Taking the drama and dance outdoors

I spent most of the 90s in the Bay Area, where outdoor theater in the summer is a given, and the weather generally cooperates (if you’re not facing the threat of forest fires, that is). But in Chicago, extreme heat and thunderstorms go with the territory. Despite Mother Nature and other logistical challenges, outdoor theater and dance performances now take place all over the city and suburbs, alongside street fairs, music festivals, and everything else the season offers. Bonus for the COVID-cautious: many outdoor theater performances offer better chances at ventilation and social distancing—just stake out your spot on the grass. I talked to a few people behind the scenes to get a sense of what it takes to make those performances happen, before audiences show up with blankets, folding chairs, and picnics to get their dual culture/nature fix.

The Winter’s Tale
7/16-8/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM; Austin Gardens, 167 Forest, Oak Park, oakparkfestival.com, $38 ($26.50 seniors/$15 students/12 and under free).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
7/15-8/21, Fri-Sat 6 PM, Sun 2 PM; various locations, see midsommerflight.com for details, free.
Broadway in Your Backyard
7/19-9/6: Tue 6 PM; various locations, see porchlightmusictheatre.org, free.
2022 Chicago Dance Month
Through 6/30: visit seechicagodance.com for complete schedule
Chicago SummerDance
7/6-9/17: visit chicagosummerdance.org for complete schedule (subject to change).
Night Out in the Parks
Visit chicagoparkdistrict.com for complete schedule (subject to change).

The OGs of Oak Park

Now heading into their 47th season, Oak Park Festival Theatre has been producing Shakespeare (and sometimes other writers) in downtown Oak Park’s Austin Gardens for most of their history. After a disastrous fire in their offices last fall, which destroyed much of their archival material and tech equipment, the company has rallied and will be back with The Winter’s Tale starting July 12. (The company’s productions are ticketed, with prices ranging from free for kids under 12 to $38 for adults.)

Unlike the other companies and producers I spoke to, OPFT has the advantage of being in one spot the whole summer, rather than having to load up and move around week to week. But as artistic director Barbara Zahora points out, other outdoor productions “use semi-private or private property to work with so they can leave some things in place from night to night throughout a production run.” For OPFT’s public park setting, the outdoor stage stays up all season, “but everything else, every night, we set up and strike.” 

George Zahora, who serves as composer and sound designer for many shows in Austin Gardens, and is also Barbara’s husband, notes, “We can’t bury cables in the park or anything like that. We have to work around existing installations of power, et cetera. So there are limits. So as far as sound is concerned, we have to set up speakers and mixing-board microphones every night, which means running a lot of cable. Some of that we’ve found ways to just have in place permanently, but of course, any of that stuff is at the mercy of Mother Nature.” And since the park is open to the public, the “stuff” can’t be something a curious passer-by can walk away with or damage.

Anyone who’s attended OPFT shows also has experienced the ambient noise of planes, emergency vehicles, car alarms, and everything else one finds in a bustling downtown area. Some nights, the locusts chime in as a chorus, too. Negotiating all that requires a particular skill set from performers. Barbara notes, “I’ve had one dear friend in particular say to me, ‘I think I’m a better actor because of this,’ because they felt that they had to deal with a lot of distractions, but they were also, for lack of a better word, exposed in a way that was different than the type of exposure that you get in an indoor space. To protect the performance from children crying or running off during your big monologue, to rain, to the planes, to cicadas, you have to be so focused and committed to not just what you’re doing in that moment, but to the craft itself and to what you’re trying to create for the community.” 

The audience gathers in Austin Gardens for Oak Park Festival Theatre Courtesy Oak Park Festival Theatre

Kevin Theis, longtime OPFT company member who’s directing The Winter’s Tale, notes that the outdoor setting can also lead to felicitous synchronicity. “When we were doing Of Mice and Men and Lenny was talking about the rabbits, there were actual rabbits running around in front of the stage. I mean, you don’t get that indoors. We had an entire squirrels’ nest drop into the middle of the stage during a show. Audiences just flip out. They love when something goes haywire. When I was doing Amadeus [Theis played Mozart’s jealous rival, Salieri] opening night and I’m railing against God and God was answering me with thunder in the sky? It was so thrilling.”

A moveable Dream

Midsommer Flight has been offering free Shakespeare in the parks for ten years, and this summer, they’re returning after the COVID hiatus with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first show they ever presented) as part of the Chicago Park District’s extensive “Night Out in the Parks” programming. It’s a bit of a misnomer, however; Midsommer Flight relies on natural daylight for their touring productions. (This year’s season opens July 15 in Lincoln Park.)

Producing artistic director Beth Wolf notes that being a portable production presents challenges. “Because we are such a small company, we don’t have the budget to rent a truck or hire drivers. We rely on our touring company of mostly actors and usually a stage manager. Not everyone has a car, but every year enough people have cars that we can load everything in and out. And part of that calculus is creating a plan for which items go in which people’s cars and how many cars do we have this year. So we don’t want to over-design the show and then be unable to fit it all in.”

