From an earthen scene to a willow globe: the open-air theater in the United Kingdom | Theater

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isIf you want to watch live theater in the UK, you currently have two options: go online or go to the great outdoors. With the fourth step in the government’s roadmap for reopening indoor theaters now being postponed to August 15 at the earliest, it’s open-air theater season. This summer, several companies are offering socially distanced productions to be enjoyed in the sun or under the stars.

It wasn’t long before Cirencester’s Barn Theater launched BarnFest, offering comedy, cabaret, circus and other family-oriented shows. The theater’s artistic director, Iwan Lewis, says when the government gave the green light for outdoor performances, “we jumped on it immediately.”

The Barn is an unsubsidized charity with no funding from local authorities or the Arts Council England. After the coronavirus outbreak, he offered live online broadcasts featuring a local clown, Tweedy, whose race at BarnFest quickly ran out. “We had to be active,” Lewis says of the barn activity storm during the pandemic. “Otherwise, the reality was we weren’t going to be open to the other side.”

“We had to be active”… Tweedy: Al Fresco! at BarnFest in Cirencester. Photography: Eve Dunlop

The Barn has a small team that Lewis says has helped them adapt in a dynamic way, especially when setting up an outdoor festival. “We are next to a wonderful organization called Ingleside House. We said, “Can we use your gardens for the outdoor theater?” They kindly said yes. We said, ‘By the way, we can’t pay for this.’ Their neighbors were happy to help and the barn added another marquee to the existing one, giving them space for an audience of 120 compared to the theater’s interior capacity of 200. The response was enthusiastic: “We need to that people go back to the theater, ”Lewis says.

With the uncertainty of when they can resume indoor performances, the future still looks perilous. Lewis is concerned that the government’s £ 1.57 billion arts bailout has given the wrong impression that theaters are now safe and could hamper donations from the public. La Grange is asking for grants and continues to innovate and plan carefully. “We are unlikely to take the risk of a Built by Barn production [one of their inhouse creations, rather than a touring show] in our theater space in 2020, ”he says. “But that doesn’t cancel a disaster for me.”

The barn celebrated its second anniversary in the middle of closing in March, but the Scoot theater company, which will visit the Cirencester venue at the end of August, is even younger. The company was started by actor Max Hutchinson at the start of the summer, its name paying homage to his son who has just learned to use a scooter. Hutchinson hopes the name captures the energy of his band which takes A Midsummer Night’s Dream to UK cricket clubs. Their hour-long version gives the plot a cricket twist and is performed by six actor-musicians, including two real-life couples, which alleviates the issue of social distancing on stage. There will be specially designated places for small audience groups. Clarifying safety precautions has been key to building customer confidence, said Hutchinson, who was weeks away from a nine-month stint on The Woman in Black in the West End when theaters closed in March.

Work has started on the open-air Sanctuary Theater at Soulton Hall in Shropshire.
Work has started on the open-air Sanctuary Theater at Soulton Hall in Shropshire. Photograph: Soulton Hall

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its mesmerizing images of the natural world, is a perennial outdoor favorite. Tim Ashton, a farmer from Shropshire, allowed production in September in an earthen amphitheater next to the burial mound he recently created in the tradition of Neolithic burial mounds. Ashton believes that a landscape takes on a different quality when you remember the people there; this striking setting can underline both the threat of death hanging over Hermia in the play and the characters’ quest for harmony. Children are encouraged to dress up as fairies for the one hour production for the whole family.

Ashton decided to set up the theater, named The Sanctuary, when he saw how many local am-dram performances were being canceled due to the coronavirus. He was inspired by the story of Shakespeare’s troupe, The King’s Men, visiting Shropshire during the plague of 1603 to keep the culture alive. “We honor what they have done,” he said. “We are not the only generation to face this.” He hopes to set an example for his fellow farmers and others who may have an outdoor space available that they can offer for the arts, which the community can take advantage of.

The National Youth Theater is planning two productions at the Sanctuary – a response to the climate crisis and a new version of Animal Farm. “In the face of immense challenges and the pressure to help restore our precious cultural offering, we all have a responsibility to try to make theater a reality,” said Paul Roseby, artistic director of the NYT. “Tim is leading this initiative literally from the ground up with his new Earth amphitheater.”

A performance at the Willow Globe.
A performance at the Willow Globe, a scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s Globe. Photography: Chad Blake

At Willow Globe, near Llandrindod Wells, in central Wales, Sue Best and Philip Bowen have been inviting audiences to their own home theater since 2006. Their venue is a scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s Globe, created with woven willow. Its summer season usually begins on April 23, a date traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday, and continues until mid-September. This weekend, The Comedy of Errors will be their first live performance of 2020. It is directed by tour company The Wet Mariners who recently did a theatrical production on Zoom (A Midsummer Night’s Stream). The troop gathered on Sunday at Best and Bowen’s small estate, regrouping in person for the first time since the lockdown began. They will remain in place in a caravan during the race.

The audience for The Comedy of Errors will be a quarter of the theater’s usual capacity of 120. “The Mariners are merry near full halls and it’s usually a bit of a squash,” Best says. This year there will be no walk-in sales, a seating chart will be in place (it is traditionally unqualified), and the actors will not be jostling among the audience as they normally do. There will also be no tea or cakes served this time around, but Best and Bowen – like anyone who offers outdoor theater, regardless of their previous experience – are just thrilled to finally reunite actors and public. And if they can get the wifi to work, they’ll zoom in on the comedy of errors as well.

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