Seeing Shakespeare outdoors evokes age-old tradition

05:00 AM, Jul 01, 2013

The plays at the Stratford Festival are on various days through the fall, and tickets start at $29. For more, go to (David Hou)/

Written By Diana Louise Carter Staff writer

Outdoor Shakespeare tips1. Many of the same etiquette rules as indoors should be observed. Namely, silence your cell phones and don’t chatter away during the performance. Acoustics can be surprisingly effective in outdoor amphitheaters, causing your conversation to reverberate around the venue.
2. Be prepared to provide your own seating. In some venues, you have to sit on the ground or in beach chairs if you sit close to the stage, and lawn chairs are for sitting farther back.
3. It’s OK to bring food and drink. In fact, it’s traditional to enjoy a picnic at the site before the play begins. Some venues have refreshments available, but they’re usually limited.
4. Bug spray is a must, as are layers — jackets, sweatshirts, blankets — for after the sun goes down and the air turns chilly.
5. If kids need to get up and move, make sure you’re at the back of the audience.
6. Even if the performances are free, the Shakespeare companies do collect money to help offset costs.

Shakespeare productionsRochester
Shakespeare Players of Rochester presents Twelfth Night at 8 p.m. nightly (except Mondays and Thursdays) from July 5 to 20 at the Highland Park Bowl, 1200 South Ave. It’s free. The performance on July 13 (rain date, July 14) will be sign-language interpreted. Go to
Shakespeare in Delaware Park presents Hamlet through July 14 and Measure for Measure from July 25 through Aug. 18 nightly (except Mondays) in Delaware Park, next to the Marcy Casino and across from the Lincoln Parkway side of Albright-Knox Art Museum. They are free; go to
Ithaca Shakespeare Company presents Much Ado About Nothing from July 11 to 14 and July 18 to 21 and Othello July 25 to 28 and Aug. 1 to 3 at F.R. Newman Arboretum at Cornell Plantations at Cornell University. The cost is $10 general admission; $20 for reserved seating; pay-what-you-will on Thursdays. Go to
Syracuse Shakespeare Festival’s run of Titus Andronicus ends with a show at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 30. The Winter’s Tale will be Aug. 8 to 11 and Aug. 15 to 18 at Thornden Park ampitheater. They are pay-what-you-will shows; go to
Perry, Wyoming County
Shake on the Lake Summer Theatre Festival presents Comedy of Errors from Aug. 8 to 10 at the Village of Perry Public Beach, off Walker Road at intersection of Lake and Euclid avenues. Tickets are $10; go to
Farther afieldStratford, Ontario
Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer is presenting Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, The
Merchant of Venice and Othello. The plays are on various days through the fall, and tickets start at $29. Go to
Lenox, Mass.
Shakespeare & Company will present Love’s Labour’s Lost through Sept. 1, Richard II through July 21 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream July 20 through Aug. 17 at multiple indoor and outdoor locations in this Berkshires locale. Tickets are $15 to $95; free for students. Go to
New York City
Shakespeare in the Park presents Love’s Labour’s Lost, A New Musical from July 23 to Aug. 18 at Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, closest to 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue entrances. The production is free, but tickets are required. (Several travel websites offer strategies for getting tickets.) Go to

If it’s summer, it’s time for Shakespeare.

Just about anywhere you go in western New York — and some farther flung places within a day’s drive — you can catch al fresco productions of the Bard’s works from June through August.

Summer is also one of the best times to catch indoor Shakespeare festivals, such as the ones in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, and Lenox, Mass.

The outdoor experience

Sitting on the ground or in lawn chairs to watch theater isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Shakespeare’s splendor from the grass allows audience members to commune not only with nature but with Will’s original audiences.

Originally, Shakespeare was an outdoor experience,” says Nigel Maister, director of the International Theatre Program at University of Rochester. A roof covered some of the seating and the stage in the historic Globe Theatre, but the center part of the theater was uncovered. Shakespeare’s acting company also toured, setting up shop in the middle of town squares.

Why Shakespeare?

