Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

Outdoor productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic

British theatre has traditionally been the preserve of those members of the chattering classes willing to shell out for a seat in the stalls at a hushed, dimly lit playhouse. But open-air theatre is on the rise, bringing plays to a wider variety of audiences, in a way reminiscent of the days of Shakespeare.

Producers say that a larger variety of shows and the informality of the performances lay behind the increasing popularity of al fresco theatre, and that audiences enjoy the novelty of seeing a play in an unusual and beautiful location without having to spend serious money for the privilege.

Last month, the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, north London, released an extra 5,000 tickets to cope with demand for the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, while in May, Chester's Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre celebrated a 300 per cent rise in ticket sales on last year.

"There is something about being outdoors, the actors and the audience, all in it together," said Nancy Davies, who has worked at Grosvenor Park since it opened in 2010. "It's really informal. The audience are bringing picnics; they are not in a dark room being shushed, and they're bringing their families along. We really embrace that. The actors have a very tangible relationship with the audience because of it, with lots of interaction."

Angus MacKechnie, producer of the National Theatre's Watch This Space festival, said outdoor theatre is also popular with directors as it gives them a "different set of tools" with which to work. "Fire, water, height for juggling – these aren't always possible in indoor venues," he said. "The fact that there is no confined scenery space also means that shows can wander … it's kind of like guerrilla theatre."

This year, Watch This Space performances will take place at 45 locations across London, such as St John's church on Waterloo roundabout, Brixton Market, Vauxhall bus station and Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals, as well as outside the National Theatre.

The performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor The performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor Mr MacKechnie said accessibility and low costs were also vital to the success of the outdoor shows: "People take more ownership of free work," he said. "I see lots of clever mums and dads working out how to entertain kids without spending much money."

Helen Cadwallader, director of the Independent Street Arts Network, which promotes outdoor arts in the UK and Ireland, said the performances also helped to foster a sense of community. Around 60 per cent of audiences live within 15 minutes of a venue, she said.

The impressive amphitheatre of Cornwall's Minack Theatre is perched on a rocky outcrop at Porthcurno, Penzance, and offers a unique experience for audiences, said its manager Phil Jackson. "We are sat with the Atlantic as a backdrop and one of the most picturesque bays in the whole of the UK," he said. "Not everyone sees dolphins behind the actors with a full moon overhead, as the audience did last week."

One Minack production, The Will Rogers Follies, kicked off with a plane flying above the headland and a pilot strolling over the cliff to open the show. "It's a different experience, that appeals to people who are not necessary theatregoers," said Mr Jackson. "We see people just sit and relax into the atmosphere, and feel more included in the whole experience."

Oliver Gray, the artistic director of the Illyria Open-Air Touring Theatre company, said the popularity of outdoor productions was linked to the wider variety of shows being staged. "When Illyria started on the open-air touring circuit, 23 years ago, it was almost exclusively Shakespeare, but as companies started offering more, people discovered that there is more that they want to see," he said.

This week, the company is set to perform Robin Hood at the historic Kellie Castle and Garden in Fife, Scotland, and recently put on Macbeth at Elgin Cathedral in Moray.

Mr Gray said the atmosphere of an outdoor venue often adds to the performance. "What is particularly dramatic about the Elgin Cathedral is that not only are the acoustics really good, but there is something haunting about a ruined site. Your eye is drawn to what isn't there. There is a wastedness, an abandonment, that is so appropriate for Macbeth."

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea