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A Park for All Seasons: Open Air Theatre

As the annual summer season gets under way at Regent’s Park, Roger Foss meets new artistic director Timothy Sheader about his plans for the country’s best-known open air theatre, which celebrated its 75th birthday last year.

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The sun is shining, Regent’s Park has a smile on its face and Timothy Sheader is beaming when he talks about his debut season as artistic director of the Open Air Theatre. But well before the curtain goes up on the first productions - Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night this month, followed by A Midsummer Night's Dream reworked for children in July and the classic Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi, starring the legendary Topol, in August - Sheader’s already keeping a keen eye on the sky.

Stormy weather

“The weather really does affect your mood here, even while we’re rehearsing or in the office planning ahead. Yesterday, I walked across the park and there were all these people relaxing on the grass. Suddenly I realised I’m working in this amazing environment, as opposed to being in the usual glum rehearsal room in Clapham.”

Sheader is directing Twelfth Night, but admits that he wasn’t waxing quite so lyrically about alfresco theatre when he guest-directed the same play here three years ago. “I now see the climatology of the place as a very positive thing. The strength of theatre is that each performance is a unique contract between us storytellers and the audience. Throw in wind, sun and sometimes rain and it makes every performance absolutely special. Even the fact that we start in daylight and end in darkness unites us as actors and audience. It’s very exciting and so different.”

Different directions

Sheader began his career as a trainee at Richmond’s Orange Tree before spending two years as an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and then directing as regional theatres around Britain, including as associate director at Derby Playhouse. At the Open Air, he succeeds Ian Talbot, who stepped down as artistic director last October after 20 years at the helm (and is now acting, currently playing Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray).

“Ian brought huge success to this place, so I’d be mad to change things that work. But we are different people with different approaches. Once I’ve done my first season, I can begin taking the theatre in a different direction.”

In fact Sheader’s already made some shrewd new moves. For the first time there’s a third Shakespeare (the fast-paced, 75-minute Dream), with all three performed by mostly the same ensemble cast on one single “installation” (Gigi will have its own set). “It’s supposed to feel organic to the park itself, so it’s not as if the set looks like a folly coming out of the trees. Specific stories will be told by the use of costume, music and movement, which means the look and feel of each production will be different.”

Something for the kids

The biggest innovation this year is director-choreographer Dominic Leclerc’s transformation of the Dream from the annual fixture it had become into a new child-oriented experience, with integrated schools workshop programme and an interactive prologue taking the audience through Shakespeare’s language and plot, even picking out children to play characters like Wall and Moonshine.

“The kids’ shows here have been very successful, but I want this to be a bigger theatrical experience, more visually exciting, reaching out to primary schools as well. If you want to see a traditional Dream, this isn’t for you. But it’s very important to say that it’s part of the main season – not just an add-on. I think we have a responsibility to show children what art can do.”

Sheader, already planning the 2009 season, says he has just commissioned the first play specifically for the Open Air. “It’s an adaptation of a well-known movie, although I can’t reveal any more just yet. I’m looking for plays that are big and robust and will fill our epic-scale stage.” He’s even considering presenting Christmas shows for the first time. What about the winter weather? “Well, you have to be ambitious, otherwise what’s the point?”

The 2008 summer repertory season at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park runs from June to 13 September 2008, with Romeo and Juliet opening on 9 June (previews from 2 June), Twelfth Night on 13 June (previews 4 June), A Midsummer Night's Dream on 8 July and Gigi on 13 August (previews 6 August).

A version of this article appears in the June issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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