With a lot of venues looking at new open air spaces to perform in this summer, we spoke to Jack Dean from Jack Dean & Company, Ellen Waghorn from Watford Palace Theatre, Camille Ben Soussan from Upswing who also sits on the board of Outdoor Arts UK, and independent producer Louise Blackwell about their experiences working on outdoor theatre; why they love it, how to do it well and how badly it can go wrong...
When asked what the biggest differences between indoor and outdoor theatre are, Jack Dean from Jack Dean & Company and Ellen Waghorn from Watford Palace Theatre commented on audiences:
EW: Sometimes audiences just come across it – it just magically appears in everyday places and changes the space from a normal field, street, town square into an entirely creative environment. This means audiences haven’t necessarily booked, they might not arrive at the beginning of the show, they might not even know its happening – you need to make it easy to just jump in at any point of the performance, it needs to be accessible for everyone and it needs to grab your attention!
JD: You might be starting with an empty corner of a park or festival and having to attract and sustain a crowd. This changes the way you perform, but also the way you structure what you write - something major or high-energy needs to happen every five minutes really.
Camille Ben Soussan from Upswing and independent producer Louise Blackwell added that light, sound and tech are all affected:
LB: Indoors you can control sound, lights and where the audience is. Outside there are more risks from the elements, from unexpected sounds and people who become audience members or part of the show without knowing it. The element of risk is greater and that’s one of the things that makes it exciting.
CBS: Nothing is hidden from view; the tech and the tricks are exposed so it’s really down to the performers to carry the work across and captivate the public which in most cases is free to come and go.
We asked about their happiest memories of outdoor theatre…
CBS: It’s about the moment where audience, weather, timing, place and all other elements come together perfectly to make magic happen. That time when the rainbow fitted perfectly over the performance area or when a seagull sat on a hoop and made everyone erupt in laughter come to mind.
LB: When I was responsible for marshalling and cueing a helicopter over Trafalgar Square in London as part of Clod Ensemble’s Red Ladies. The Red Ladies acknowledged the ‘copter in the air at a specific point in their performance. It was a tiny theatrical moment among a range of striking moments for the audience but for me it was huge adrenalin rush and meant (once it had gone okay) I couldn’t really concentrate on the rest of the show because I was so relieved.
…and for moments when it’s gone awry…
JD: One festival told me to "keep it family friendly" about 10 minutes before going on stage. What followed was the most frantic and panicked attempt to purge swears from a script on the fly since the BBC discovered UK Drill.
CBS: I remember a show when it had rained so much that some of the audience sat in an inflatable dinghy and it started drifting off…
EW: I cannot over state how amazing outdoor artists, technicians, creatives and companies are at dealing with the unknown – they are creative superheroes.
On the most memorable outdoor shows they’ve seen:
CBS: Huge scale work is often unforgettable, like carnival processions or tons of feathers thrown by angels on zip wires in Place Des Anges (Gratte Ciel) or Luke Jerram’s installations. But work at smaller scale can be equally impactful, I loved the Red Rebel Brigade’s interventions on the tube and still miss Bramble FM.
JD: Exeter Northcott put on a pretty legendary run of outdoor Shakespeare shows in the noughties that used a lot of musical/gig-theatre performance styles.
LB: Jardin Flambeau by Compagnie Carabosse was a wild, free, thrillingly dangerous live music and fire sculpture installation in St Anne’s Wells Garden in Hove as part of the Brighton Festival in 2011.
And finally, their top tips for those doing outdoor work for the first time:
LB: Utilise the outdoor elements, the uniqueness of the location and the freedom of being accessible to more people to your advantage rather than trying to fight against it. If you’d really rather the show was indoors, no matter how great the opportunity might be to make it outdoors, keep it inside.
CBS: If you can, do a site visit and check what the rest of the programme is in advance to avoid bad surprises. Quite often you will be competing with a brass band or a funfair nearby so make sure you have “your slot” firmly programmed.
JD: Take what you do well already and outdoorsify it, rather than try and emulate what the established outdoor companies do. They'll do it better than you after all, but only you can do your stuff.
EW: Talk to those that have gone before – go watch work, what works? What doesn’t? The community of outdoor creatives is open and supportive. Outdoor Arts UK would be a good first place to look.
Have you started working on outdoor performance recently? We'd be really interested to hear how you're finding it. Or perhaps you've been doing it for years! Are you learning new ideas from newcomers to the field. If you have any projects coming up that you'd like to discuss with us please do get in touch
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