There’re a lot of reasons Shakespeare is the go-to guy,” Maister says. The plays have wide appeal, they feature universal themes, they’re some of the greatest plays ever written, and they can be inexpensive and simple to produce.

Today’s serious summer Shakespeare fan can compare Measure for Measure productions on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border, and see Twelfth Night in Rochester and the other end of upstate in Saratoga. Acting companies range from gung-ho volunteers in minimalist costumes to well-paid Hollywood headliners in ornate finery, but they all honor the Shakespeare tradition.

Rochester and Buffalo

Many outdoor productions offer family-friendly free admission. At local productions, you’ll see both babies and seniors in the audience.

When it comes to summer outdoor theater, I suppose we can all thank Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival for blazing the way,” says Peter Scribner, president of the Rochester Community Players, whose affiliate, the Shakespeare Players of Rochester, begins its run of Twelfth Night in Highland Park on Friday.

Director Brad Craddock described the play’s theme as human excess. “We enjoy the money, and so on and so forth, frivolously to have a good time, to make our lives easier. And yet there are consequences for that,” he says. Costume designer Louise Jones is evoking the glam-rock era of the early ’70s with the androgynous look of David Bowie and others, Craddock says. And composer Mark Frey of California is providing original music for the production.

(By the way, Craddock notes, there’s no 12th night, or Christmas, in Twelfth Night. But there’s plenty of revelry.)

Buffalo’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s Hamlet opened June 20, and its morality play, Measure for Measure, begins in late July. In Buffalo, the audience sits on the side of a steep hill facing a stage in front of a picturesque lake in a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rochester audiences also get to see Shakespeare in an Olmsted-designed park, as the Shakespeare Players of Rochester have been performing at Highland Bowl since 1997.

In most venues, the experience begins as a picnic in daylight and then transforms as the play begins and the sun sets.

As the play unfolds, you become more and more focused on the production onstage. It gets dark out and theater lights kick in. It’s just an unbelievably exquisite experience,” Scribner says.

The way I look at it, outdoor Shakespeare is re-enacting a very, very old human tradition of sitting around the campfire and telling stories,” he says. “The Bowl is our campfire, and when it gets dark, the theater lights light up, so it’s a blazing site. You’re listening to an extremely well-told story.”

Chance to try Shakespeare

But for anyone who has endured a high-school English class in which unwilling students stumble over the archaic-sounding Shakespearean language as they read aloud, the idea of attending an entire play filled with that kind of language may be off-putting.

To that, Shakespeare fans and teachers say: Give it a chance.

Shakespeare is great entertainment when it’s done well,” Maister says. “The language barriers fall away.”

Even as an experienced Shakespeare watcher, Scribner admits, “When I see a new Shakespeare play, it takes me a while for my ear to acclimate to the vocabulary and the funny sentence structure.”

Maister’s colleague, Russell Peck, professor of rhetoric and English at UR, marvels at the mastery of language in the plays. Peck says the Bard, “more than anybody else, has been a factor in shaping the history of the English language and idioms, which are often borrowed from Shakespeare.” He also mastered the way people spoke, “from bums and clowns to kings,” says Peck. “That adds tremendously to the excitement of the language itself.”

Peck leads student trips to Stratford, Ontario, and to London and Stratford-upon-Avon in England to take in plays, but he won’t go to Highland Park. He likes to hear Shakespearean language without the distractions of street noise or mosquitoes.

Indeed, distractions are more likely to be part of the outdoor experience. One night last summer during Rochester’s Richard III, a woman answered her loudly ringing phone and then conversed in full voice for several minutes until other audience members shushed her.

And fireworks from a nearby celebration interrupted, then became part of, Buffalo’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer. The fireworks finale came during the wedding celebration scene near the end of the play. The players paused to watch the fireworks and the actor playing the Duke of Athens ad-libbed a line suggesting that the festivities were in honor of his wedding.

The very casual atmosphere makes it less intimidating for younger audience members, less experienced audience members,” he says.

There’s usually room in park amphitheaters for young ones to run around a bit before the play.

And if you don’t care for it? “Just pick up your blanket, and just leave,” he says. “That’s fine.”

Yet, many diverse audiences summer after summer have chosen to stay.