Open Air Shakespeare: “a corrective to an overcitified and artificial life”?

To me, watching Shakespeare performed outdoors is a delicious novelty. I love sitting outside on a blanket or pillow, watching actors and musicians perform in a park alongside trees, rocks, grass, birds, bats, and mosquitos. Ok, maybe I don’t love the mosquitos. This summer I had the good fortune of attending two outdoor Shakespeare productions – As You Like It directed by Anand Rajaram as part of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park, and a magical staged reading of Otîhêw, P.J. Prudat’s adaptation of Othello produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff in Withrow Park. Though radically different in scope and scale, these productions reminded me that what makes outdoor Shakespeare so unique is the way it casts audiences – inviting them to sit, listen, and feel themselves part of a wider community that includes not only the humans sitting beside them but also the many other animate and inanimate entities that inhabit the park. Watching actors perform Shakespeare as the sun gradually sets, we are reminded that we are guests on this land, interlopers even, a reality that both productions emphasized in their acknowledgments – spoken and unspoken. 

My earliest experience of outdoor Shakespeare came in university when I worked backstage as a wardrobe attendant for the Victoria Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo & Juliet, staged in a tent in a parking lot beside the Inner Harbour. Each performance was punctuated by the sounds of harbour life – gulls calling, boats honking, tourists chatting, car alarms wailing – with the smell of ocean air and the lapping of waves a constant presence. The production was a huge success and a tourist draw for the duration of the run. For my part, I was happy to be involved, though not always enthused about my backstage role. To be honest, I was somewhat envious of my theatre school friends who’d been cast in the play, especially my best friend who was playing Juliet. I had auditioned for the festival with the hopes of spending a summer performing on the temporary stage with them but there were only so many roles for women etc. etc. It’s also very likely that I didn’t have the “chops” for Shakespeare – but that’s a tale for another day… Eventually I decided that I couldn’t spend the summer feeling sorry for myself, and so redirected my energy towards researching the history of Shakespeare in Victoria.

In my archival travels, which involved hours of microfiche viewing, I came across the amazing account of an “open air” production of As You Like It staged by the travelling Georgie Woodthorpe Company in July 1898. I decided to write about this production and approached the local newspaper, the Times-Colonist, to ask if they’d be willing to publish an essay in one of their summer Sunday editions. To my delight, they agreed.

In the process of researching and writing the essay, I learned that the 1898 production of As You Like It was representative of a much larger resurgence in open-air theatre across North America, a phenomenon discussed by author Sheldon Cheney in a 1918 book. Here’s a short explanation from my article: 

According to Cheney, outdoor theatre was “one of the finest correctives for the sophistication and artificiality of the regular playhouse.” Theatre in a natural setting emphasized “the value of outdoors as a corrective to an overcitified and artificial life” and encouraged “the communal spirit” with its “democracy of seating arrangements.” As You Like It was particularly suited to an outdoor venue where it would be “[accompanied by] sunshine and shadow, whispering winds and singing birds, and the necessary atmosphere.”*

Cheney’s words echo the anxieties of the modern era, most notably the perceived threat of neurasthenia – what we might today describe as nervous exhaustion or burnout – a condition widely attributed at the time to emotional overstimulation and exhaustion from city life. 

Open air Shakespeare was also something of a fad that served to democratize Shakespeare, at least in principle. It was also good for business and tourism – not unlike today. It is perhaps no surprise that the idea for the open air As You Like It came from a local hotel manager named John Virtue, who anticipated that the production would be “the dramatic and society of event of many seasons.” Virtue may also have anticipated that the production would bring new business to his hotel if guests chose to visit Victoria for the event from elsewhere on Vancouver Island. 

With an eye to realism, Virtue arranged for hundreds of sapling trees to be planted in Oak Bay Park, which were then hung with arc and incandescent lights to illuminate the playing area and create a dream-like forest of Arden. Though most of the roles were taken up by members of the Woodthorpe Company, Mr. Ed Smith of Victoria and Mr. C. Roberts of Seattle were engaged, in keeping with the “customary and essential” practice of engaging professional or skilled amateur wrestlers for the Act I wrestling match between Orlando and Charles. On July 2, 1898, 3,000 people attended Oak Bay Park for the opening night performance. Though the evening was cool, the audience responded warmly to the entertainment, breaking into “frequent, hearty applause for the performers’ untiring efforts to render the public a performance creditable in every respect.” 

This past summer, 124 years after the Georgie Woodthorpe Company first brought open air Shakespeare to the city, the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival produced As You Like It in Esquimalt Gorge Park, the land of the lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Outdoor or open air Shakespeare flourishes in many other Canadian cities as well – from Vancouver (Bard on the Beach) to Winnipeg (Shakespeare in the Ruins) to Halifax (Shakespeare by the Sea) and St. Johns’ (also Shakespeare by the Sea). Producing Shakespeare each summer, these companies offer their audiences a brief escape from the kind of “overcitified” and “artificial” life Sheldon Cheney wrote about over a century ago. 

And yet, without denying the value of escapism, I also wonder about the limits of open air Shakespeare, and whether attempts to disrupt the colonial legacy of Shakespeare in Canada can be achieved by staging his plays outdoors. I expect the kind of work  P.J. Prudat is undertaking in Otîhêw, reworking Othello to focus on the lives and histories of the Indigenous inhabitants of this land, is better equipped to challenge audiences to rethink their privilege, their history, their complicity in upholding colonial structures, and their ongoing responsibilities to others, including the birds and trees around them.

* Marlis Schweitzer, “Bard in the Park,” Times – Colonist ; Victoria, B.C. [Victoria, B.C]. 04 Aug 1996: 1.

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