Bare Theatre this summer lost half of its Raleigh performances of “Macbeth” to rain.
Seed Art Share’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” had better luck in the same performance space but dropped WiFi signals could wreak havoc with its show, “Moving Pieces 2.”
And Paperhand Puppet Intervention has a person charged with keeping the water cooler just offstage filled at all times when the company puts on its summer spectacular in the coming weeks.
Theatrical performances under the stars can be energizing and romantic – magical for audiences and actors alike – but they bring a particular set of headaches and worries that directors working on a stage surrounded by walls and a roof rarely have to face. Like copperheads.
Todd Buker, artistic director of Bare Theatre, explains: “At Forest Theatre in Chapel Hill, where we are with ‘Macbeth’ now, there are a lot more bugs (than at Raleigh Little Theater) because that amphitheater is in a forest. There are ants crawling all over the stage, there are these huge centipedes all over the place. ... Somebody saw a copperhead just off to the side of the stage. That’s a little more concerning than bugs. One of our stage managers chased it off, and it’s left us alone.”
He doesn’t believe “Macbeth” is the cursed play that theater lore makes it out to be, but admits the show was challenging to do in a summer that saw its fair share of thunderstorms.
“With this particular show we really can’t do it even if it rains right before show time and then stops raining,” he explained. “We have a lot of fight choreography in the show. ... At Raleigh Little Theater they have a wooden stage that gets very slippery once it gets wet, and so it’s not really safe to fight on. Rain pretty much means you’re done for that night.”
Renee Wimberley, director of Seed Art Share, which staged “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the RLT Rose Garden earlier this summer, had scheduled a rain date for the show but never had to use it. There also were umbrellas available to rent, but most people came prepared.
“Opening night it was sprinkling when people started sitting down,” she said. “I looked out and everyone had their umbrellas up. No one flipped out.”
The rain ended before the cast took to the grass, which was fortunate, she said. “It was a physical show. There was a lot of slip-sliding in the grass.”
Seed Art’s current show, “Moving Pieces: 2,” a relationship story that moves from location to location around Mordecai with the audience following along, goes on rain or shine (though thunderstorms are another story). “We have done it twice in Old Testament torrential rain storms,” Wimberley said.
Because the show moves around so much and has a small cast and audience, it’s usually possible to cluster under a front porch for shelter before walking to the next set location, she said.
Intimacy is a plus for “Moving Pieces.” The actors don’t use microphones, though they text and tweet – technology that the audience shares.
“The audience is put on an anonymous group chat,” Wimberley said. “The characters text back and forth. The audience is privy to all of that, and the audience invariably starts texting back. It’s a whole other level of Greek chorus. Sometimes they’re commenting that they are hot, and sometimes they are commenting on what the characters say.”
Herding an audience along is another challenge. Particularly during a performance at the First Night New Year’s Eve celebration. In addition to dodging the, uh, remains of overindulgence, there were technical issues.
“All the communication ran through Twitter,” she said. “There were video feeds that ran that the audience had to be able to see. They were watching on their phone or on our hosts’ tablets. ... And it’s New Year’s Eve downtown, so WiFi was (iffy).”
Mobile hotspots and an IT person are now on her preshow must-haves.
Go big or go home
While “Moving Pieces” runs rain or shine, the other shows have to factor in rainouts as they plan their budgets. But all the preparation and checklists are for naught if the show doesn’t work for the space, directors said.
Buker said when choosing what productions to do, particularly in an amphitheater, the company asks: “Can we make the show big enough? Is it a show that’s epic enough or is there some collaboration or element that we can bring to it to make it fill that big open space?”
To that end, Bare Theatre has in the past collaborated with Cirque de Vol in Raleigh to bring in acrobatics and juggling flame throwers.
And while actors whose very presence and voice can fill the “room” have a leg up over other talent, Bare Theater usually uses personal body mics, too.
“You do have to worry about fire engines going by and planes flying overhead,” Buker said. “So you have to have actors who can roll with the conditions and adjust as the show goes on.”
Buker said if an actor can do an amphitheater show, he or she can do anything.
Donovan Zimmerman agreed that outdoor shows are not for the faint of heart. In addition, he asks his performers to wear masks and carry gigantic puppets.
Zimmerman, the force behind Paperhand Puppet Intervention, is readying the group’s annual summer show, which will be performed in Chapel Hill and Raleigh this month and in September.
