy roads, but with fond memories of a visit to a place every bit as strangely magical as ol' Shakey's Forest of Arden.
Eleni Cashell: Both of my favourite outdoor theatre experiences come from the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Every year, they put on magnificent shows throughout the summer months - from classic musicals and family shows, to stand-up comedy and new work. You sit in their beautiful surroundings and see incredible productions push the boundaries of what you thought would be possible outdoors.
One of the weirdly enjoyable things about seeing a show outdoors is the unpredictability of the British weather, and my experience seeing Evita last year was made all the better by the weather taking a turn for the worse at precisely the right moment! Directed by the unstoppable Jamie Lloyd, this superb show was received so well that it was supposed to be transferring to the Barbican this year (before the unexpected appearance of covid-19 unfortunately cancelled the run).
The night I saw it, there were clear skies above and that perfect temperature of cool - not so hot that you're sweating into your seat, not so cold you're wishing you'd brought a cardigan - when the show began. This beautiful weather continued, right until (and spoiler alert here), Eva Perón, played by the sensational Samantha Pauly, starts to become very sick towards the end of the show. Right at the moment when Eva is at her lowest point and her country is devastated, the heavens opened, as if it was mourning along with Eva and the whole of Argentina.
This moment was incredibly powerful as it was, but having the rain beat down on your face during a time when tears were already flowing made it all the more tragic. The rain even started to lift at the right moment, so when the show was coming to an end and trying to uplift again, the weather seemed to join in once more. It was utterly bizarre and utterly brilliant at the same time - an experience I'll never forget.
My equally favourite moment came from watching Little Shop of Horrors at the same venue the year before. There were incredibly high expectations for this revival, and boy did they deliver. From the perfect depiction of Seymour by Marc Antolin (who went on to get an Olivier Award nomination) and the fantastic chemistry between him and the wonderful Jemima Rooper, to the comedy chops of Matt Willis, who was starting to make a name for himself on the West End after a successful run as Fiyero in Wicked, the entire cast's energy, passion and raw talent made this show unmissable.
The highlight for me (and I saw this production four times because I loved it so much) was always Vicky Vox's entrance. This superstar drag queen portrayed Audrey II as the perfect mixture of comic and evil, a diva with high demands, and both her singing and acting talents memorised the audience from the first note. If I could see any show again, indoor or outdoor, it would be this show, with the exact same cast.
Kerrie Nicholson: I'm a relative newcomer to the world of outdoor theatre, though I have spent four wonderful afternoons at Regent's Park Open Air over the years. I'd like to explore it more when the pandemic ends, and I particularly want to visit Shakespeare's Globe. With my disability, I can get nervous about going to venues that are new to me (especially if I'm attending alone), and so despite being the avid Shakespeare enthusiast that I am, I've always put off going.
Then, this past May Bank Holiday, I took part in Read For The Globe: the 48-hour readathon to help raise money for the venue. It was so fun, and honestly the strongest I've felt connected to the theatre world again since lockdown started. To be amongst such passionate, talented and like-minded people, whilst doing something to help the industry I treasure so much, was a massive boost in these challenging times. I look forward to the day when I can experience the magic of the space for myself.
Louise Penn: My favourite memories of open air theatre are, firstly: Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds. Shakespeare using the ruins in spooky half-darkness with the audience almost with Lady Macbeth as she walks in her sleep, or when the raven croaks on the battlements.
Secondly: Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London. Topol in Gigi, really not wanting to vacate the stage as the rain started to fall and scupper the performance. After a break he brought the house down dancing on a table with "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore".
Emma Kershaw: I'd headed to Edinburgh in 2012 for the weekend; it was my first ever trip to Scotland, and it happened to be during the Fringe Festival. At this point, I was very unfamiliar with the festival and what it entailed, but I remember feeling the excitement and the buzz from the city. I unfortunately didn't get to see anything while I was there, but just being surrounded by everything and the incredible atmosphere was enough to make this what properly cemented my love for theatre.
Then, in 2019, my second trip to New York City in 12 months very conveniently coincided with the last few days of Broadway in Bryant Park, the annual month-long event which sees some of the biggest Broadway stars take the stage and perform a snippet of their shows for free. In addition to the performances, there are pop-up tents, special offers and even a stagey photo booth.
We arrived there early to grab a spot on the lawn and managed to catch rehearsals before the main show began. A highlight for me was seeing Barrett Wilbert Weed perform "I'd Rather Be Me" from Mean Girls. In December prior to this, I had seen Mean Girls on Broadway, and the excitement I felt from this show and its soundtrack prompted me to start theatre writing. I have since been lucky enough to interview some of theatre's favourite performers, including the cast of Mean Girls, so it was a very special moment for me to come full circle in a way!
Marianka Swain: This coming weekend would have seen performers and theatre fans gathering for West End Live; like Broadway in Bryant Park, a fantastic opportunity to catch the stars of big musicals in a welcoming - and free - outdoor festival-esque space. It'll be a pleasure to catch the highlights online, but I'll miss the special atmosphere of that live, collective experience.
I adore the spontaneity that comes with a Shakespeare's Globe show - from the unpredictable elements, like the weather and passing planes, to the intimate interactions with the audience (especially the close-up groundlings). I'll always remember Emma Rice's opening Midsummer Night's Dream, and how it felt to be invited to that irresistible party. The Globe is a venue where, almost every show, someone experiences live Shakespeare for the first time. Rice's Dream brought us all back to that excitement - and the Globe was a joyful frame for it.
Finally, I'm delighted to join in the chorus of love for Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. This gem of a venue is a creative powerhouse - particularly, in past years, with its thrillingly reimagined musicals. There's nothing quite like the atmosphere of a production changing organically as night falls in that sacred space. Plus, with a picturesque picnic lawn and fairy light-strewn bar, the theatre has an immersive magic extending far beyond the stage.
But that stage itself seems to inspire real creative freedom - and not just from its talented performers. So much sticks in the mind from Regent's Park productions: Tom Scutt's striking, graphic novel-esque design for Little Shop; the ensemble, dynamically choreographed by Fabian Aloise, becoming the driving force in Jamie Lloyd's Evita; the ghostly evocation of war in Robert Hastie's thoughtful Henry V; and Jon Bausor's set holding a literal giant mirror up to nature in The Seagull - made all the better on the night I was there by a resident park duck's surprise stage invasion.
I can't wait to return to Regent Park as soon as we're all able - to once again trade very British small talk with my audience neighbours about whether to put on my rain mac or more sun cream now, just in case; to feel that thrill as something or someone unexpected appears beside us in the aisles; to hear the park itself adding to the soundscape with rustling leaves and animal calls; and to have the tingling anticipation that comes with knowing anything can happen, and you will feel part of it.
What are your favourite outdoor theatre memories? Let us know at @BroadwayWorldUK!