This writer once went to a summer theater rehearsal and came home with a pet. He was a black kitten who stuck around for the next 15 years. It was my first lesson in the spontaneity of summer theater, where anything can—and usually does—happen.
Against the Clock: Weathervane Players
Beginning humbly in a barn in Licking County, Weathervane Playhouse, located on Price Road in Newark, has been producing summer stock theater since 1969, usually running a season of at least five shows. All of its shows are rehearsed for a mere two weeks before opening, with performers often working on lines or music for the next show during their breaks, and rehearsing on sets that are different from those they will perform on.
“When you have 10 days to put up a show, you better come in knowing it, or you’re going to be behind on the first day,” said Adam Karsten, Weathervane’s Managing Artistic Director. But the time crunch doesn’t stop Weathervane from doing large or complex shows. This season will feature Baskerville, in which three of the five actors will play 40 different characters. “It’s hectic,” said Layne Roate, who appeared in all five of Weathervane’s shows last summer and will be appearing in the first three this season.
“You’re pretty much working all day, every day. A lot of my nights are trying to memorize the script beforehand.”
The “stock” of summer stock usually refers to reuse of stock items—set pieces, scenic elements, costumes, and even performers (who form a resident artist company). Weathervane puts up its company at Denison University, which becomes a hub of activity during the season.
“You’re working with a lot of the same actors, so you gain a companionship with them—a good sense of chemistry with them,” said Roate, who admitted that the intense rehearsal process once caused him to walk out on stage speaking in the British accent he would use in the following show. Jennifer Sansfacon, Weathervane’s resident lighting designer for the past eight seasons, described the sleep-deprived schedule she used to use to design and set up lights for a typical show.
“What we would do is strike a show on Saturday, and lighting would immediately take the space until the strike was over, so usually about two o’clock in the morning.
We would hang and focus as much as we could until about eight or nine o’clock in the morning and scenic would come in from about nine to about seven, and lighting would come back in. We would finish up all of our work from about seven til midnight. Then from about midnight until almost six a.m. I would be by myself writing cues. Then we would begin tech the next morning at 10 o’clock.”
Now with lights that move and refocus by themselves, Sansfacon saves time by programming a single light to do several different jobs rather than hanging different lights. Overall improvements to the theater, including complete enclosure and a new artistic wing, are beginning to allow Weathervane to produce shows outside of its summer season.
“It also creates kind of a theater arts complex,” said Karsten. “When I first came to the playhouse I realized that it really sat dark for eight months out of the year. And that was sad, in a way. And now because of its growth and its changes, it’s going to be utilized a lot more by the community. It’ll serve them a lot better, year round.”
Breaking Down Barriers: Actors’ Theatre of Columbus
“We try to be very aware of heat stroke for the actors,” explained Philip Hickman, Artistic Director of Actors’ Theatre of Columbus, which produces outdoor classical theater in German Village’s Schiller Park. “There are times when it’s 92, 93 degrees when we start a performance.”
Jumping over set pieces in several layers of clothing during the summer heat is one of the more predictable occupational hazards of life on stage in Schiller Park. Through its 35-year history, Actors’ has battled lightning strikes during a performance of Macbeth, squirrels falling from trees onto performers, animals crawling on stage, and even a power outage where the actors pulled their cars around the stage to finish the performance. When any of these perils could be avoided by moving indoors, why does Actor’s forgo the comforts of air conditioning for its season?
“The thing that I love most about this space is that it straddles the gap between being a private arts space and being a public space,” said Hickman. “And because of that, I think we’re very integrated into the community. You walk by, you see things going on. We’re very aware of what role we have in the community… and that is fantastic as far as keeping us relevant, especially doing classic theater.” In fact, walking by the amphitheater was exactly what brought the space to life when German Villagers and thespians Patricia Ellson and her late husband Gary began walking Rasselas, newly adopted from the pound, around Schiller Park.
“Every single time I would take that dog through the park,” Ellson recalled, “I would look at this little stage, which looked entirely different then, and think, ‘What a shame nobody ever uses that.’
Inspired by Joseph Papp’s Free Shakespeare in the Park theatrical program in Central Park, Ellson and her husband gathered some theater friends to orchestrate a truly bohemian experiment: a free production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with no budget, no lighting or sound system, no company, and no idea if it would work.
For two weekends in the summer, actors readied themselves in the Ellson’s dining room, carried the set pieces from the living room to the stage, performed each night, carried everything back after the show, and used the shower in the Ellson’s bathroom to strip themselves of body paint. Optimistically, they ran off a thousand programs.
“In our wildest dreams we couldn’t have imagined really getting that many people,” said Ellson, who had once performed in a nine person show where one night, the actors outnumbered the audience. “We ran out of programs the very first weekend. Our very first grant that we ever got was an emergency grant from [the Greater Columbus Arts Council] to print 3,000 more programs.”
“That initial show began as an act of generosity and love toward the community—to share something with the community, and I think that’s remained the heart of the company,” explained Hickman, adding that while the company asks for donations, it doesn’t charge a ticket price and patrons are never turned away.
Being in the great out-of-doors has allowed the company to add its own flair to shows— fireworks during The Music Man, a horse in Oklahoma!, burning torches in Richard III. But the open space also provides a place for dialogue and interaction. Ellson recounted an episode where several children on bikes rode past the stage yelling obscenities. One rehearsal they stopped to watch, and eventually began to talk with some of the actors.
“That’s why I wanted to do free Shakespeare in the park. These were kids who were never exposed to Shakespeare and probably never would have. And they went from being abusive to being fans. It was great.”