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Playing outside: Open-air theater growing into suburbs
By Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald Staff

Audiences watch a scene from a Theatre-Hikes production of "Treasure Island" at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.


American Players Theatre's Up-the-hill Theatre seats about 1,100, but Chicago director Bill Brown says it still feels incredibly intimate.


Hillary Clemens, Tiffany Scott and Matt Schwader star in the current production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis.


David Skvarla and Kevin Theis star in Oak Park Festival Theatre's production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," now playing through July 10.


David Skvarla and Kevin Theis star in Oak Park Festival Theatre's production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."


Nick Sandys and Melissa Carlson appeared in First Folio Theatre's "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2008. Sandys also stars in the upcoming production of "Twelfth Night."


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Published: 6/16/2010 11:55 AM | Updated: 6/16/2010 11:55 AM

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Ask any performer who has ever worked at an outdoor theater, and he or she will have stories to share. Whether it's mishaps with Mother Nature, itch-inducing insects, willful wild animals or unscheduled screeches, there are always plenty of things that can go wrong during an outdoor performance.

Yet many theater folks feel that the privileges of performing outdoors more than outweigh the hassles. And now with the official start of summer upon us, local audiences can experience live outdoor theater firsthand.

"I think it's one of the most exciting things you can do," said Nick Sandys, a Chicago-based actor/director/fight choreographer and an artistic associate of Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre. "Particularly when you're doing what was originally outdoor theater - think of the Greeks or Shakespeare."

Sandys likes outdoor staging because it allows actors to break from normal minimalism of working in storefront theaters. Outdoors, actors can get "into the size of these characters" and play up the pageantry of an outdoor setting.

"It means you have to be vocally and physically using every part of yourself," said Sandys, who is starring as the uppity manservant Malvolio in First Folio's upcoming production of "Twelfth Night."

Since Director Michael Goldberg is setting Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" during the British Raj in 19th century India, Sandys isn't sure if his costume will be too skimpy - like when he played Oberon in First Folio's 2004 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"I thought, 'It's going to be August and I volunteered to go shirtless for most of the show,'" Sandys said. It was a big mistake. "We actually had to end up canceling some performances because of the cold when it was 48 degrees at 10 p.m. at night."

With outdoor theater, there are always risks about rain, and each company has its own refund policy regarding rainouts or alternate sheltered performance locations (if there are any). Audiences should always be prepared for changes in weather, whether that means bringing a rain poncho or slathering on the sunscreen.

"The hazards of outdoor theater are probably the same everywhere to varying degrees," said Dan Scurek, director of Scott Lynch-Giddings' condensed Shakespearean take on "Robin Hood" for Theatre-Hikes. "Things like mosquitoes are clearly prevalent depending upon how rainy the weather has been."

Since audiences with Theatre-Hikes journey throughout the grounds of Morton Arboretum in Lisle from scene to scene on weekend afternoons, Scurek points out that the hike leader always has bug repellent just in case one area of the woods is buggier than others.

Picking repertory that's appropriate for open-air settings is also part of the planning for outdoor theater. Chicago actor and director Bill Brown was clearly thinking about this when he selected a certain Lillian Hellman play for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis.

"I love working outside," Brown said. "We keep finding work that finds new life outside. And a play which has the title of 'Another Part of the Forest' feels pretty good since we are in the middle of a forest."

Being so close to nature also means almost rubbing elbows with the natives.

Sandys recalls seeing a deer and the glint of coyotes' eyes from the backstage area at Mayslake Peabody Estate last year during First Folio's "Macbeth." And Brown remembers how the forest birds often created a ruckus at the end of an American Players Theatre production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." The racket, however, fit perfectly since the birds appeared to be crying out against the chopping of trees and the destruction of the cherry orchard.

Even in the much more urban setting of Austin Gardens in Oak Park, wildlife can get in the way.

"We did a production of 'Talley's Folly" where a squirrel ran up and stayed on stage one night," said Oak Park Festival Theatre artistic director Jack Hickey. "And the actors just acknowledged it."