He said Paperhand’s shows are mentally as well as physically challenging, with performers often playing 20 or 30 different things in one show.
“We do quite a bit of sweating. It’s our weight-loss plan for the summer. We just keep hydrated and do our best,” he said. Each player has a personal water bottle, and a water cooler is kept filled just offstage. It’s usually emptied the first time before the show even starts.
Zimmerman, who does not consult the Farmers Almanac or weatherman before scheduling the annual puppetry extravaganzas, said most years the weather has been kind. When they do get rained out, they get bigger audiences later in the run, which can also prove interesting.
“When over 1,000 people come to Forest Theatre, it gets a little nutty, I guess,” he said. “It seats 1,000, but people tend to spread out. They spread their blankets out and their picnics out. A thousand is cheek to cheek. We’ve had as many as 1,300, and you’ll see people sitting in the woods and up on the walls.”
Of dogs and bats
The audience indeed can be part of the challenge for any outdoor show.
When Bare Theatre did “As You Like It” two years ago at RLT, someone brought their dog to the show. It, of course, got away from its owner and took a star turn on the stage. “It actually kind of fit in,” Buker said.
And Buker likes to point out that even indoor theater can have its moments. Case in point: a show on slave narratives performed in the slave quarters at Historic Stagville in Durham last winter.
“There were some bats that were living in the upper part of the slave quarters that we didn’t know about,” he said.
During one show as the actress was speaking, “the bat flew into the room and circled around a few times. ... She was a professional. She paused, the bat flew around, then the bat flew out the door and went into the other room. She gave it a moment and picked right back up where she left off. Meanwhile, the stage manager and I were in the next room trying to chase the bat out of the house quietly. “You just have to roll with it. That’s part of what makes live theater interesting.”
If you go
Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Show: “A Drop in the Bucket: The Big Dreams of Tiny Things”
Chapel Hill show dates: Aug. 7-9, 14-16, 21-23, 28-30 and Sept 4-7 at Forest Theatre on Country Club Road. Evening shows start at 7 p.m. with a 6:20 preshow. Matinees start at 3 p.m. with a 2:20 p.m. on Aug. 23, 30 and Sept 6. Buy tickets at the theater.
Chapel Hill tickets: $15, $8 children is the suggested donation in Chapel Hill, but no one is turned away for lack of funds.
Raleigh show dates: Sept. 11-13, N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road. Shows start 7 p.m. with preshow music beginning at 6:20 p.m.
Raleigh tickets: $12 for NCMA members, $17 for nonmembers, $8.50 for ages 7 to 18 and free for children 6 and under. Box office 919-715-5923.
For more information: http://paperhand.org/
Seed Art Share
Show: “Moving Pieces: 2”
Performances: 6 and 8 p.m. Aug. 7, and Sept. 4. Check-in available 30 minutes prior to showtime.
Where: Mordecai neighborhood, beginning at The Trinity Gallery, 549 N. Blount St., Raleigh; ends at Raleigh Farm.
Good to know: Rain-or-shine event; bring umbrellas and walking shoes.
Tickets: $20.95, available at https://www.artful.ly/store/events/5527
Information on this and other productions: http://seedraleigh.org
About the group: The artistic group led by artistic director Todd Buker and associate director Rebecca Blum says it is dedicated to simple, nontraditional, spontaneous theater of classic plays, particularly those of Shakespeare. It is a roving theater company with no home stage, but it utilizes Raleigh Little Theater, Forest Theatre and has performed in art galleries, a tire factory and on the legislative mall.
“Macbeth” is over. The company’s next production is Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” (which will be performed with an all-female cast) and it will be indoors at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Road in Durham. Dates are Nov. 5-21.
Tips for the audience
Audiences have to deal with the elements, too. A nice rain can cool things down and make an evening show more bearable, but it can also make it damp.
If allowed, bring your own lawn chairs. If you’re planning on spreading out a picnic, a small camping tarp as well as a blanket can keep items drier.
At Forest Theatre, pads to sit on the hard stone seats are a good idea.
If you’re bringing a pet, make sure it’s allowed and keep it on a leash.
For a Moving Pieces show, wear walking shoes.
If you’ve already bought your ticket, keep an eye on the company’s Facebook or Web page to make sure the show is still going on before you head out.