“To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”: Midsommer Flight’s 2017 outdoor production of Hamlet Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography

Unlike OPFT, Midsommer Flight doesn’t use any amplification or sound equipment. Wolf says, “We make a point to hire a vocal coach at the beginning of the process who comes into our rehearsals and does vocal workshops with the actors to help them use their voices in a healthy way to project across these big park spaces and to deal with ambient noise. So most of the time actors are gonna keep going and push through. But there are times when we tell them if there’s something that can’t be ignored, like a low-flying plane that just obliterates all sound, we can wait that out. You can even acknowledge it. We are suspending our disbelief for the world of the play, but we are very much in the middle of a city with real things happening. And there sometimes comes a point where ignoring it is more distracting than just acknowledging it and letting the plane go by or the siren go by.”

Broadway al fresco 

Porchlight Music Theatre‘s Broadway in Your Backyard series has been happening for a few years, but this summer is the first time the company has joined Night Out in the Parks, which itself celebrates ten years this summer. The 60-minute concert of Broadway favorites kicks off July 19 in Wicker Park and travels throughout the city.

Production and operations manager Alex Rhyan is the point person for figuring out the transportation and setup, which include a portable stage and sound system, but no props or costumes. “We need to pack everything in and be able to pack everything out with us. Even though we’re going to Park District places, we like to be very self-sufficient because we don’t know what we can rely on. Every park is different and every park has different amenities.” 

Site visits beforehand help Rhyan and his team find locations within the parks “that provide some shade and where the sun’s gonna set right at six o’clock, and that is also accessible to the building. Hopefully at most of the parks, we are going to have a fieldhouse, so there are restrooms.”

The concerts do feature live accompaniment, and working out the sound requirements for each show is a big part of Rhyan’s job, especially since the park locations vary in terms of what’s available technically. “We always have a backup plan for electricity and bring a generator. And with that, lots of extension cords. I bring hundreds of feet of extension cords. That’s probably the one thing that is overkill and sits in the truck all summer long.”

From left: Bethany Thomas, Nik Kmiecik, Lorenzo Rush Jr., and Michelle Lauto perform at Broadway in Your Backyard, 2021 Courtesy Porchlight Music Theatre

Going to so many different communities also means that Porchlight (led by artistic director Michael Weber and musical director Justin Akira Kono) pays close attention to the songs in the concert, especially with paring down from a 90-minute show, as in past years, to an hour for the parks. Says Rhyan, “We’re looking at the community and the demographics. If certain places have more youth going to them, we’ll add in more Disney songs.”

Rhyan also notes that, while the series is free, Porchlight benefits by using it as “a tool for our outreach in education, in marketing and getting patrons, but also development opportunities.”

Dance parties

This is the city’s Year of Chicago Dance, and there’s also one more week left in See Chicago Dance’s Chicago Dance Month celebration, which features performances and workshops all over the city. Additionally, Chicago SummerDance returns July 6 with free pop-up performances, programs at the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park, and other themed events around Chicago.

In other words: there’s never been a better season to fall in love with all the varieties of dance Chicago has to offer.

Surinder Martignetti, community engagement manager for See Chicago Dance, spends a lot of time doing site visits, sometimes in decidedly unsummery weather, to figure out what locations will work best for Chicago Dance Month. 

“I always try to go out to parks that are outside of the city center,” says Martignetti. “I really love being in parks, especially on the south and west side that are underutilized spaces because I love bringing dance and movements to these unexpected places. We have a dedicated audience that goes to see these things, but there’s also all of the people that just happen to be in the park that will stumble across these beautiful, unique experiences and just have this connection with dance that is unexpected and lovely.”

Martignetti also works to make sure that the companies they’re partnering with understand the limitations of the environment. “Most of these companies are dancing everywhere and anywhere. So I feel like most people already know how to negotiate and go into these spaces and know what to expect. But I’m also super clear, like, ‘This is a raw space. I’m not providing a dance floor.’” As far as material, she says, “I don’t really put any parameters on their dance season. Like you can do whatever you want as long as there is no rude language. It needs to be family friendly. We’re in a park, so no references to gun violence or gunshots in your music.”

John Rich is the dance and theater coordinator for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). He notes that this year’s SummerDance schedule is more expansive than in years past, in keeping with the Year of Chicago Dance initiative. 

And while the downtown programs are always popular, the programming in the parks brings dance instruction and artists to neighborhoods, focusing on particular cultural and community interests. For example, they offered a cumbia and house music combination for Back of the Yards last year, and also “started working with Plant Chicago, which is a neighborhood market. We were positioning some of our summer dance programs in relationship to city markets, really just thinking about wellness, thinking about dance, thinking about food for wellness. We were in the middle of the pandemic, and just wanting people to be well and safe was a really big priority,” Rich says.

And while not everyone may be comfortable dancing around strangers (pandemic or no pandemic), Rich notes, “Social dance is a very special form of community and cultural engagement. You’re dancing with other people. It’s just a beautiful way to connect, and people come out and they’re respectful. Whether that means dancing with someone you know, or dancing with a stranger, mutual respect is a core part of the experience.”

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