Then there's the uncontrollable noise from passing ambulances and airplanes, which is either acknowledged or ignored. During a modernized militarized take on Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Hickey said the actors actually heralded the planes with a salute until the din died down.

Hickey hopes that some of the park's wild rabbits will make an appearance during its current run of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," since the character of Lenny is obsessed with them. And he also hopes the weather holds for the production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy "Love's Labour's Lost" that he directs starting in July. If it's too cold, the actors will be uncomfortable in their lighter Regency outfits.

"One of the main reasons we picked that era was for actor comfort," Hickey said. "If we go strict Elizabethan and try to be accurate to period with lots of heavy, heavy costumes, that could probably give them heatstroke."

But instead of worrying about what can go wrong, outdoor theater vets suggest audiences enjoy the experience as much as possible with blankets, well-stocked picnic baskets and good company.

"As the play progresses, the sun goes down and it gets darker and darker. It becomes this very private and focused ember in the dark and everybody - the actors and the audience - experiences this by focusing in on a spot of illumination," Hickey said. "It's almost poetic that we're all gathered around this sort of campfire as it were, but it's with theater."

Outdoor theater options

First Folio Theatre

Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook

Show: "Twelfth Night"

When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, July 7 through Aug. 8.

Tickets: $18 previews through July 9; regular run $28, $23-$25 seniors and students

Information: (630) 986-8067 or

Riverview Theatre Company

Location: Veteran's Memorial Park, 1450 N. Court St., McHenry

Show: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)"

When: 7 p.m. July 17, 21 and 24; 3 p.m. July 25

Tickets: Free

Information: (815) 354-7796 or

Oak Park Festival Theatre

Location: Austin Gardens, Ontario Avenue and Forest Avenue, Oak Park

Show: John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays now through July 10 (also 8 p.m. July 7)

Show: Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost"

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays from July 15 through Aug. 21 (also 8 p.m. Aug. 18)

Tickets: $15 previews July 15-18; regular run $25, $20 students and seniors

Information: (708) 445-4440 or

American Players Theatre

Location: 5950 Gold Course Road, Spring Green, Wis.

Outdoor repertory at the Up-the-hill Theatre: Shakespeare's "As You Like It" June 20 through Oct. 3; Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" now through Oct. 1; George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" now through Oct. 2; Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest" now through Sept. 18; W. Somerset Maugham's "The Circle" from July 30 through Sept. 25

Tickets: $39-$64

Information: (608) 588-2361 or

Ravinia Festival

Location: Pavilion, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park

Show: Patti LuPone and Brian Stokes Mitchell in "Annie Get Your Gun"

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13-15

Tickets: $50-$90 pavilion, $20 lawn

Information: (847) 266-5100 or

Theater on the Lake

Location: 2401 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Repertory: "The Second City's 50th Anniversary Revue" now through June 20; Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's "The Glorious Ones" June 23-27; A Red Orchid Theatre's "Abigail's Party" June 30-July 4; Baby Wants Candy's "The Completely Improvised Full-band Musical" July 7-11; Strawdog Theatre Company's "Red Noses" July 14-18; Rivendell Theatre Company's "Mary's Wedding" July 21-25; Gift Theatre's "The Ruby Sunrise" July 28-Aug. 1; Caffeine Theatre's "Under Milk Wood" Aug. 4-8.

When: All shows 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $17.50, $110 season pass

Information: (312) 742-7529 or


Locations: North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago; also at Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

Shows: "Robin Hood" - Chicago 1 p.m. June 26 and 27; Lisle 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from July 10-31. "Peter Pan" - Chicago 1 p.m. July 24 and 31; Lisle 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Aug. 1-28.; "Our Town" - Chicago 1 p.m. Aug. 22 and 28 (also at Pullman State Historic District Sept. 4-6 with performance times to be announced); Lisle 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Sept. 11-26

Tickets: Free in Chicago, but reservations required; in Lisle $19, $13 kids.

Information: (312) 744-5472 (Chicago); (630) 968-0074 (Lisle);