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Edinburgh Festival, 10-30 August, 1997
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Stagefair 1997: Annual West End Showcase

Fun in the Sun? Open Air Theatre

By • West End
  • History at Regent's Park
  • Summer Season
  • Other Outdoor Venues
  • Beware of Stormy Weather

    Having just experienced the wettest June this century, most Britons probably don't have outdoor pursuits in mind. For those who may like to remember that it is still summer, however, there are many events designed to tempt us out from beneath our shelters. This is the season for open air theatre.

    History at Regent's Park

    Perhaps the best known of open-air theatres - and the only professional outdoor theatre in the UK - is the aptly named Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park, the home of the New Shakespeare Company. Open-air performances have been taking place in the Park since early this century, but it wasn't until 1932 that the Open Air Theatre itself was officially founded by Robert Atkins and Sydney Carroll.

    During the first half of the century, the Theatre experienced numerous hardships - including lack of funding, many decades of loss-making seasons and the Second World War. During the War, evening performances were strictly prohibited due to the blackout, and the theatre was limited to a short season of matinees. After the war, Atkins had a hard time wooing cash-strapped audiences back to the theatre. In 1961, he retired and the theatre was put up for sale.

    The challenge was taken up by David Conville and David William who sought to renovate both the theatre's schedule and venue. Today's theatre is one of the largest in London with a capacity of 1,200. In recent years, many stars have featured at the Theatre - including Felicity Kendal, Zoe Wanamaker and Ralph Fiennes - and numerous productions have been nominated for the Laurence Olivier Awards.

    This summer's season includes, in repertory: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and All's Well That Ends Well, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate and Richard Adams' Watership Down. There are also special events on selected late nights and Sundays.

    Other Outdoor Venues

    Despite its history, the Open Air Theatre does not have a monopoly on the genre. Another major fixture in the outdoor theatre calendar is the Cannizaro Park Open-Air Theatre Festival which runs 12 July - 17 August in Cannizaro Park, south London. Now in its seventh year, the festival has a full and eclectic schedule this summer which encompasses concerts, opera, stand-up comedy, variety shows, fireworks and of course, theatre. Plays to be staged include Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost, The Beaux Stratagem, Home, Dames at Sea and the musical Mapp and Lucia.

    Yet another London park, Holland Park, also boasts an open-air venue whose productions this year include the Royal Ballet and Don Pasquale. Outside of London, there are several touring companies that perform in occasional outdoor venues such as the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Chichester which hosts one-off productions of Twelfth Night, The Country Wife, The Tempest and Richard III this July and August. Outdoor and street theatre also features heavily in many summer festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The British Arts Festival Association has details of other festivals throughout the country.

    Many of these open-air events are very relaxed and informal where members of the audience are encouraged to bring along their own deck chairs and picnics for stretching out on the lawn. For a more formal taste of Shakespeare, don't miss the ultimate outdoor venue of them all (for historical value in any case) - Shakespeare's new Globe in London. This summer's Opening Season is already pulling in sell-out audiences, rain or shine.

    Beware of Stormy Weather

    Despite harrowing weather conditions, the die-hard rule for open-air theatre is that the 'show must go on'. If at all possible. The players and theatre staff are a remarkably hardy bunch - and they expect the same of audiences. Freezing conditions, gale-force winds, drizzle and other pesky, non-weather-related conditions (low-flying planes, passing sirens and the like) are not enough to halt a performance.

    Surprisingly, at the Open Air Theatre, they budget for only seven nights each season to be lost to bad weather. So far this wet summer, they have only totally cancelled one show - although on three other occasions they have had to stop the play due to sudden downpours.

    Beware if you're a visitor and your time in the area is limited. At most open-air theatres, audiences are not entitled to refunds because of the weather. However, customers are usually allowed to exchange their tickets for a performance on another, less stormy evening.

    If you remain undeterred, take a few precautions to ensure an enjoyable theatre outing. First of all, by all means, dress warmly - jumper, jacket, thick socks, a scarf. Even on nice days, temperatures can drop quickly once the sun goes down. Second, don't be afraid to bring your creature comforts with you - a cushion for hard seats, a blanket, a thermos of coffee. And lastly, be prepared for the weather to turn. Don't leave home without a raincoat or umbrella, just in case.


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