Every year Ian Talbot, the 51 year-old artistic director, signs up actors for a three play, three-and-a-half month season. The cast is expected to change in a hut and work in all weathers. The Park has seen the nativity of dozens of careers - Leslie Crowther, Kenneth Haigh and Eileen Atkins among them. More recently Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson got their Equity cards there.
The gamble is that you never know what sort of an evening you are going to get - if at all. The management have a hot line to the Met Office (also a sponsor). Things have to be pretty monsoonish for rain to stop play. In July 1988, the wettest July probably ever, only eight performances were rained off. The average is about six. What usually happens is actors plough on, lines like 'The rain it raineth everyday' and 'yon huge black cloud' getting a big laugh.
It started back in the Thirties when Sydney Carroll and Robert Atkins had the old stage - the greensward - turfed over. With the assembled company surrounding him, Carroll famously began his speech: 'Ladies and gentleman, I wish you to know that every sod on this stage comes from Richmond.'
Actor-manager, Atkins made his mark on the theatre until well into old age. Offstage and on. As an ingenue, Sara Kestelman well remembers being chased round the dressing room by this red-blooded thespian.
During the war the venue was not too inconvenienced by the Luftwaffe because it played before the blackout. The theatre struggled on in the post-war austerity years. David Conville stands out as the theatre's 1960s helmsman, but it is Ian Talbot, the cherubic artistic director, who is now the chief park attendant.
Talbot has a passion for the venue. 'It is not Glyndehourne. We are a populist theatre, our age range is from 90 to 3-year-olds. For school matinees it's nice because even if the children are bored they can watch the squirrels, read a book and discuss Neighbours.' Mostly the audience consists of Londoners, students (a concessions ticket start from pounds 6; top whack is pounds 16.50), foreigners, and the pacamac brigade who will turn up for any outdoor event as long as it's raining.
'Most people think we're a tourist attraction,' says Talbot. 'We're not. I was an actor for some years at the RSC and during the Libyan invasion the place died on its feet, whereas this theatre had its most successful season.
The place, it has to be said, used to be a bit of a joke. Actors who played there tended to be on the way down rather than up. Under Talbot's directorship the venue's reputation has improved drastically. 'When I started people were snooty. Now I can phone any agent for an availability check and I don't get laughed at.'
With an audience of 100,000 a season, a summertime staff of 70 and annual expenditure of pounds 1m the enterprise is commercially solid. The theatre relies on box office and 'unit sponsorship' without any Arts Council help, except for the NSC's tour. Talbot has also introduced a nice line in musical curiosities - one a season - which have been (mostly) a treat. Last year it was Connecticut Yankee, this year the producer Cameron Macintosh is putting pounds 100,000 toward the production of The Card (to star Hayley Mills) which will presumably have West End transfer potential.
For actors the venue provides the opportunity outside the RSC to do Shakespeare. Vocally they need the right stuff. A fondness for animals helps. For the production of Bartholomew Fair in 1987, Peggy Mount's Pig woman was accompanied by two young boars which grew vastly during the season and finally escaped from their pen, and hogged the picnic area. Maria Aitken wanted animals for As You Like It but after the pig episode the answer was no.
This year opens with the perennial Dream. By chance Deborah Paige's production includes the offspring of various stars - Cameron Blakely (son of the late, lamented Colin Blakely), Rebecca Egan (Peter Egan's daughter), and Simon Harrison (grandson of Sir Rex). Also this season is the theatre's first production of Hamlet, to be directed by Tim Piggot-Smith. Before he departs, Talbot wants to establish a fringe venue on the site.
The fact that the place is run by people who care about the work shouldn't be taken for granted. It would be possible for a new management to take over the lease, put on a crassly commercial version of A Midsummer Night's Dream run it all summer and make a fortune. As it is, The Open Air Theatre remains one of the capital's more unusual park amenities; a very British combination of Shakespeare, umbrellas and optimism.
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