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7.1.09

Paradise Lost in the Woods

Confessions from backstage at the Tisbury Amphitheater.

Each summer, hundreds of theater-goers settle into the Tisbury Amphitheater to watch the season’s fun-filled outdoor Shakespearean plays. Audiences love it as much for the ambiance as the talent: Despite the risk of mosquitoes, rain, and Harley convoys roaring by, few things are more pleasantly indulgent than spreading out a picnic on the grass and being entertained for ninety minutes by an able crew of actors, all of whom seem to be just as bucolically blissed-out as their audience.

News flash: They’re not.

The amphitheater, down the beaten path from Tashmoo Overlook in Tisbury, is in a sense the poor stepchild to The Vineyard Playhouse, which oversees the outdoor summer Shakespeares. The amphitheater requires less, and so it gets less. On the most obvious level, it does not require lights or sets. There are no recorded sound effects. There is no building to heat, cool, clean, lock, or unlock. The only plumbing is a hose coming from I’m-not-sure-where, used to water the grass. The only restroom is a single port-a-potty.

On the other hand, consider what is there. First, we have the setting, far more luscious than any set or light design could invoke. Although the theater is outdoors, there is a small, permanent structure far backstage that is transformed every season into the props/costumes/snacks area. (I believe the technical term for this is “two-and-a-half walls of a roofless shack with strategic curtains and cupboards and tables and mirrors.”) From here, magic springs forth every summer.

That magic begins its flow with the stage manager and assistants, who pre- position props and costumes before the show and gather them all up again afterward. They bring in water for the actors and cart out rubbish at the end. The radar is consulted for impending rain. They bring extra bug spray. The stage manager cues entrances from the back of the audience by madly waving a flag the size of Cuttyhunk. An assistant prunes the pathways and malicious, thorny growths. These are hardly the conventional duties of a stage crew.

I would love to report that with these unsung heroes tending to our needs, rehearsing and performing at the amphitheater is as simple as preparing a picnic. But that would be a lie.

Early on in my years as a “migrant theater worker” (director, producer, teacher, actor, dramaturge, stage manager), I faced all sorts of interesting challenges. Excellent training for working in the lovely, idyllic, picnic-esque amphitheater, a venue that will kick the butt of any actor, director, or stage manager not at the top of their game. Do not be deceived, O Ye Amphitheater- goers, by the playful insouciance of the performers who make you smile over your Brie and Chardonnay. They and their offstage counterparts are triumphing over a legion of challenges, large and small, that would defeat many veteran theater professionals.

Let’s start with bugs. Most people know about the mosquitoes, which have raised alarming welts on at least one actress’s bare limbs. But there are also ticks – I recall one actress who pulled approximately a hundred ticks off of her actor-husband, who, having recently arrived from Australia, had thought all dangerous wildlife was easy to see from a distance, and hence wandered heedlessly through the woods.

One year there was a beehive between the stage and the dressing shack, which sped up a lot of entrances, but not enough to totally avoid bee stings. And let’s not forget the caterpillars, which have occasionally inspired high-pitched screams of alarm or grossed-out-ness from actors waiting “in the wings” – which, in the amphitheater, means “in the underbrush.” Some years back, a persistent gnat caused a similar outburst from an entering actor, complete with manic karate chops.

And then there is the larger wildlife – namely, turkeys. While turkeys have heads too small for functional brains, it seems they possess finely honed instincts that enable them to wander across the stage at the most turkey-inappropriate moments of a show. Their appearance is innately hilarious, especially when somebody on stage is dying, grieving, or poignantly falling in love. To share the stage with them without losing focus is a challenge even Laurence Olivier would have been hard-pressed to accomplish.

Mother Nature is endlessly inventive. Rain is the most common way she toys with us, but at least one show has been cancelled due to heat. Wind gusts give actors Pavarotti-esque opportunities to practice vocal projection. (So do overhead planes, and, of course, those Harleys up on State Road.) In years when the stage “floor” has lacked grass, there have been choking clouds of dust – or even mud, which is particularly dangerous for fight scenes.

But of course, the greatest melodrama under the oaks is usually of the human variety. Since the actors have to circle around behind the audience for many entrances, a missed cue can mean a two-hundred-yard sprint to reach the stage on time; breathlessness and blank verse do not a good delivery make. The footing on the slopes is never certain: I ended up in a neck brace after standing in – or rather, running in, or rather, tripping in – for a hellhound during rehearsals for The Tempest. And let us not dismiss the enhanced possibility to forget one’s lines, when (in addition to all the above distractions) these fully staged Shakespearean productions get as little as two weeks, part time, of rehearsals. Not surprisingly, veteran amphitheater actors have a remarkable facility for improvising Elizabethan English.

In case you’re assuming there’s a high rate of pay to make up for all these stressful challenges – well, no, there’s not. Nobody is in it for the money. Nor are the on-the-job skills particularly useful: Improvised Elizabethan English is not a hot commodity, nor is ignoring indignities from wild turkeys, nor is mud wrestling (while fully clothed, at least). What, then, compels such a talented batch of creative types to ply their trade at the amphitheater?

I’ve spent the past few months meditating on this, and I’ve come to the conclusion it must be a mass addiction to bug spray.

And there’s also the bit about the challenge of creating a delightful evening for truly appreciative audiences. Yeah, that probably has something to do with it too. Enjoy.

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